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.
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.
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.
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 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?
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…
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.
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.