Welcome to the US Roundabout Capital

Corporate, Engineering + InfrastructureMay 28, 2023

by Frédéric Arnould for Radio-Canada

Improving traffic flow while increasing motorists' sense of safety is a constant challenge for cities. A small town in Indiana – the state wedged between Illinois and Ohio – may have found a winning formula: Carmel is the roundabout capital of the United States.
A car ride with Carmel's cheerful mayor, James Brainard, can last for hours. He loves to introduce his city, which has a European feel.

"Roundabouts save an average of 24,000 gallons of fuel per year compared to an intersection with traffic lights." - American Structurepoint Vice President Mike McBride

"Our city is located in a place without mountains or oceans, and half the year the weather is terrible," he says, "but I say that people in Paris have the same conditions and do very well."

While the joke is amusing, he is convinced that part of his job as mayor of a rapidly growing new town is to design a different construction for people, not just cars. And in this sense, roundabouts are part of his vision.

Moreover, his greatest pride, after 27 years in power in the municipality, is to have made Carmel the American capital of roundabouts.

European inspiration
His passion for roundabouts dates back to his time studying in the UK. “I started asking engineers why we were installing traffic lights, when roundabouts seem so much more efficient to those who have experienced them. "

To date, there are 147 roundabouts in Carmel, and half a dozen more will be built by this summer. James Brainard's goal is for there to be only one traffic light in the entire city, which has a population of 100,000. It would be something of a throwback to the Carmel of the past, when Indiana's first traffic light was installed there in the 1920s.

Today, Mayor Brainard is very proud of the result. “Many of my fellow citizens tell me that they save 15 to 20 minutes in their daily commute by replacing traffic lights with roundabouts."

It must be said that the fluidity of traffic is pleasant in Carmel. However, it is quite easy to recognize motorists who are not from here, by their hesitation to embark on the roundabout. “The first time, it's scary. People don't really know when to go, when to stop, how to react. But we have an extensive public awareness program," the mayor said. After all, he also knows that people always accelerate just before an orange light turns red. “At the roundabout, everyone must slow down,” he says, as a matter of course.

Comparable costs
Former City of Carmel engineer Michael McBride (now a vice president and partner at American Structurepoint) oversaw the construction of dozens of roundabouts. According to him, the cost of building a roundabout is comparable to that of installing traffic lights or installing an intersection. In the long term, he estimates that the annual cost of maintaining an intersection with traffic lights will exceed the initial cost of building a roundabout.

According to McBride, driving around roundabouts is also a good deal for motorists. “Roundabouts save an average of 24,000 gallons [nearly 91,000 liters] of fuel per year compared to an intersection with traffic lights. So if you multiply that number by the number of roundabouts in town, that's over $10 million in fuel savings per year. "

We imagine that the impact on the environment can only be beneficial.

But the biggest benefit for the good of all, according to the city's mayor, is security.

"This is safer for both younger and experienced drivers because they have more reaction time at lower speeds. It is simply a safer option."

According to a study by the Insurance Institute for Road Safety, Carmel roundabouts have reduced accidents with injuries by 84 per cent, and accidents at these locations by almost two-thirds. According to Jessica Cicchino, vice-president of the Institute, reduced speeds in roundabouts also help reduce the severity of injuries.

More concentration
Cicchino believes drivers need to concentrate more when entering roundabouts.

“Roundabouts have the lowest percentage of drivers handling their phones or engaging in other distracting activities. Roundabouts require special attention, as it is more difficult to navigate." - A quote from Jessica Cicchino, Vice-President, Insurance Institute for Road Safety

In the small souvenir shop All Things Carmel, there is no denying that roundabouts are the pride of the city. There are not only sweaters of all colors representing roundabouts, but also cups, wine glasses and even a board game on the famous roundabouts.

Chelsea Kofsky, the store's associate manager, agrees that the majority of residents enjoy roundabouts. “When recalcitrants understand how to get involved, they get used to it too, » she says.

There are reportedly more than 9,000 roundabouts in the United States. An upward trend, despite some ignorance about this option, according to engineer Michael McBride. ”I've traveled across the country talking to municipalities and states about the benefits of roundabouts, and one of the main issues I'm being asked for help with is developing a public awareness campaign to help drivers understand how to navigate roundabouts. "

With a population that has quadrupled since its current mayor came to power in 1996, the city of Carmel has become an example to follow in terms of quality of life and accident reduction, according to James Brainard.

"I know that roundabouts play a role in the success of my municipality." — A quote from James Brainard, Mayor of Carmel, Indiana

The mayor continues to enrich Carmel's road heritage since, by next summer, many roundabouts will be decorated with sculptures in tribute to the city's automotive history. It's a way to close his last term. Brainard will retire at the end of the year. For the future, as he has many other projects, he does not intend to go around in circles for long... except in roundabouts.