Limited Government and Traffic Roundabouts


This page was last updated on May 17, 2012.

Folks, the following is what happens when an engineer wanders into commenting on political ideology.

When conservatives speak of limited government, lefties try to convince people limited government is conservative code for no government and/or a “powerless” government.  That’s not true, of course.  As written, the U.S. Constitution is an example of limited government, at least at the federal level.  My definition of limited government is the level that coincides with maximum effective individual liberty.  Limited government does not mean no government/regulations.  Government should provide a civil and criminal legal environment, law enforcement, national security, some elements of infrastructure like roads, et cetera.  Those descriptions are all fine and dandy, but they are largely something you have to picture in your mind, not something you can put your hands on, or drive your car on.

A few weeks ago during my weekday drive to the YMCA, it occurred to me thousands of local residents encounter a comparison of big government and limited government every day.  That comparison is the main traffic intersection in Rochester, PA, a former intersection (really a group of intersections) from Hell.  For those of you not familiar with this area, several heavily-used local and commonwealth roads intersect in Rochester at various angles.

The original solution to this challenge many decades ago was to install a bunch of traffic lights.  The result was what seemed like waiting for an eternity to get through the intersection whether traffic was heavy or light.  During periods of heavy traffic, waiting through several traffic-light cycles was the rule.  Those of us who knew how to bypass the intersection by side streets – and sometimes private property (the Giant Eagle and Kmart parking lots, for example) - did so.  According to a study cited by the Beaver County Times (BCT), “nearly 600 vehicles per hour tried to skirt the intersections.”

In 2011, PennDOT removed the traffic lights and turned the intersection into a roundabout.  The result?  According to the aforementioned BCT story, “A new traffic study, done on Aug. 4 [2011], showed that traffic delays on Rhode Island Avenue — the stretch that approaches the roundabout from the Rochester-Monaca Bridge — had been reduced by 95 percent since the roundabout opened.  That change has been palatable to some, at least; cut-through traffic — those 600 vehicles an hour that had tried to find a way around the old intersections — has been reduced by 35 percent since the roundabout opened.”  My personal experience leads me to believe most drivers who still cut around the intersection likely do so more out of habit than of need.

How does this intersection illustrate the differences between big government and limited government?  The traffic-light version of the intersection represents the big-government approach by employing central control to dictate which vehicles could go where and when.  Drivers had no say about traffic flow unless they employed the “black market,” aka bypassing the intersection and pushing through-traffic onto side streets and private property.  The economic analogy of bypassing the intersection is modifying your activity to avoid excessive tax rates.

The roundabout represents limited government by employing only a handful of simple rules (one-way traffic, traffic flows counterclockwise, speed limit of 15 mph, vehicles entering the roundabout must yield to vehicles already in the roundabout, no stop signs) and relying on drivers to control flow through the intersection.  The predictable result was fewer delays and greater throughput.  Remember this the next time someone claims more regulations (traffic lights) are the way to increase economic activity (intersection throughput).

Here’s some interesting back-story.  You may be wondering what triggered the intersection overhaul after so many years of driver and passenger misery.  If you think “a light went on” and PennDOT finally decided to come to our rescue, you would be wrong.  The roundabout didn’t get any apparent thought until another taxpayer-subsidized entity, the Beaver County Transit Authority (BCTA), concluded the pre-roundabout traffic-light intersection “mean significant delays for the BCTA, which sends nearly all of its fixed-route buses through the intersection.”  According to PennDOT, “Average daily traffic in the roundabout area include[d]: Route 68 (Adams Street): 9,659 vehicles; Route 1034 (Brighton Avenue): 4,999 vehicles; and Route 18 (Rhode Island Avenue): 6,292 vehicles.”  I’ll go out on a limb and guess BCTA buses were a very small percentage of those 20,950 vehicles, yet the roundabout was built primarily to address BCTA bus “delays,” not to help the rest of us. 

© 2004-2012 Robert W. Cox, all rights reserved.