American motorists often say they don't like roundabouts, but experience quickly wins them over. This is a main finding of a new survey conducted for the Institute. Twice as many drivers favor roundabouts after installation, compared with before.
Researchers first surveyed drivers in three communities in Kansas, Maryland, and Nevada where roundabouts were to be constructed. Follow-up surveys conducted a few months after installation show opinions had changed dramatically. The proportion of drivers in favor doubled overall, from 31 percent before construction to 63 percent after. Those who were strongly opposed dropped from 41 percent to 15 percent.
Each time drivers were surveyed, those against roundabouts were asked the reasons for their opposition. About one-third of opposed drivers in the first survey said they would prefer a new traffic signal or to keep the stop signs that were already in place. Another 40 percent cited concerns about safety or confusion at the new intersections. After the roundabouts were constructed, objections were similar but only half as many drivers were opposed.
Before and after construction, drivers were asked about the impact of roundabouts on congestion and safety. Before construction, 27 percent of the drivers thought congestion would be reduced. After construction, 42 percent thought it had been reduced. About a third of the drivers questioned before construction thought there would be a safety improvement, and the proportion increased to 50 percent after roundabouts were installed.
"Many drivers simply prefer the traffic controls they're more familiar with. There's a natural resistance to the unknown," says Richard Retting, the Institute's senior transportation engineer. "Still, some of the concerns we heard are based on real misunderstandings." For example, far from being unsafe, roundabouts significantly reduce crashes (see "Roundabouts sharply reduce crashes, study finds," May 13, 2000).
Communication is important to overcome biases and build support for roundabouts before they're operational, Retting also notes. But this only goes so far because, for many people, seeing is believing. Eugene Russell, professor at Kansas State University's Department of Civil Engineering and a co-author of the study, says that "at first communities say, 'We don't want roundabouts here. We don't need them just because England or France has them.' But after the roundabouts are in, communities like them because they work."
This is what happened in University Place, the first city in Washington State to build a modern roundabout. Public works director Steve Sugg says a demonstration was important to secure wide support. "Initially we had to overcome strong public opposition," he says. "To try something this new and innovative required a heck of a lot of public involvement — more than I had ever been exposed to in my career. But in the end, people came around, and all of that effort paid off. Now we have five roundabouts, and they're actually a source of pride for the citizens in the community."
Percent of drivers who favor and oppose roundabouts before and after construction