Talk of the Town: Life is a Roundabout

Since being reintroduced in the 1960s roundabouts have been a boon for planners a bane for drivers. Sean Maddox reflects on the evolution of a traffic control instrument that divides drivers like no other.

By Sean Maddox

Do you feel roundabouts (rotaries) are the solution to Atlantic Canada’s intersection issues? Seems the planners and designers are too young to remember the Bryson-Lysnes’ chart topper from 1982, the Mic Mac Rotary Blues. It sold 3,000 vinyl copies. People were done with the Mic Mac Rotary. Done. Its legacy captured in song and verse.

The Mic Mac Rotary is just a memory now. I drive that area every day to-and-from work. No sign of where thousands sat, spewing exhaust, listening to the radio and dreaming of different ways around Halifax, Dartmouth, Bedford and other towns of the day.  I should say I cruise to work; there’s rarely a wait. As noted, the rotary long gone, gone along with Penhorn Mall and other places of my youth. So why all the new roundabouts across Atlantic Canada?

Driving the highway to Charlottetown with the city on the horizon, fields of green around, suddenly l must gear down, and figure out which exit to use. Why? I had entered another of Prince Edward Island’s roundabouts. Fourteen and growing is what the local papers have reported. Why all these roundabouts? P.E.I. is not alone in bringing back the roundabout. From Amherst to Pictou, Calais to Edmunston, and many other areas you will find them popping up. Some like the one at Wake Up Hill in Marriot’s Cove, N.S. are fun and beautiful to drive. This being one roundabout where I do recommend taking the posted speed seriously. It’s not just roundabouts for cars and trucks either: bike and pedestrian roundabouts are being used in Atlantic Canada too.

I started thinking about these changes when the first idea for a story this issue popped into my head. I was researching where the worst intersections in the Atlantic provinces were located. People shared a few locations, including my mother’s favourite: Halifax’s Willow Tree. Hampton N.B. made the list due to the dangers presented at the intersection of William Bell Drive, Highway 100 and Lakeside Road for years, as did Dartmouth’s Five-Corners; but not enough to turn out a 500 word column. Then I realized that many of those traditionally dangerous intersections from the past had been replaced by bridges, and more recently, roundabouts.

What we all take for granted as a safe, effective roundabout has gone through decades of trial- and-error. The first recognized use of roundabouts is the Circus in Bath, England built back in 1768; based on architectural considerations not for traffic flows leading to congestion. One of the first in roundabouts in North America is the Columbus Circle in Manhattan, N.Y.C.:  Beautiful views of historic Manhattan all around. The world’s largest, measuring a whopping 3.5 km, is the Persian Sultan Salahuddin Abdul Aziz Shah or Putrajaya Roundabout as it is known, in Putrajaya, Malaysia. The Putrajaya Roundabout has a whopping 15 entry /exit points. 

Since its rebirth in the 1960s to help address North America’s high rates of traffic and collisions,  the modern roundabout has proven effective. The modern roundabout, started improving when engineers and other planners started improving the design for current traffic loads and city planning. The versions today have evolved to improve both safety and traffic flow. Some are critical for the flow of millions of cars, trucks and people every day.  

The question that comes to most Canadians minds when the discussion of rotaries pops up is how to drive them correctly. Remember back when it was normal in N.S. for drivers to take turns entering the rotary? I do. It was crazy; even captured in movies, documentaries and television shows. Many accidents caused when drivers expecting to have the right of way once in the loop, crashed into a car thinking it had the go. Oh, the memories.

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