AS MUCH OF suburban Maryland gradually shifts from morning and evening peak hours to day-long congestion on county thoroughfares, traffic planners are frantically looking for new -- and economical -- solutions. And since few solutions on this earth really are that new, they are returning to an old concept known as the "roundabout," or traffic circle.
Most Marylanders know the circles mainly as Washington, D.C., peculiarities, which drive many visiting motorists mad, along with the capital's lettered street system. (Of course, no American should really complain about the difficulties of a roundabout unless he or she has tried to negotiate one in heavy going in a country with left-hand traffic, such as Britain).
Now, roundabouts are becoming a fact of life in southern Anne Arundel, where a traffic circle is being constructed on Route 2 in Lothian. It is the fourth one built or proposed in Maryland in the past two years. More are on the way, although a traffic engineer in New Jersey -- another jurisdiction known for traffic circles, "jughandles" and other novel approaches -- warns: "They have been a nightmare. The person with the boldest driving habits [takes] the right of way."
In theory, traffic entering a one-way roundabout is supposed to yield to circulating traffic. In practice, that works quite well -- if and when drivers become accustomed to the idea. But considering how foreign that concept is for most motorists, getting used to roundabouts will take time.
Division exists in the highway design field about whether roundabouts are a viable solution. Says a Massachusetts Highway Department spokeswoman: "There is a feeling among designers and planners that they don't work well in high-traffic areas."
But Charles R. "Dick" Harrison, a Maryland Highway Administration district engineer argues that traffic circles ease the flow in certain situations. "It's better," he says, "than what we have now."
While roundabouts may require a little orientation in Maryland, they are worth trying as a way to alleviate congestion. We suspect they'll succeed more in low-traffic areas, such as Howard County's Lisbon where one was installed two years ago, than at high-traffic crossings.