Campus Traffic Goes in Circles, In a Good Way

Illustration: Mark Matcho

Editor’s note: Since we published this piece, two more roundabouts have been completed and a sixth is underway. But if you’re back on campus for the first time in a while, they’re probably all new to you.

As construction of Bing Concert Hall neared completion in 2013, Stanford administrators knew they had a brewing problem on their hands. The intersection of Campus Drive and Galvez Street was already jammed—imagine the snarl once symphony aficionados met football fans.

Traffic engineers conjured up computer-generated models of possible solutions. While a traffic signal was expected to be the most efficient option, simulation after simulation kept spitting out the same dark horse winner—a roundabout.

Americans, of course, aren’t renowned for their roundabout skills (see National Lampoon’s European Vacation), though the Franco-British favorite has lately been enjoying a surge of popularity stateside. Amid concerns of unleashing chaos, planners proceeded with caution, bringing in a roundabout expert to present to trustees and top administrators before exploring the option in greater depth.

A major turning point was a trip to San Diego, where Stanford representatives from public safety and campus planning sat in a café on a rainy afternoon to watch drivers navigate La Jolla Boulevard. The thoroughfare had recently been dotted with five roundabouts in a row, to rave reviews: “What was once a four-lane, stop-and-start speedway is now the calmest, cleanest and prettiest stretch of commercial road in San Diego County,” a local columnist wrote.

The Stanford observers came away impressed, but there was still reluctance to go all-in at one of campus’s busiest intersections. “You don’t want to learn your lessons on the most trafficked part of campus,” says Cathy Blake, director of campus planning. And so the heavily bicycled intersection of Campus Drive and Escondido Road was chosen for the roundabout’s Stanford debut in September 2014. “Pretty much ever since, we have gotten a flood of positive comments,” Blake says.

Two more roundabouts were installed at Campus Drive’s intersections with Bowdoin Street and with Santa Teresa Street in 2015. Galvez Street and Campus Drive, the intersection that started it all, got its roundabout in September 2016.

Not everybody gets the rules. (The driver in the roundabout has right-of-way.) But confusion also happened at the old four-way stop sign. Crucially, the flow of traffic post-roundabout is measurably better. In 2012, the Galvez intersection was rated at a C level of operation during the morning peak and at a D in the afternoon peak. As a roundabout, it was operating at A/B levels at the end of November, “with minimal queuing, good driver and bicyclist yielding and pedestrians crossing in a safe manner,” a transportation consultant wrote.

More campus roundabouts are likely, says Blake, as planners consider other congested intersections.