Kevin Riordan: Something old and round becomes something new

A newly installed "roundabout" mixes vehicles at the entrance to Camden County College in Blackwood.
A newly installed "roundabout" mixes vehicles at the entrance to Camden County College in Blackwood.
Posted: January 26, 2010

A New Jersey icon rumored to be on its way to extinction has instead taken an evolutionary turn.

Like a certain newspaper columnist, the traffic circle refuses to go away. And it, too, has a chic new incarnation. (More about that in a moment).

It's true that the legendary Collingswood, Berlin, and Ellisburg are history - the same fate awaiting the Routes 70/73 mashup, otherwise known as the Marlton Circle. Since the mid-1990s, 20 New Jersey traffic circles, rendered obsolete by ever-rising amounts of traffic, have been eliminated via cut-throughs, flyovers, signalization (love the lingo), or some combination thereof.

But like our equally famous jughandles and concrete medians, most traffic circles aren't going away any time soon - mainly because replacements are too expensive.

So along comes an innovative, still-circular variation with a pleasingly picturesque, Euro-ish name: roundabout.

Or "that thing," in the words of Kim Anderson of Cherry Hill. She's a first-year student at Camden County College in Blackwood, where a handsome roundabout on College Drive is a signature feature of a project to improve campus access from Route 42. When the project is complete, four roundabouts will control traffic.

"I don't like it," adds Katherine Margiotti, 18, also a first-year student from Cherry Hill. She finds the roundabout "scary."

Like its equally new and somewhat more complex counterpart at the eastern entrance to Rowan University in Glassboro, the CCC roundabout is part of a larger project that aims to improve traffic flow, boost safety, and create a landmark gateway to a sprawling campus. Worthy goals indeed.

But roundabouts also are designed to manage traffic by slowing it down. That goal defies New Jerseyans' immutable Law of Physics (if not Nature): Traffic circles must propel us ahead of every driver inside, entering, or approaching them. Particularly drivers in vehicles from Pennsylvania or, worse, New York.

Given how often visitors lose any sense of direction - not to mention decorum - upon entering our circles, they may find comfort in the following declaration:

"A roundabout is not a circle," says Joe Dee of the New Jersey Department of Transportation.

"It's not a circle," agrees Rowan spokesman Joe Cardona. "It's a roundabout."

With all due respect to the two Joes, both of whom responded to my meandering queries with gracious, patient efficiency, roundabouts are (A) spherical, (B) contain a counterclockwise stream of vehicles, and (C) appear to be surrounded by New Jersey.

They're traffic circles, in other words, albeit with a distinct difference.

Just as the latest James Cameron film or newspaper column promises previously unimaginable perspectives, the traffic circle iteration offers its own innovations.

Roundabouts are more compact and "pleasing to the eye," observes Camden County Freeholder Ian Leonard. The multiple and/or murky right-of-way protocols that often prevail in circles (at least in New Jersey) are supplanted by what could be called engineered etiquette: Vehicles simply cannot enter the roundabout without stopping.

Lower speeds make roundabouts and their whereabouts safer for pedestrians, as well - something Burlington County and Cherry Hill Township might consider as they try to protect people who navigate on foot along the precarious Route 130 and Haddonfield Road.

So far, the CCC and Rowan roundabouts seem to be functioning well - although traffic is expected to increase. If the popularity of roundabouts in France detracts from their popularity in some circles (sorry, couldn't resist), who cares?

Vive the New Jersey traffic circle. By any name.


Contact Kevin Riordan at 856-779-3845 or kriordan@phillynews.com.

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