There’s a scene in the 1985 slapstick comedy “National Lampoon’s European Vacation” where the hapless Clark Griswold, played by Chevy Chase, gets stuck in a traffic circle in Central London and can’t figure his way out. “Hey look kids, there’s Big Ben, and there’s Parliament,” he says excitedly, before repeating the line, over and over, as he keeps driving around, unable to exit.
This broadly reflects American sentiment about roundabouts: They’re confusing and don’t belong on this side of the pond. Traffic engineers claim that such resistance is shortsighted. Not only do modern roundabouts (which differ in size and design from rotaries and large traffic circles) drastically cut traffic injuries and deaths, but, because traffic flows through them without the stop-and-go of red lights, they’re linked to lower greenhouse gas emissions. Also, because roundabouts don’t require lights, they function when the power cuts out after storms.
As I wrote this weekendCarmel, Ind., a suburb of Indianapolis, is the best American city to know this. It is also known as the roundabout capital. Carmel is home of 140 roundabouts, counting, and only a handful of four-way stoplights remain.
Jim Brainard, the seven-term Republican mayor who’s responsible for the city’s roundabout building spree, installed them for largely safety reasons, but says the carbon savings are an added plus. Although studies of emissions from roundabouts vary depending on where they are located and when they are open, federal highway officials claim that the reductions can be significant. A former Carmel city engineer estimates that each roundabout saves approximately 20,000 gallons per year.
There are roughly 7,900 roundabouts in America. Many traffic engineers would love to see many more. Maybe it’s time for Clark Griswold to give them another whirl.
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