Going in Circles: Could We Build Dutch Style Roundabouts in North America?

Screen capture. BicycleDutch

In many parts of the world, traffic lights are being removed and roundabouts installed. They are a number of reasons, but according to the Economist, the main reason is road safety. In America, for instance, which has a mere 4,800 roundabouts, a quarter of all road deaths take place at intersections. America’s Federal Highway Administration, which helpfully supplies a “roundabouts outreach and education toolbox” to overcome public distrust, says that they reduce deaths or serious injuries by around 80%, compared with stop signs or traffic lights.

In an earlier post I noted that I found roundabouts to be very scary when on a bike. And indeed, in Britain they have found them to be quite dangerous for cyclists. I quoted a Guardian article: “There is a tendency for motorists at roundabouts to look through cyclists while watching for other motor vehicles, hence the frequency of “SMIDSY” (Sorry, mate, I didn’t see you) collisions.” A reader responded in a tweet:

The article in Bicycle Dutch describes a modern Amsterdam Roundabout. It has a second ring for bikes, with space large enough for a single car to stop between the two rings, so that when a car is yielding to a bike, it is not blocking the moving traffic in the roundabout.

Because of the design, the speed of motor traffic is reduced to an almost equal speed as that of cyclists. This makes negotiating the right of way a lot easier. In the video you can see that traffic flows very smoothly and motor traffic and cyclists really take turns. Cyclists sometimes even adjust their speed so they can just pass in front of a motor vehicle, or right behind it. The Dutch generally don’t like to come to a full stand still and they try to make sure that others don’t have to stop either. This type of junction makes that possible in a safe way, even with high volumes of very different types of traffic. Trucks, buses, cars, scooters, pedestrians and cyclists interact in a safe way and the traffic flow is very high even though the speeds are relatively low.

But that is the key here: the cars are yielding to bikes. In fact the cars are almost obsequious, they are so yielding. There is a hierarchy:

The Tram has priority over all other traffic that is stopped on the roundabout with red lights so the tram always has a free passage. The tram excepted, the rest of the priority is organised as follows:
Pedestrians: on the zebra crossing pedestrians have the right of way over all other traffic
Cyclists: right of way on the circular cycle path, including priority over motor traffic entering and leaving the roundabout. Cyclists must give way to pedestrians on the zebra crossings and cyclists entering the roundabout must give way to other cyclists already on the roundabout.
Motor traffic: right of way on the roundabout itself, but on entering the roundabout motor traffic has to give way to pedestrians on the zebra crossing, cyclists on the cyclists’ crossing and other motor traffic already on the roundabout. When motor traffic leaves the roundabout again, drivers have to give way to cyclists on the cyclists’ crossing and pedestrians on the zebra crossing.

Here is a slightly more boring video taken from the cyclist's point of view. I find it hard to imagine being on a bike and just blithely driving through intersections like this. It is not just engineering and design, but also about trust. Moms with Bakfiets full of kids, dads with three kids on bikes following behind, everyone just riding like they own the road, because they apparently do.

In Ontario, Canada, where I live, the Police warn pedestrians that even when they have the right of way, they should not trust it. During Pedestrian Safety Week a neighbouring police force advises:

Peel Regional Police are urging pedestrians to be extra vigilant. Keep in mind that just because you have the right of way doesn’t mean it is safe to utilize it.

But trust is critical to make things work. One has to be able to assume that it is safe. When you see how people walk, cycle and drive in Copenhagen and Amsterdam, you realize that it really isn't about road design or weather or topography that makes it all work, but it is about attitude, respect, and trust. Could this work in North America?