A roundabout way of easing congestion, and scaring seniors

The roundabout is becoming more commonplace on Canadian roads

A roundabout way of easing congestion, and scaring seniors

Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP/Getty Images

There’s a revolution occurring on Canadian streets. And it’s moving in a counter-clockwise direction.

The roundabout, once unique to Europe, is becoming commonplace in many parts of Canada. Fans of these circular intersections point to reductions in congestion and accidents as evidence that they’re simply a better way to move traffic. Anyone on foot, however, may require a bit more convincing.

Always prone to moving in packs, city planners across the country are rapidly adopting roundabouts as their preferred means of traffic control. Prince Edward Island recently installed two roundabouts on the Charlottetown bypass, part of the Trans-Canada Highway. Last year, Winnipeg removed numerous stop signs at neighbourhood intersections in favour of small, traffic-calming roundabouts. Calgary now considers them to be the intersection of choice in new developments and is making plans for dozens more. Hamilton, Waterloo Region in southwestern Ontario, Montreal and Halifax all have new roundabouts. Even Yorkton, Sask., is in on the trend.

There are plenty of good reasons behind this faddishness. By eliminating the need to come to a complete stop at an intersection, roundabouts can significantly improve traffic flow and reduce congestion, particularly during rush hour. This saves both time and fuel. The design also works to reduce the frequency and severity of accidents. Because cars merge into a roundabout at an angle, the possibility of head-on or T-bone crashes is almost completely eliminated. American research on the conversion of intersections from stoplights or stop signs to roundabouts suggests a 40 per cent reduction in accidents, and 80 per cent fewer injuries.

All this should be seen as very good news for drivers. If the trend continues, Canadians in many other cities should expect to see roundabouts appearing on their roads in the near future.

Yet while roundabouts provide a largely unambiguous benefit for drivers, the advantages to pedestrians are far less obvious. Consider recent experience in Waterloo Region. No other jurisdiction in Canada has been as aggressive in installing roundabouts. And after introducing numerous one- and two-lane roundabouts over the past few years, this summer it unveiled its first three-lane model, located directly across from a high school in Kitchener. Parents immediately began to fret about the combination of distracted teenagers and preoccupied drivers during school hours. Four accidents within weeks of the roundabout becoming operational did not improve anyone’s mood.

And so opening day of school last month saw a small army of police officers, municipal staff, school teachers and traffic guards assembled to assuage parents and protect students. “I don’t feel too safe crossing it,” high school student Robert Kilgour told the local media. “Cars don’t always yield.”

Anxiety of this sort is commonplace among walkers of all ages faced with crossing a roundabout. In the absence of traffic lights or signalized crosswalks, pedestrians lack the legal right-of-way to force cars to stop while standing at the curb. It is up to pedestrians to make their way safely across traffic on their own.

Waterloo Region’s online pedestrian guide to roundabouts, for example, recommends pedestrians use “assertive body language” and walk “briskly and deliberately” at roundabouts. The website once recommended pedestrians put their foot on the road itself to convince drivers they’re serious about getting across. It’s a big change from the old “stop, look and listen” routine that schoolchildren used to learn. And of course, this sort of advice is useless for blind, elderly or disabled walkers.

Barry Wellar, professor emeritus of geography at the University of Ottawa and a nationally known pedestrian advocate, accepts that roundabouts are an efficient way to keep vehicular traffic moving. But he warns they bring no comfort to pedestrians.

The biggest problem for pedestrians comes when cars are exiting a roundabout and merging back into traffic. “When you get buses and tractor-trailers and lots of other cars moving through a roundabout, drivers naturally end up paying attention to other drivers,” Wellar says. “The last thing anyone is thinking about or looking for is a pedestrian.”

Wellar observes that roundabouts often force pedestrians to go out of their way to cross a road. Or they may choose to forgo the walking trip altogether. This suggests areas with high foot traffic are simply not suited to roundabouts, regardless of the benefits to cars and trucks. “When it comes to the pedestrian, there is really no alternative to the stoplight,” he says.

In their eagerness to install roundabouts at any and all intersections, cities need to keep the quiet pedestrian top of mind. Any roundabout that encourages less walking and more driving is no traffic improvement at all.

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