Dysfunction Junction Vol. 2 – Circular Logic


Dysfunction Junction chronicles the most forlorn, baffling, and wonderful crossroads of our fair city. Ben Ball is a transportation nerd in his spare time. He lives in LeDroit Park. Ben previously wrote about The Florida/Rhode Island/New Jersey Triangle.

When my aunt from California comes to visit, I derive a wicked sense of pleasure from making her drive through the circles.  I just love her white-knuckle grip on the steering wheel and breathless yelps (“BENJAMIN!!!!”).  Still, who can blame her?  Driving, walking, or biking through the city’s thirty-four circles is baffling. Those of us who have lived abroad know that traffic circles can be beneficial when everyone knows what to do.  But the confusing multiplicity of traffic patterns in DC’s circles makes that impossible.  If the DC DMV can’t even bother to codify the rules for traffic circles, then how will people like my aunt know what to do?

Leaving the origin theories to the historians, let’s look at the three types of circles we generally encounter in DC today:

Type #1:  Proper Roundabout.  These are traditional traffic circles.  Cars enter and exit the circle freely, yielding to traffic before entering.  In DC, most of these are smaller circles like Sheridan Circle and Anna J. Cooper Circle.  Advantage:  Traffic flows freely.  Disadvantage:  Pedestrian access to the circle can be perilous or non-existent.

Type #2:  Roundabouts with stoplights.  Some of these (like Thomas Circle and Scott Circle) are glorified intersections, with underpasses so cars can avoid the insanity of stopping on a circle altogether.  Others (like Logan Circle) may have originally been proper roundabouts, but have been converted in the interest of pedestrian safety or access to the center of the circle.  Advantage:  Pedestrians can walk through the circle, in theory.  Disadvantage:  Cars have to stop on the way in, on the circle itself, and sometimes on the way out.

Type #3:  You call this a %&*$# circle?  Dupont Circle really takes the cake here.  It’s bad enough that there are separated inner and outer lanes, but those two lanes actually cross on purpose at several points.  Theoretically this traffic pattern is designed to protect pedestrians, but how many times have you been stuck between lanes of traffic on that tiny little concrete strip, waiting for the signal to change?  Ward Circle also has a strange inner/outer loop thing going, with the result that both pedestrians and drivers have no idea what’s going on.  Biking through either of these circles?  Don’t get me started.  Advantage:  Car horn and air bag manufacturers win!  Disadvantage:  Car horn and air bag manufacturers win!

Continues after the jump.


If it was up to me, all the circles in DC would be proper roundabouts.  (Not “racetracks”.)  At least the rules would be consistent.  But the first thing we have to do is get rid of those awful flashing yellow arrows.  Y’know what means go?  Green.  Only people who have driven through DC before might know that ten seconds of flashing yellow arrow is the only chance you have to get on a circle.  The other 99.9% of humanity is going to wait for a green arrow, which is totally logical.  (Someone actually researched this!)  Those poor drivers from Poughkeepsie get honked at, then sheepishly inch into the circle, then drive really slowly because they’re terrified by this bizarro traffic nightmare.

To my utter surprise, none of DC’s traffic circles rank anywhere near the top of the accident statistics.  Maybe that’s because Maryland drivers are too busy wreaking havoc elsewhere.  Or maybe in order to have an accident you actually have to be moving…

25 Comment

  • I agree – all these circles should be proper roundabouts. They should build footbridges that go over the roadway to allow pedestrians to access the parks in the circle.

    The stop lights just add to the congestion in our city.

  • Washington Circle particularly at rush hour is terrifying. It is VERY rare to see east-bound cars from K Street and Pennsylvania Ave actually yield to drivers already in the circle.

  • Ugh those flashing yellow arrows drive me nuts. And they cause major backups on CT Ave at Dupont Circle when you’re stuck behind a line of cars with drivers that are too hesitant to enter the circle because they’re waiting for that green arrow (that never comes). Or because there’s so much traffic you can’t get into the circle for the 5 seconds the arrow is flashing yellow and have to sit wait for the next one.

  • Anna Cooper is not a yield to traffic round-about. As your picture shows, you have to STOP. The only true round about I can think off of the top of my head is near the Home Depot. It is north of Home Depot and a small roundabout.

    • chevy chase circle?
      and except for the brentwood circle, are there any real circles in SE or NE?

      • Chevy Chase Circle is a good example of a roundabout style circle that handles a lot of traffic. Not only is the center inaccessible for pedestrians but the outlet lanes for Conn. Ave are also perilous to cross.

        It is very difficult to create any sane way for pedestrians to cross a multi-lane outlet from a wide roundabout without using a traffic signal (see also the hybrid-circle on the Arlington side of the Memorial Bridge).

    • ah

      And Westmoreland Circle (Mass and Western).

  • For those who have never heard of it … I suggest googling “Magic Roundabout (Swindon)”. 30 seconds on wikipedia will make you feel better about DC circles. 🙂

  • “Hey look kids, there’s Parliament! Big Ben!”

  • Scrillin

    You could eliminate a huge percentage of traffic from our streets just by getting rid of the lights in the circle and synchronizing the rest of the lights in the city.

    Most of the lights have never actually been synchronized, and it wasn’t as much of an issue when the city was emptier, and there were fewer car-owning individuals. Now, though, the number of mis-timed stretches of asphalt is insane.

    • saf

      DDoT does not consider our lights to be mis-timed. They use those lights as traffic calming.

      It’s just dumb.

      • there was a major synching of lights on thoroughfares late in the Williams administration. It’s expensive and time consuming to do it right and in a comprehensive way, so it doesn’t happen often.

        • And it’s never going to happen under the Gray administration, now that he’s busy pandering to the anti-car contingent.

  • Hear, hear! I’ve noticed that traffic in Dupont Circle moves much better when the lights are out for some reason…

  • Where does a flashing yellow not mean proceed with caution/yield? It certainly does in Poughkeepsie. Maybe drivers should simply learn how to drive?

  • I go to work downtown driving west on Rhode Island Ave. At 5:30am I ignore the red light to enter Logan Circle and proceed to M & Conn in about 2 minutes. If I wait for the green light to enter the circle (no reason ever, no people no traffic), the light turns red to get out of the circle back to Rhode Island Ave right as you get to it and every light in between Logan Circle and Conn. Ave turns Red right before you get to it. This adds almost 10 min to my commute.

  • Anybody from New Jersey will tell you, you really can’t have “proper roundabouts” (American English: British-style Traffic Circles) with large traffic flows. Trust me, it doesn’t work. You just end up with the Somerville Circle.

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