Spinning Wheel Turns

Traffic Circle 1930s
Traffic Circle 1930s

Drive Lakewood's main drag south and you'll eventually see signs referring to a "roundabout" ahead. By then you'll be nearing the southern segment of the Los Alamitos Traffic Circle. And you may be very afraid.

The Traffic Circle - the name everyone uses - isn't a traffic circle at all. It really is a "roundabout" because of a redesign by Caltrans in 1993.

The circle is a "roundabout" - and has that British sounding designation - because of the specific pattern of circulation into and through the wheel of intersections that meet there. To get technical, Caltrans' engineers refigured the old circle so that entering traffic must yield to traffic already circulating, flared these entries to as many as four lanes, changed some signage, and drew lane markers so that traffic making less than 90 degrees of circulation can get out of the way of cars making a more complete circuit.

Caltrans would have made even more changes, except for budget restraints. The circle would have been remade much smaller, to force drivers to reduce their speed to less than 20 miles an hour, and additional lane markings would have separated and guided traffic within the circle. That style of roundabout is common in Britain and increasingly an option for traffic engineers in this country.

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So the Long Beach circle or the roundabout - as the signs say - is a hybrid: part traffic circle built in 1930 in anticipation of 1932 Olympics events in Long Beach and part roundabout in the British style.

The circle's original designer was German engineer Werner Ruchti. The team that reconfigured the circle as a roundabout in 1993 included John Burnside, who remembers that it took almost eight years to complete the engineering design work, largely because of skepticism about the project at Caltrans and in Long Beach.

Neither the original designer nor any of the state highway engineers who reshaped it died driving the traffic circle. But that urban legend is deathless.

The Long Beach roundabout handles about 60,000 cars and trucks a day. It's difficult to compare its accident rate with conventional intersections or even with other roundabout configurations. It's the only roundabout in California that is this complex, and new roundabouts elsewhere in the nation are smaller.

Those who favor circulating traffic over signalized intersections claim that the number of traffic accidents - which may greater on roundabouts because of driver inexperience - isn't the right measure of their safety. Accidents on roundabouts, they say, tend to be denting sideswipes and not lethal broadsides.

True or not, drivers in the Long Beach area either take the roundabout in stride or never get near it. Public sentiment leans toward avoidance, according to some studies, making the future of roundabouts in California unclear. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety argues for more of them, but the website www.roundaboutsUSA.com has dozens of news stories from around the nation in which new circles are alternately praised by engineers and vilified by drivers.

The Long Beach roundabout stands alone in myth and engineering history as bigger, more complex, older, and scarier than any in California (and probably in the nation). It sits at the confluence of Lakewood Boulevard, Pacific Coast Highway, and Los Coyotes Diagonal like a titanic bull's-eye. It dares you to take aim.

D. J. Waldie, author, historian, and as the New York Times said in 2007, "a gorgeous distiller of architectural and social history," writes about Los Angeles on KCET's SoCal Focus blog

The image on this page was taken by Pacific Air Industries.

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