Ring Around “Rosy” – The “Magic Circle” Debacle at Wilshire and Western

Oh sure, it looks easy, but...

One of the great terrors facing any American attempting to drive in Europe is the dreaded “roundabout,” a bizarre and incomprehensible (at least to most of us red blooded Americans) automotive whirlpool relentlessly hurtling speeding cars, buses, trucks and motorcycles to their collective dooms. For a neophyte driver in Europe, how to get in, where to go once you’re in there and, seemingly hardest of all, how to get out of a roundabout is the stuff motoring nightmares are made of.  Invariably, in describing their near death encounters with the sinister roundabout, American survivors of this horrifying ordeal like to say, “Thank god we don’t have those here!” This is, in actuality, not entirely true. There are a number of traffic circles (as we call them) throughout the United States today. Columbus Circle and Dupont Circle are the two most famous. Why there’s even one here in California down in Long Beach. But these are rarities indeed. Americans just don’t like them and reject them out of hand as effete, immoral and perhaps somehow socialistic or even communistic.

I can't believe these didn't catch on here.

God bless him. He tried. He really tried.

In all of this hostility to the much maligned traffic circle, one cannot help but feel a bit sorry for the poor planners and engineers who tried to impose them upon us and still would if we’d let them. They adored the concept and truly believed they were miracle solutions to the vexing problem of traffic flow. One of those well-meaning chaps was John Alden Griffin, Los Angeles’ City Engineer from 1920 to 1924. A direct descendent of John Alden, Griffin rode the tiger’s tail throughout his exciting and controversial tenure as City Engineer facing a constant struggle to keep up with the unprecedented demands put on his office during the biggest growth spurt in the city’s history. In his struggle to keep his department’s head above water, Griffin found himself repeatedly at loggerheads with the city’s Board of Public Works, which fixed the blame squarely on his shoulders for the two-year backlog on construction projects, a charge he vehemently denied by claiming (correctly as it would seem) that his department was so woefully underfunded and understaffed they could simply not keep up. The Board, however, didn’t buy it and the relationship became so contentious that at one point they passed a resolution ordering him to cease giving out any interviews to the press. Being the good soldier he was, Griffin complied, which brought him two more, albeit no less contentious, years in the job.

(LAPL)

(LAPL)

Whether or not he spoke out directly, Griffin’s office was always in the news with huge sewer projects, the construction of the 2nd Street Tunnel, the Mulholland Highway and, of course, the battle over how to handle Los Angeles’ traffic crisis. At this point it should be made clear that there were no “Good Old Days” for traffic in Los Angeles. It has always been bad. Very, very bad.  So if, while sitting at a complete standstill on the 405, one still succumbs to daydreams about how nice it must have been back when there were fewer cars on the road, take into consideration these statistics from just one three-month period from January through March of 1922 when there were 8,111 accidents reported involving 16,118 persons, 74 killed and 1,511 injured for an average of 95 accidents per day. The blame for this automotive anarchy was none other than…get ready to be surprised…”incompetent handling of vehicles and violation of the right of way.” Our great grandparents, as it turned out, drove just as badly as we do.

She'd better hope he's not an L.A. driver! (LAPL)

In seeking solutions to this appalling traffic situation, City Engineer Griffin fell under the spell of the powerful Automobile Club of Southern California (our good friends at AAA) who encouraged him to implement what became known as the “Magic Circle” plan. According to Griffin, the Magic Circle was the answer to everyone’s traffic prayers. And it was so simple! Any overcrowded intersection could easily be converted into a “Magic Circle” with the addition of a giant 40′ circle bordered by an 8″ high curb right in the very middle. Now, to some it might seem a bit odd that a giant obstruction inserted into the middle of a major intersection would ease traffic flow, but like the “Magic Bullet” of Kennedy Assassination fame, it could really do it according to its supporters. As Griffin (still allowed to speak the press at the time) rhapsodized, the Magic Circle “makes possible the 100 percent use of a street intersection at all times. Traffic is constantly flowing around the circle…Two rows of vehicles move around the circle without delay.” Just like magic!

A deceptively quiet Wilshire and Western (LAPL)

That's more like it. (LAPL)

A group of the city’s busiest intersections were targeted to become “Magic Circles.” Adams and Figueroa, Sunset and Vermont and Wilshire and Western with the latter being the first to feel the magic. Wilshire and Western was a particularly noxious intersection with a massive 5,000 vehicles passing through each and every hour with 12 accidents a month on average. After a six weeks experiment of a temporary rope circle proved a huge success, a “permanent” traffic circle was completed with a 12-foot white cement “compass” added to the center that featured flashing red lights on top and a set of helpful directional signs pointing the way to various destinations. Wary drivers were told how stupefyingly simple using the Magic Circle was. “Vehicles  merely slow up at intersections where the circle is in place, and fall into line and turn without delay either to the right or left or go straight ahead as desired.” It was idiot proof, but was it L.A. driver proof?

How AAA wanted you to see the Magic Circle: Look how simple!!! Those three cars will have no trouble in the Magic Circle. Now just add 4, 997 more and see what happens.

It sure seemed to be according to Griffin, the Auto Club, and the L.A. Times. “Rosy” as the Magic Circle was affectionately called by those who loved it (and other more colorful names by those who didn’t), was an unqualified success, a thrill ride of fun for the majority of drivers who were, according to the Times, were “loud in their acclaim” for the new system.Traffic accidents, they reported, had been cut to a quarter of their former rate with only three “slight” accidents once Rosy took over. Rosy was L.A.’s newest hero…

Everybody's Doing It! Rosy makes traffic fun!

A few months later with praise to the high heavens still ringing in everyone’s ears over Rosy, the City Council abruptly voted, with only one “no,” to order the Board of Public Works to immediately remove the circle as it was “blocking traffic.” The Auto Club, the Traffic Commission and the Los Angeles Safety Commission all screamed in unity over the move, launching a protest to save Rosy. “Only a speed maniac would object to the circle,” declared one protester. Well, there you go. L.A. was, and continues to be made up of such types and the reason why Rosy was cutting down accidents was it was slowing traffic to a crawl. Cars generally can’t hit each other when they are at a complete stop and that appeared to be the secret of Rosy’s success. Loud and vehement as they were, the protesters cries fell on deaf ears at the City Council. And had Rosy been as popular as its boosters claimed, the vote-minded City Council would not have killed it. But Rosy wasn’t and she had some serious design flaws, which even her boosters had to admit after the fact. The main problem was that Rosy wasn’t a real traffic “circle” at all. The intersection was a regular square with a circle stuck in the middle. And it was too small of an intersection for such a circle. Wilshire was only 100 feet wide and Western even narrower at 80 feet. Cut 40 feet off that, add 5,000 vehicles an hour and, well, you can just imagine.

A slightly more realistic view of the "Magic Circle"

In retrospect, the planners believed the mistake they made was not to cut the sides of the intersection to create a true circle, but by then no one was listening and traffic returned to its usual madness. For a while, the 12-foot concrete pillar remained in place at what had been at the center of the circle, looking more like a tombstone than a traffic guide. This too, soon vanished, probably run over by some crazy L.A. driver.

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10 Responses to Ring Around “Rosy” – The “Magic Circle” Debacle at Wilshire and Western

  1. bill whitman says:

    i can see you’ve never been to Maine. we have them in Augusta at opposite ends of a bridge. they win an award EVERY year – the two most dangerous intersections in the state of Maine. i’m not kidding – more accidents happen there than anywhere else in Maine. there is another one but it is very large and not in a city and it works very well. why? no traffic.
    now, in auburn they are putting them in near malls. at first, people just drove over them but now they’re getting into the spirit, driving around them and having accidents. what’s that saying: the more things change, the more they stay the same.

    • Steve says:

      Oh I love Maine. Haven’t been there for a while though but if they’re putting in traffic circles now I might be too afraid!

  2. David Ko says:

    Traffic circles are tricky. Diameter dimension has a direct effect on speed. The Alamitos Circle in Long Beach is too big and surrounded by single story buildings the circle creates a dead space. Another smaller circle in Old Town Orange is a wonderful space where the surrounding structures are 2 and 3 stories making the space intimate and the circular park is a wonderful and well used gathering space.

  3. John Jones says:

    There are many “roundabouts” in West Hollywood that work perfectly well today. I lived in Britain for many years and found them to be a perfect solution to wasteful traffic lights (1st one installed in 1924). As early as 1920 the city considered kicking automobiles out of the business district and leaving it for street cars only. But the biggest part of your story should be that Los Angeles had almost no traffic regulation in the 1920′s. And what little we had was ignored by local drivers. The “most badly congested intersection in Southern California” was Santa Monica and Wilshire boulevards where it was proposed to erect a 130 foot barrier, giving Wilshire east/west traffic right of way and blocking Santa Monica blvd. Doesn’t that sound fun?

    • Steve says:

      Thanks for the info. John! As for Roundabouts in West Hollywood, could you give some examples? I’m probably missing the obvious but I’m not picturing any offhand.

  4. Scott Mercer says:

    The roundabouts in West Hollywood are not on main arteries. They are on residential side streets that are lightly traveled. There’s one near La Brea and Santa Monica, I think? That’s just barely in West Hollywood. Maybe another one near La Cienega and Melrose?

  5. fiz~ says:

    Whatever moron that makes the decision to build on of these gawd-awful roadway monstrosities should be fired and forced to live in a house in the middle of these ridiculous circles.

  6. Lawrencewalker says:

    I am an former Californian living in Cheshire, England and I must say it took me a while to get my head around the British Round A Bouts. Now that I know the simple rules of using the Round A Bout it all makes sense to me. When you live in a crowded and small country like the UK the Round A Bout is the best answer in avoiding long traffic jams and it is the best way in keeping the traffic moving. I know longer miss the four way stops in California and to tell you the truth I am so use to driving in the UK the sound of a four way stop scares me……

  7. HollywoodF1 says:

    The city of Carmel, Indiana (a suburb of Indianapolis) has installed more than 60 roundabouts– the most in the US. Since then, accidents in the city have decreased by 40%, and injury accidents have decreased by 80%. When roundabouts are designed according to the geometry established by the US DOT, they are quite easy to manage. Modern roundabouts reduce gasoline consumption by an average of 24,000 gallons per year for each roundabout installed. The number of cars the intersection can handle at peak times increases by 30% to 50%. They also reduce travel time, are less expensive by $125,000 than a signaled intersection, are immune to power outages, and are demonstrably safer. http://www.carmel.in.gov/index.aspx?page=123

  8. HollywoodF1 says:

    As a point of calculation– Carmel, IN has reduced its CO2 output by a massive amount: In their city with a population of only 83,000 people, they have reduced the production of CO2 by the same amount that 7.6 square miles of forest absorb. The City of Los Angeles has more than 46 times this population. The potential reduction in air pollution and greenhouse gas emission is staggering.

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