‘Roundabout:’ Great song, bad traffic control method

Chris Hamble

In my decades of existence, I’ve made it very obvious that I like the band “Yes.” They are, in my humble — and correct — opinion, the greatest progressive rock band of all time Their unique blend of ethereal lyrics, complex harmonies, long-form compositions and super-technical playing, will frankly blow your mind.

One of Yes’s more popular songs is “Roundabout.” You’ve probably heard it, even if you aren’t sure you have. It pops up everywhere, and once you hear it you’ll say, “Oh, yeah, OK, I’ve heard that. Good song.”

Yes, it’s a good song, but an awful, awful traffic control method.

Why bring that up? Well, there is this intersection in Stillwater, one I travel on almost daily, the corner of Myrtle and Owens streets, where someone has the bright idea to remove the stop signs and build a mini-roundabout. Not a full size roundabout, just one with a small center island. When I heard this, my brain froze. It just couldn’t process such a boneheaded idea. Why would you need a roundabout there? And why not a proper one if you did? Or, better yet, how about stop lights.

There are many reasons this idea, which reeks of “making a name for myself,” is just awful. But I don’t have that much space, and I’m sure that there are plenty of people out there, who once this gets out, will gladly fill in the rest of the blanks for you. I’ll limit my complaints to what I see as some of the biggest.

Accident city

It’s a mini-roundabout, with not a lot of room and no stop signs. The current over-under on the first accident at that intersection is 12 hours. I’m not confident. It’s going to confuse people and they are going to fly into the roundabout and smash into each other. And accidents will cause an even bigger back up than the stop signs, which aren’t really that bad because even if the line is long, it moves.

Traffic non-solution

This has the potential to not only not fix the intersection, but make it much, much worse. One block south of the Myrtle-Owens intersection is the Olive Street intersection with a two-way stop sign. That means you are going to wait at certain times of the day, which tend to match when Myrtle and Owens are busy. If that block gets backed up, which it does, and traffic behind it is flowing “faster,” what happens when that back up hits the roundabout? That’s right, traffic stops completely. You didn’t solve the problem. You made it worse.

The corner store

You know that store right there? The pleasant small-town grocery store with the friendly people and the awesome beef jerky. They would be losing parking spots, and if you can’t park, I’d be willing to bet you will just drive by. I love their beef jerky. It’s just fantastic, but if I can’t park, I drive by. It’s not worth the hassle, and that is a travesty. In an election season where each party claims to be for small business, you would think an idea like this, that would directly and negatively affect a small business, would at least be put on the backburner.

EMS, trucks, and school buses

Remember that corner store? They get truck deliveries. With a mini-roundabout, a semi, fire truck, school bus and ambulance would hardly, and in most cases won’t, be able to make the turn. The solution? Well, according to literature provided by the city, they would simply be able to “drive over the center island.” Not only with this encourage copycats, but it is incredibly dangerous.

That is a high traffic area where ambulances go by. Do you really want a big speed bump interfering with treatment on the way to the hospital? Or do you really expect to have school buses go over them? It won’t happen. Not only will it damage the shocks and leaf springs, but buses are top heavy. You take that roundabout at 15 mph or more and your risk tipping that bus if you put two wheels on the island, I know, I drove a school bus for 11 years. Those things are top heavy.

Traffic is a non-issue

Yeah, traffic backs up there every now and again with people heading downtown to catch the bridge into Wisconsin. Again, “with people heading downtown to catch the bridge into Wisconsin.” Put it together yet? We are getting a new bridge, which is going to change the traffic flow and bring it over to Minnesota 36 and take it away from that corner.

The problem with fix is once the new bridge is built, it would be nice to have a traditional, safe intersection that doesn’t invade surrounding business and property over a roundabout that serves as nothing but a reminder of really irrational government spending.

Chris Hamble is a freelance writer and humor columnist serving newspapers in Minnesota and Wisconsin, and is a lifelong Stillwater resident.


  • ScottRAB

    The FHWA has a video about modern roundabouts that is mostly accurate (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uhHzly_6lWM ).
    Modern roundabouts are the safest form of intersection in the world. Search http://www.iihs.org for FAQs and safety facts. The safety comes from the ‘slow and go’ operation instead of the ‘stop or go fast’ way a stop light works (or the ‘keep going fast’ large traffic circle fantasy). The smaller size of the modern roundabout is what makes them safer and keeps speeds in the 20 mph range. This makes it much easier to avoid a crash or stop for pedestrians. It also means that if a crash happens the likelihood of injury is very low. Safety is the #1 reason there are over 2,400 modern roundabouts in the US today and many more on the way.
    Slow and go also means less delay than a stop light, especially the other 20 hours a day people aren’t driving to or from work. Average daily delay at a signal is around 12 seconds per car. At a modern roundabout average delay is less than five seconds. Signals take an hour of demand and restrict it to a half hour, at best only half the traffic gets to go at any one time. At a modern roundabout four drivers entering from four directions can all enter at the same time. Don’t try that with a signalized intersection.
    15 mph is pretty slow. Most people drive over speed humps faster than 15 mph. I don’t fear for the residents of Stillwater.

  • Justin

    Roundabouts are better than intersections. I can say that from opinion and we have a debate. But as a civil engineer, I don’t choose opinions from enjoyment, but from weighted facts. Your choice of music may be good (my opinion), but you can’t decide traffic features with opinion. Do you want to decide which design is safest, and experience an accident with a severe injury or death. There are numerous reasons for roundabouts, but here are a few that are considered. 1. You said drivers may drive across the center, but if you’re in the intersection would you rather they hit that or have an open shot at you. 2. At a 4-way stop you look, left, ahead, right, and repeat until you’re through; at a traffic circle you look left, period. Sounds easier and safer. 3. A signal needs many lanes in each direction and wide outside corner, but roundabout lets trucks turn right from near the middle and only needs one lane. Plus they don’t break like signals. However, you should keep vigilant that it is designed correctly. Design should have data that proves increases in capacity, better safety, and less delay. Promote good safe design, not just trees in the road.

  • Box of Rocks

    Justin you are an embarrassment to the engineering profession. You civil “engineers” need to pull your ephing head out of your a**. Must be an OU grad.

    The only thing roundabouts do is waste resources. There is nothing wrong with stopping.

    Actually I still have to look left, and right and not only do I have to stop for the traffic on the left, I still have to stop for the idiots coming from the right since they (think) they don’t need to yield to traffic in the cr*ppy little cirlce (jerk) and I am in the circle no less!!!!

    So let review the facts.

    Cars still have to stop. No change
    Drivers still have to look left, right and left. No change.
    Drivers have further to travel to get through intersection. More gas spent by car. Wasted resources.
    Building concrete structure in middle of an intersection. Wasted resources i.e. cement, aggregate, water TAX Payers $$$.
    Roundabouts dumb down drivers and in the long term make the roads for dangerous. Pathetic. Unintended consequences.

    And if you have a problem with people running lights, enjoy the revenue.