The ins and outs of Ontario roundabouts

Traffic circles are making a comeback. Are the province’s drivers ready for them? 
By Mary Baxter - Published on Nov 13, 2019
Forty of the Region of Waterloo’s 3,000 intersections are roundabouts. (Mary Baxter)

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The two-lane roundabout on Homer Watson Boulevard brought more than just a change of pace for traffic when it was installed in 2011 in front of St. Mary’s High School in Kitchener. “There were multiple accidents a week, and it was the first time anyone had seen or interacted with a roundabout,” recalls Jacob Anstey, who was in Grade 11 at the time.  

Most incidents were fender benders or sideswipes, but that year, a girl in Anstey’s grade was hit by a bus and suffered a broken leg — and students began organizing protests. “I don’t think they wanted to remove the roundabout,” says Anstey. “They just wanted people to understand the safety of it.” 

Once common along the Queen Elizabeth Way, roundabouts fell out of favour in the mid-1970s amid safety concerns before returning to Ontario in the early 2000s, this time with tighter corners, speed controls, and the requirement that vehicles yield to oncoming traffic.

They’ve been steadily gaining traction across the province. Hamilton, London, and St. Thomas have added them, and they’re also being constructed in rural areas, including North Perth and Zorra Township. But, while experts tout such benefits as improved traffic flow and safety, the relative novelty of the infrastructure can pose problems. 

“We’re talking about changing the culture of the driving environment,” says Bob Henderson, the Region of Waterloo’s transportation-engineering manager. His region, home to an area that’s been dubbed Ontario’s roundabout capital, was the first in the province to adopt the revamped design — a British innovation — in 2004. “It’s not a simple task to change what 500,000 people in the region are accustomed to,” he says. “It was a paradigm shift for the motoring public.”  

Forty of the region’s 3,000 intersections are roundabouts, which see vehicles enter from one road and move in the same direction around a central island before exiting on another road. While it takes time for motorists to adjust, says Henderson, the circular junctions ultimately make roadways safer and improve traffic flow without adding more lanes. 

In fact, roundabouts reduce 90 per cent of fatal and 75 per cent of serious-injury collisions, according to studies from the U.S-based non-profit Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Henderson points to the example of one established at a busy intersection on Franklin Boulevard in 2016. Previously, the intersection saw at least one fatal collision every year. “We haven’t seen a fatal collision since,” he says.  

Yet some locals remain unconvinced of roundabouts’ viability. Multiple regional-council members oppose a proposal for roundabouts near a high school on Franklin Road in Cambridge, citing the experience at St. Mary’s: according to a 2017 University of Waterloo master’s thesis by Yue Zhao, before its construction, there were, on average, 10 collisions there each year; in 2015, there were 119 — and half of all the accidents at the driving circle are the result of motorists failing to yield. 

Jeff Cassello, a planning professor at the University of Waterloo who specializes in transportation design, says that, although roundabouts can increase the overall number of collisions, those collisions tend to be less severe: “Because you don’t have vehicles interacting at 90-degree angles — you have them interacting in shallow angles — the likelihood of having a fatality in a roundabout is much lower than it is in a conventional intersection.”  

He does, however, warn against putting them on busy high-speed roads that are shared with cyclists or near intersections. “That can be really disruptive to the function of the roundabouts — and it can be very dangerous for the pedestrians,” he says, referring to crosswalks. “I don’t think we’ve got that quite right yet in the Region of Waterloo.”  

Henderson, though, says that his research and analysis show improved pedestrian safety: “Pedestrians get hit less often versus in a traffic-signal environment.”   

For communities that decide to proceed with these rotaries, the road ahead can be long, as members of Clearview Township council have discovered. A decade ago, councillors began mulling how to address an expected surge in traffic at an intersection on a main thoroughfare north of Stayner. Communities in and near the municipality of 15,000 people, which includes Wasaga Beach on Georgian Bay, were rapidly growing. So, five years ago, the municipality contacted Ontario’s Ministry of Transportation, which has jurisdiction over traffic control at the intersection, about introducing a roundabout. “It keeps cars rolling,” says Doug Measures, the municipality’s mayor.  

Safety was a big reason for the push. Stop signs haven’t kept drivers from speeding through the intersection. “Less than two years ago, we had a vehicle accident that happened where a van and a coach bus had a head-on collision right there,” Measures says. “It was quite an accident.”  

When considering a roundabout request, the MTO first studies criteria for traffic volume, gaps, and collisions to determine whether traffic signals would be a better option. Then, it confirms whether enough land is available, as roundabouts have a larger footprint. “Sometimes you don’t have the property to acquire; sometimes the property is too expensive to acquire,” explains Roger De Gannes, the ministry’s head of traffic-operations engineering. Road grades and street alignment also have to be appropriate, and clear sightlines are needed. Queues and delays “become really excessive” when traffic is much heavier on one road than the other, he adds.  

Last spring, the township learned that the MTO, which has approved 23 roundabouts since 2009, plans to put up traffic signals at the four-way stop in 2021. De Gannes told TVO.org via email that “a signalized intersection design was proposed to accommodate future traffic growth and still fit within the current property.”  

Council insists that a roundabout is the right answer, particularly given that, earlier this year, Gateway Casinos and Entertainment announced plans to build a new casino about two and a half kilometres north of the intersection. “I’m looking into the future here,” Measures says. “The objective is to keep traffic moving.” 

If the township were somehow to succeed in its quest for a roundabout, Anstey, for one, won’t hesitate to drive it — regardless of his experience in high school. With eight years of driving under his belt, he’s a fan. “When they’re used properly,” he says, “they can ease the flow of traffic.” 

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting southwestern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of faculty and students from Western University’s Faculty of Information and Media Studies.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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