You Asked, We Answered: Are Roundabouts Becoming More Common in N.H.?

Aug 25, 2017

Keene Main Street at Winchester Street Roundabout
Credit New Hampshire Department of Transportation

In our continuing Only in New Hampshire series, we answer your questions and explore your state. Today, producer Hannah McCarthy find an explanation for what may be the state's most perplexing intersection.

Even if you haven’t seen National Lampoon’s European Vacation, you might still be familiar with this scene: A dad, played by Chevy Chase, is driving his family around in circles. Literally. He’s on the inner lane of a roundabout in London and he can not get out.

In fact, you may have actually lived a moment like this yourself… which brings us to today’s question from listener, JJ: "We're seeing an influx of roundabouts replacing dangerous intersections in Keene, with two more just proposed. Is this happening elsewhere?"

The short answer? It is definitely happening elsewhere. Across New Hampshire, we’re at 40 roundabouts and counting. And they’re increasingly common across the country, too. Some states have hundreds. But to get to the bottom of this roundabout trend, let's start with the basics.

Roundabout, traffic circle, rotary... it’s all the same thing, right?

To get the answer, I spoke with Bill Oldenburg. He’s the Assistant Director of Project Development for the New Hampshire Department of Transportation. Rotaries and traffic circles -- those are the same thing. And Bill says they've have fallen out of favor in the world of highway engineering, because they're "bigger, they're faster, they're not as safe."

Rotaries were introduced in the U.S. in the early 20th century -- but there was no real design criteria. They have pretty high entry speeds, over 30 miles an hour, and they don’t process traffic very well. Another name for those? Traffic circles. But take that traffic circle, shrink it down, and add a few rules, maybe an extra lane, and you’ve got something special: the roundabout.

Traffic circle being converted to a roundabout in Kingston, NY. The roundabout is the smaller circle in the middle.

Oldenburg says you actually have less traffic in a roundabout than in a traffic circle, and that a lot of the roundabout construction in New Hampshire is actually a retrofitting of existing traffic circles. The engineers see a better flow of traffic and think, success! But the people driving through these things often have a different opinion.   

After hearing plenty of roundabout grumbling on the streets, we decided to poll you Granite Staters, asking which of the New Hampshire roundabouts you could do without. The Lee roundabout -- which was converted from a traffic circle in 2015 -- got the least love by a wide margin. 

Made with data from our "Rate Those Roundabouts" Poll

Turns out, word of the poll spread further than we expected. All the way to Michigan. Which is how I met Mark McCulloch, and his roundabout catchphrase.

The Washtenaw County, MI roundabout outreach logo.
Credit Mark McCulloch

McCulloch is an engineer who works for Washtenaw County in Michigan. He likes roundabouts -- he and his team have replaced twenty-six intersections with them in the past decade, and he says he's had a lot of success. But he learned the most when things didn't go so well.

"I met my nemesis," McCulloch told me, "It was an intersection just outside of Ann Arbor called 'State Road and Ellsworth Road.' It was a two lane, multi-lane roundabout that we put in in 2013."

McCulloch says this roundabout saw 170 non-injury crashes in the first year it was open. 

"And, forever and ever," McCulloch says, "on my resume in the state of Michigan in the calendar year 2015, I have the most crash-prone intersection in the state of Michigan."

McCulloch initially looked to law enforcement for help, but, it turned out, even the cops weren’t sure how roundabouts worked. So he decided it was time to approach this problem from all sides... with a statewide education campaign.

And, forever and ever, on my resume in the state of Michigan in the calendar year 2015, I have the most crash-prone intersection in the state of Michigan.

McCulloch and his team have launched a social media campaign complete with the hashtag “yield is your shield.” They've asked insurance companies to be involved in information sharing, and they've even sent school kids home with what McCulloch calls roundabout “swag bags,” to teach their parents how to navigate the intersections.

It’s still early to tell if this outreach is working. But, McCulloch says, the country has encountered this problem before - back in 1914, when Cleveland, Ohio introduced the first traffic light. Even then, he says, the U.S. needed an education campaign.

"Our struggles are the same," McCulloch says, "and that it’s really no different today than back then. You use the same concepts on how to educate the public on how to do something and ultimately, you probably get there. Just, over the course of decades."

Of course, it helped that traffic signals were keeping the streets safer for pedestrians and drivers alike. And that’s a major part of the roundabout message, too. I spoke to Ed Roberge -- he’s an engineer for the city of Concord. And whether you grumble about them or not, Roberge says the data is clear. Roundabouts are a great fix for some problem intersections.  

"Certainly in our case, with our roundabouts that we have here in town," Ed says, "we’ve all but eliminated crashes at these intersections, and we’ve certainly eliminated, likely all, any serious injury type of crash at the roundabouts here. It’s been very, very positive."

The stats on roundabout benefits seem almost too good to be true. The Federal Highway Administration says, compared to the intersections they replace, roundabouts nearly eliminate fatalities, reduce injuries by 75-percent, and crashes go down by a third. So, they work. And seem to work better than other options. The real catch, for engineers across the country, is getting everyday drivers on board.

Certainly in our case, with our roundabouts that we have here in town, we've all but eliminated crashes at these intersections, and we've certainly eliminated, likely all, any serious injury type of crash at the roundabouts here. It's been very, very positive.

"Getting in front of the public -- we certainly aren’t roundabout-crazy and want to slam this down everybody’s throat," Roberge explained, "but making sure that they understand the differences between leaving an intersection as it is, or looking at a roundabout that’s context sensitive, has benefit from a traffic capacity as well as safety aspect, and then showing them."

Despite the handful of New Hampshire roundabouts that really grind your gears, our roundabout poll actually revealed that New Hampshire is pretty open to driving in circles. Now, it’s just a matter of learning how.

Correction August 29th, 2017: 

An earlier version of this story mistakenly stated that the accident-prone intersection in Michigan had 170 crashes the first four years it was open. These 170 crashes all happened in the first year.