In Carmel, driving around in circles isn’t a symptom of being lost; it’s a way of life. Despite its small size, the Indiana city has more roundabouts than any other burg in the U.S. Much of that has to do with its Republican mayor, Jim Brainard, who has seemingly waged a campaign to pave all of Carmel with these traffic-calming, accident-reducing rings.
Given that Carmel installed its hundredth roundabout this November—and has since debuted two more—CityLab thought it’d be good to query Brainard about his roundabout obsession. Here’s the (slightly condensed) interview:
What initially got you interested in roundabouts?
I first encountered roundabouts during a graduate-school trip to England. I watched how efficiently traffic flowed through the intersections. Drivers were yielding to traffic and to bikes and pedestrians. No unsightly traffic signals and no long lines or congestion. It made me wonder why the U.S. had not built more roundabouts.
Will Carmel ever have enough roundabouts?
We plan to add 28 more in 2017 and 2018 and then our long-range plans also have several more. All told, we probably have another 35 to 40 roundabouts to build before we finally are finished.
What do you think is a common misconception about roundabouts?
The most common misconception is that motorists will be so confused by the rules of roundabouts that they will make mistakes and the roundabouts will become unsafe. But the facts prove otherwise. At most all times of the day, motorists simply slow down as they approach a roundabout. They look to the left, and they yield to traffic that is already in the roundabout. It is that simple.
Studies show a 90 percent reduction in fatal accidents, 80 percent reduction in accidents with serious injury, and 40 percent reduction in all accidents at these intersections when a roundabout replaces a traffic signal. When there are accidents, they are typically low impact, at an angle (rather than a deadly T-bone crash), and result in mostly minor damage.
What do you think is their most unheralded benefit?
The thing most people don’t know is how much money is saved by converting traffic signals into roundabouts. Our city engineer’s office has found that on average, roundabouts in Carmel have cost $250,000 less to build than signalized intersections and they are much less expensive to maintain than signalized intersections, saving our taxpayers $5,000 per intersection per year in electricity costs.
And because we have eliminated most all of our traffic jams, we spend much less time sitting in traffic and idling our engines, which is saving about 24,000 gallons of gas per year per roundabout, based on federal highway studies, which also leads to reduced vehicular emissions and improved air quality. With 102 roundabouts and the cost of gasoline at $2 a gallon, the public is saving about $4.9 million per year.
Do you expect the Trump administration to have an impact on Carmel in terms of infrastructure, climate change, or any other issues you've been passionate about?
I have heard that our president-elect is planning to boost spending in infrastructure, and that is a good thing for cities across the nation. It is important that local and state governments spend their money wisely by not building sprawl that is environmentally or financially unsustainable. The funds should be spent on repairs, safety improvements, public transit, and completing existing highway grids. Many of our roundabout projects—and other projects—have benefited from federal support over the years. We have a number of projects on our long-term plans that would be excellent candidates for that.
On climate change, I am hopeful that we continue to improve our drinking water, air quality, and work toward energy independence thereby avoiding costly involvement in maintaining the Middle East oil supply. There are multiple reasons to support the reduction of fossil fuel usage that will improve our quality of life and make our country more resilient and safer.