A trip to Long Beach might turn up two artifacts dating to the 1930s that say something about the technology of that era. One is the Queen Mary, an Art Deco masterpiece. The other is the Los Alamitos Traffic Circle on Pacific Coast Highway.
Unlike the Queen Mary, which was completed in 1936 and ranked as the largest passenger ship for many years before it was put out of commission in 1967, the circle is still in business. Built in 1932, it ranks as the highest-capacity roundabout, rotary or circle in California and perhaps the nation (though nobody keeps an official record of such things).
"This is a traffic circle that serves thousand and thousands of vehicles every hour," said Long Beach traffic engineer David Roseman. "If you put a stoplight there, you would have huge congestion."
Traffic circles, like giant ocean liners, are back in vogue. Safety advocates tout circles for reducing accidents and moving traffic more efficiently than stop signs or signals. But American motorists are skeptical about circles, and many don't know how to drive them. Some circles can increase the frequency of fender benders, even while they reduce serious crashes.
Modern traffic circles are not called circles -- at least not officially. When they were reinvented in Great Britain in the 1960s, they were dubbed roundabouts. Although circles and rotaries have long existed in the U.S. and Europe, the roundabout threw out many of the old conventions. They were made small, so that traffic would be forced to slow to 15 to 25 miles per hour, and in a complete reversal of past thinking, the traffic inside the circle was given the right of way, and cars on the feeder roads had to yield. In the past, the feeders roads had the right of way.
With the old design, the circle could become gridlocked, but by giving traffic inside the circle the right of way, it can clear itself. To help eliminate backups outside the circle, feeder roads flare into extra lanes just before the circle.
Proponents say the result is that more traffic can get through a circle than through a signaled intersection and that accidents tend to be less catastrophic sideswipes, instead of broadsides. About 9,500 motorist are killed every year at intersections, and the circles are trumpeted as a design that can sharply reduce the carnage.
Citing studies that conclude that roundabouts reduce overall accidents by 39% and injury accidents by 76%, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has argued for more traffic circles. Bill Baranowski, a Utah traffic engineer who operates the website www.roundaboutsUSA.com, says about 1,000 of the circles have been built in recent decades, mostly by communities worried about safety.
"There are 32 conflict points where accidents can occur in a normal signaled intersection," he said. "In a roundabout, there are eight."
But there is at least one problem: public sentiment.
"Drivers hate them, until they are educated enough," said John Burnside, a traffic engineer who spent a 40-year career at Caltrans and now consults.
The Long Beach circle not only has a bad reputation, but also some antiquated technology. Burnside was responsible for the circle's operation while he worked at Caltrans (although the circle is in Long Beach, the circle is controlled by Caltrans because PCH is a state highway).
After arguing in-house for years to modernize the circle, Burnside finally persuaded Caltrans in the early 1990s to redesign it. Yield signs were installed on feeder roads to give traffic inside the circle the right of way. And PCH was widened to four lanes where it entered the circle. Engineers now estimate the circle can accommodate 6,000 vehicles per hour.
But it left the original configuration alone. The circle has a 470-foot diameter, including the roadway, which is nearly twice as large as current design guidelines call for. As a result, traffic can move faster -- often above 30 miles per hour -- which makes merging and vehicle control all the more tricky.
The 1990s redesign was completed for $350,000, according to Burnside. Caltrans estimated a complete redesign, including reducing the size of the circle, would have cost $1 million, an amount the agency did not have in its budget, he said.
In addition, the redesign called for installing lane lines inside the circle, but the plan was dropped on the advice of consultants who wanted to conform to the British model, Burnside recalled. The roadway in the circle is big enough for four lanes, meaning drivers must waltz in and out of traffic without guidance from lines.
"It is big and scary," Burnside acknowledged.
Another problem with the circle is that the feeder roads, including southbound PCH and Los Coyotes Diagonal, don't enter the circle at 90-degree angles. Plus, the road entries are not spaced evenly around the circle.