Sullivan: Seattle’s traffic circles are not roundabouts

May 16, 2024, 6:12 AM

traffic circles roundabouts...

A 4-way stop at the intersection of South Ferdinand Street and 35th Avenue. (Photo courtesy of listener Mike in Columbia City)

(Photo courtesy of listener Mike in Columbia City)

Traffic circles and roundabouts. Are they the same thing? Do the same rules apply?

We’ve talked about four-way stops and roundabouts already this year, but I received a question from Michael in Seattle’s Columbia City neighborhood that brought up a similar topic, traffic circles.

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Seattle has more than a thousand traffic circles. These are generally neighborhood intersections where the city has installed a barrier in the middle of them that forces people to slow down. In some cases, they are as simple as large planter boxes in the middle of the intersection.

The Seattle Department of Transportation’s (SDOT) Ethan Bergerson said they are a simple way to make intersections safer.

“They’re not new,” Bergerson told KIRO Nesradio. “They’re something that we’ve been using for quite some time because they have a good success record for increasing safety.”

Michael in Columbia City asked me why SDOT recently installed stop signs at several of the traffic circles in his neighborhood. He doesn’t think they’re necessary, claiming they slow things down while most drivers just ignore them.

I asked SDOT’s Bergerson why the stop signs were put in.

“Those particular examples are right by a high school so you’ve got that safety need,” he responded. “It’s also on our neighborhood greenways network, which are neighborhood streets, recommended bike routes and have a lot of pedestrians.”

Traffic circles can include stop signs, though they aren’t required. SDOT added them based on traffic data at each individual one.

“When we’re making safety decisions, we will do that based on things like historical traffic data and the need,” Bergerson said. “This intersection being right in front of a high school is a good reason why you want to make sure cars are coming to a full stop there.”

After analyzing the intersections and thinking of Michael’s question, I hit upon something simple. Michael kept referring to these traffic circles as roundabouts.

The question was really more about the stop signs interfering with the traffic flow in a roundabout. And that’s where the confusion comes in. Traffic circles are not roundabouts. The words are not interchangeable, and the rules for navigating them are different.

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At roundabouts, you yield to traffic already in them and then go. In some cases, if no yield is necessary, you can simply enter.

Traffic circles are like four-way stops. They are considered an uncontrolled intersection. You should come to a complete stop before entering. Whoever gets there first, goes first. If two cars get there at the same time, you yield to the car to the right.

If an intersection has a traffic circle and stop sign, they are considered controlled intersections, and you have to stop.

Hope that clears things up.

Check out more of Chris’ Chokepoints here. You can also follow Chris on X, formerly known as TwitterHead here to follow KIRO Newsradio Traffic’s profile on X.


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Sullivan: Seattle’s traffic circles are not roundabouts