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Roundaboutgate in Winnipeg

Reader John reports of a swirling political controversy in Winnipeg: Roundabouts. The details are here (note the archaic phrasing of ‘traffic circles’). Somehow the device that has helped reduce crash rates from Alsace to Australia is, in Winnipeg, causing “chaos.”

I’ve said it before: If a driver cannot handle negotiating clearly labeled rights of way at simple, small intersections at low speed, why are we actually giving them the right to be maneuvering heavy, dangerous vehicles on public streets crowded with other cars, pedestrians, cyclists, etc etc? (and not having the sense to stop for a pedestrian about to cross in an intersection, as the video shows, is not down to the design but to the driver).

“It’s a hazard,” one driver said of the roundabouts. I’m glad he thinks that! Because intersections are hazardous locations! But what proceeded them — four-way stop-sign controlled intersections — are hardly a panacea, and indeed linked to far more fatal crashes than roundabouts.

[UPDATE: Good comments from engineers and others below articulating the on-the-ground realities in Winnipeg, which, I might add, I've not been to; I'd be further interested to know the difference between Winnipeg's treatments and that of Seattle — which the Winnipeg engineers say they've based their design on and which seem to not have generated much controversy, and indeed seem to be favored by residents]

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This entry was posted on Thursday, October 21st, 2010 at 2:34 pm and is filed under Cars, Risk, Traffic safety. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

24 Responses to “Roundaboutgate in Winnipeg”

  1. TBT Says:

    Actually, you are mistaken. They are NOT roundabouts. They are in fact traffic circles. I really enjoyed your book but you should take care to research your facts more. Modern roundabouts are definitely safety enhancers, as your book points out. However, sticking a circle in the middle of an intersection is NOT a roundabout and is indeed a hazard! These are “traffic calming” devices rather than intersection designs. Unfortunately, they are not designed to slow drivers on entry, and feed them into a smooth channelized roundabout. These traffic circles give roundabouts a bad name because they pose higher safety hazard than a four-way stop. A roundabout is almost always safer than a stop or signal, so it is VERY important to differentiate the two. I hope you do some research on what makes roundabouts safe so you can spot where a traffic circle has been installed instead – because the difference is night and day.

    This article should not be associated with roundabouts. If you’d like more clarification on the difference feel free to e-mail me I can send you a brochure. The firm I work for designs proper modern roundabouts that increase safety, and it is important for the public not to associate these ridiculous 10-foot wide circular obstructions in the middle of the road with roundabouts.

    Thanks.

  2. Richard Masoner Says:

    That video is amazing — it’s really not all that difficult! I’m not sure the graphic explaining how to negotiate the roundabout helps, though.

  3. Roberta Says:

    They’ve always been called traffic circles here in Edmonton, and we’ve had them for decades (they were getting phased out and now I think we’re down to a couple of large ones; don’t know about the smaller ones).

    The kind shown in the video, though, could definitely be a problem here in Canada if it was unexpected. We’re so used to having every single intersection controlled by signs that we’re not used to having to scan for conditions. The yields at every corner and the need to go around the circle to make a left turn will confuse people. BUT the benefits of the roundabout certainly outweigh the disadvantages.

    I suspect Winnipeg should have put more of these up at the same time! Then had a city-wide education blitz (and take down the yield signs; the roundabout sign should automatically imply yielding to vehicles already in the centre.) Maybe stationing a cop at the intersection to instruct drivers would help too.

  4. fred_dot_u Says:

    How difficult is it to understand one simple rule? Traffic in the roundabout has the right of way. If you’re not in the roundabout, yield to those who are. Sheesh.

    it is a good example of how unskilled today’s drivers are, though. It’s difficult to tell a skilled driver exercising extra caution when interacting with an unskilled driver at that “intersection” from any other unskilled driver.

    I would have like to see a larger diameter to the roundabout, though, to better establish presence.

  5. SteveL Says:

    This reminds me of time in the US, even when I, a european, approach the junction with full knowledge of the rights of way rules, you cannot rely on people giving way to you, so it’s pretty hazardous.

    That said, I don’t think they are much safer in the EU, especially for bicycles or anyone on foot trying to cross nearby. Take this mini roundabout on St Michaels Hill Bristol (we used to burn people alive at this spot in religious disputes, incidentally). There are pedestrian traffic islands everywhere, but all vehicles pulling off the roundabout do not give way to pedestrians, so its unsafe to cross nearby.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vn5c0bnzfyk

    On a bicycle, its not that safe either. In this video (taken this morning), we have to wait for a gap and try and sprint out, father and child on a bike + tagalong. You can’t see on the camera, but you can hear the revved engine and me stating its registration number, but the SUV YP07CXJ, which was beside me, in the left turn lane, suddenly pulls out behind me and turns right. I think it was planning to go through over me and was in the wrong lane.

    Examine also this lovely collapse of the same roundabout in 2008
    http://bristolcars.blogspot.com/2008/12/roundabout-failure.html

    Lights may be sub-optimal in terms of throughput but they deliver fair scheduling, can give pedestrians a dedicated cross time, and are far less stressful to cycle over.

  6. T Ian McLeod Says:

    In Canadian traffic terminology, a roundabout is a configuration like the one shown in the Washington state-produced video here, http://bit.ly/cpiGuf, which I found on the Government of British Columbia website. I handled public relations for the installation of the first roundabout on a B.C. highway in 2003, and there was some initial resistance. However, most of this subsided after opening day. The key feature of a roundabout, properly defined, is that its dimensions are generous enough to allow drivers to slow down and check out oncoming traffic safely and conveniently, and to stop if necessary. The roundabout, as you can see from the B.C. government drawings, is equipped with lots of jazzy signage, pavement markings and furniture, all of which scream at people to slow down.

    The whatsit that is shown in the Winnipeg video does not meet the definition of “roundabout” in my view, and hardly even merits the label “traffic circle.” It is really not much more than a hunk o’ concrete in the middle of an intersection where yield signs have been substituted for stop signs. Combine this with the reluctance of Winnipeg motorists to yield space on any road (citation: several in-laws who are life-long city residents) and we have a problem, Houston. However, “chaos” is probably too strong a term, having to do with the dissolving of universes etc.

  7. hokan Says:

    Here in Minneapolis we call those little things that are basically intersections with a center islands “traffic circles” (like the one in the video). We reserve the name “roundabout” for the bigger things you can’t drive almost straight through. In both cases traffic must yield before entering.

  8. Graham J. Says:

    Great piece, Tom, but they’re called “rotaries.”

  9. Rod Says:

    Based on the Federal Hwy Admin’s roundabout guide, this intersection doesn’t meet the criteria to be called a “roundabout,” & shouldn’t be expected to operate like one. It’s not surprising (to me) that they are experiencing some problems based on the photo, because it looks like nothing more than a regular intersection with a circular obstacle in the middle of it. In the video, it seems like vehicles don’t need to slow down as they go through the intersection, which is one of the key features that makes roundabouts generally safer than conventional intersections. To be fair, however, no one in the Winnipeg Free Press article calls it a roundabout; they all refer to it a a traffic circle. Anyway, it sounds like the city needs to do more public education about the circle.

  10. 2fs Says:

    Roundabouts or traffic circles are great…when they’re actually circles. The problem with this one is that it’s so small, it’s somewhat ambiguous as to whether a vehicle is in the roundabout or not. Because it’s so small, if two drivers are approaching the roundabout at about the same time, each might think the other is going to enter the circle first…and therefore, both yield at the same time. Or worse: both think they have the right-of-way… It also looks (from the video at least) too much like a conventional intersection to cue drivers in to the fact that they need to treat it differently.

  11. Paul C Says:

    The one shown in the video is known as a traffic circle. While the bigger ones you would see on main rounds would be a round-a-bout.

    As for the circle shown in the Video. We must have over 100 of those or more in city of Vancouver. And there a far more coming. In fact I know of at least 3 where the circle has been painted in the road.

    The biggest problem I noticed in the video is no one knows who has the right of way.

    It is fairly simple the person that is in the circle has the right of way. If two vehicles approach then the vehicle on the right has the right of way just like in a 4-way.

  12. Hendrik Says:

    It looks more like the problem lies with the fact that most people do not really know any other roadsign than a stopsign in the US. Stopsigns are used all over the place and yield signs usually in obscure situations like this or on highways (where people do not need a sign to realize that highway traffic has right of way over merging traffic).

    I mean from a European point of view we might be overdoing it, but we do not only have a yield sign, but a also a sign which shows the other road you have the right of way. Or a sign which warns you of a tricky intersection.

    Needless to say that getting a license means actually studying a miriad of traffic situations, road signs and rules…

  13. mike chalkley Says:

    Be glad you haven’t adopted the old French system where traffic ON the roundabout has to give way to traffic APPROACHING!

  14. Bossi Says:

    My 2 cents from a traffic engineer in Maryland who works quite a bit on roundabouts, traffic circles, and all sorts of circular varieties…

    First on terminology: in the USA there is a separate class of “traffic calming circles” which are different from “traffic circles”. These are strictly meant as a traffic calming measure and are not intended to regulate traffic, hence in many cases the “give way to the right” rule still applies. Clearly, this is in contrast to roundabouts’ “give way to the left” rule.

    What can be confusing is that some agencies stick with -right; some with -left; and some never really think about it & just don’t know. And if the professionals don’t know; the motorists surely don’t, either.

    Also, it looks like it’s too easy to go through the roundabout more-or-less at speed if you’re traveling through the intersection. Hence, it might be falling a bit short on the “traffic calming” element, as well.

  15. Charlie Parker Says:

    I seem to recall that in the UK they would paint a big white dot in the intersection, no concrete. I haven’t been in really long time so not sure if that’s still case.

  16. Ron Says:

    The “problem” that could arise is that traffic circles are not roundabouts.

    In Vancouver, traffic circles are treated like “uncontrolled intersections” (which are like 4-way stops without stop signs) – a car in the intersection/circle has right of way. If two cars arrive at a traffic cirlce at the same time, the car on the RIGHT goes first. In a roundabout situation, the car on the LEFT would go first (because it is entering the roundabout upstream of the other car). Hence, the confusion…

    See info on Traffic Circles here:
    http://vancouver.ca/engsvcs/transport/calming/pdf/trafficcirclesWeb.pdf

  17. Dave Says:

    The only roundabout that does really work is the one in south dale. Just go to YouTube and type in south dale roundabout and see for yourself. The mini traffic circles are a danger compared to ethereal roundabouts.

  18. Fat Arse Says:

    As a ‘Pegger I aver, from white-knuckled first hand experience, that the “roundabout-rotary-traffic/circles” in question are indeed a hazard. Signage is poor, location is flawed, etc., etc., etc., Oh hell, see for yourself, one of our local Blogger’s illustrates the whole absurdity perfectly here: http://progressivewinnipeg.blogspot.com/2010/10/measurements-and-evidence-traffic.html

  19. Matt Says:

    “Yield to vehicles from the right if approaching at the same time”

    Um… what? In the UK we yield to vehicles on the right when approaching a small roundabout like this (or a mini-roundabout). Since we drive on the left, shouldn’t these Canadian drivers be yielding to the left?

  20. Tony Toews Says:

    Seems to me that Winnipeg traffic division is making one significant mistake the spokesman states “if people want to know how to drive through a traffic circle they should”. They reference a PDF file on the city’s website. They should setup a one minute video on Youtube. Maybe the video should be shot from the side and up about 20 feet in the air so folks can get an overview of the situation.

    And use someone with a pleasant upbeat voice with emotion as a narrator. Not a National Film Board of Canada narrator if you get my drift

  21. Michael D Says:

    Here in Waterloo Region (Ontario), roundabouts are being rolled out very widely, mostly on large suburban arterials. However even the smallest one is very different from the Winnipeg one.

    Drivers here have certainly been complaining, though more and more they’re just getting used to them. Planners have been able to show that roundabouts have decreased injury collisions here (though increased fender-benders). The one thing that is becoming a bigger issue is pedestrian crossings when the roundabouts are in more peopled areas.

  22. Peter Byrne Says:

    While I was living in Seattle, I was astonished to see people turning left at intersections like that one in the Winnipeg video by taking the short immediate left (ie following a clockwise route) rather than taking the larger “hook turn” (ie following a counter-clockwise route). Coming from Australia, I could hardly believe that people were voluntarily making the choice to, essentially, drive on the wrong side of the road for those turns, especially when they did so at intersections where there’s tall fences at the corner and restricted visibility.

    One thing that I seldom see discussed about roundabouts’ traffic-calming is their effect on pedestrians. Here in Australia, many of our busy neighbourhood streets use roundabouts (such as this one – http://bit.ly/cN2mfL) to give people the chance to safely enter the flow of traffic. As a pedestrian, they present me with a problem, as they tend to take away the gaps in the traffic and turn bunches of cars into a steady stream – a kind of “leaky bucket” algorithm.

  23. doug Says:

    I live and ride a bike in Seattle, and I second Peter’s bafflement. I have almost been hit by cars multiple times because the car driver cuts the turn short, and end up driving on the wrong side of the road for a few moments; sometimes directly towards me!

    Usually they’re not a problem. I have to slow down and check every direction before proceeding. Not sure if that’s common enough, though.

    Seattle also has a handful of literally uncontrolled intersections. No stop signs, no roundabouts, no yield signs, nothing! One is on 20th and Main by Jackson. It’s a bit freaky!

  24. Kevin Steinhardt Says:

    Are people seriously protesting against roundabouts? Have these people never been to the United Kingdom?; we should chip-in and pay for a road trip to Milton Keynes for these people.

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Traffic Tom Vanderbilt

How We Drive is the companion blog to Tom Vanderbilt’s New York Times bestselling book, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), published by Alfred A. Knopf in the U.S. and Canada, Penguin in the U.K, and in languages other than English by a number of other fine publishers worldwide.

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