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Freakonomics / – Should Traffic Lights Be Abolished? (Ep. 454 Replay)

Freakonomics – Should Traffic Lights Be Abolished? (Ep. 454 Replay)

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In this episode of Freakonomics, the hosts explore the idea of abolishing traffic lights and replacing them with roundabouts. They discuss the safety, environmental, and cost benefits of roundabouts compared to traditional signalized intersections. They also delve into the cultural and psychological factors that contribute to the resistance towards roundabouts in the United States. Join them as they uncover the potential advantages and challenges of adopting roundabouts as a new approach to managing traffic.

Main Takeaways

Safety Benefits of Roundabouts

  • Many crashes and traffic injuries happen at intersections controlled by traffic lights.
  • Roundabouts significantly reduce fatalities and injuries in crashes compared to other intersections.
  • Roundabouts are smaller and force vehicles to slow down, reducing the chance of collision.
  • Roundabouts have been proven to be a safety countermeasure, with Carmel, Indiana having only 2 traffic deaths per 100,000 people compared to the US average of 14.
  • Roundabouts may confuse some drivers and lead to more non-fatal crashes, but overall the data is persuasive in favor of their safety benefits.

Environmental Benefits of Roundabouts

  • Roundabouts have environmental benefits, including significantly reducing emissions.
  • Roundabouts lead to less fuel consumption and pollution.
  • Roundabouts can save cities money, with estimates of $2-3 million per year by replacing stoplights.

Efficiency and Cost Benefits of Roundabouts

  • Roundabouts are more efficient and safer than traditional traffic lights.
  • Converting an intersection to a roundabout has a high initial cost but pays off in the long run.
  • Roundabouts can increase commercial access by reducing congestion and improving traffic flow.
  • Roundabouts also improve traffic flow and reduce congestion, despite requiring slower speeds.
  • Cost of roundabouts versus signalized intersections is a major factor to consider, with roundabouts being more expensive to build and retrofit.
  • Signalized intersections can cost anywhere from $250,000 to over a million dollars, with 50% of the cost going towards design and engineering, and the other 50% towards materials and construction.

Resistance and Perception of Roundabouts

  • Resistance to roundabouts can come from cost issues, design, timeline, or potential environmental downsides.
  • One reason roundabouts remain unpopular in the US is that they are seen as too European.
  • Roundabouts are more popular in Europe than in the US.
  • Once drivers understand roundabouts, their apprehension tends to go away.
  • A survey found that within six weeks of operation, about half of drivers approved of a new roundabout, and after a year, the vast majority approved.

Challenges and Opportunities for Autonomous Vehicles

  • Autonomous vehicles need to be able to perceive and negotiate with objects in a roundabout.
  • Voyage’s self-driving vehicles use algorithms to calculate and choose the safest option when navigating a roundabout.
  • Public acceptance of autonomous vehicles may be a challenge, but the safety and convenience benefits may outweigh concerns.
  • Roundabout acceptance can increase relatively fast after initial opposition.
  • Autonomous vehicles face challenges with technology, governance, and public perception.


Roundabouts: A Safer and More Efficient Alternative to Traffic Lights

Roundabouts have emerged as a safer and more efficient alternative to traditional traffic lights at intersections. They significantly reduce fatalities and injuries in crashes compared to other intersection designs. Roundabouts force vehicles to slow down, reducing the chance of collision. Additionally, roundabouts have environmental benefits, including reducing emissions and fuel consumption. They can also save cities money in the long run by improving traffic flow and reducing congestion. However, the initial cost of building and retrofitting roundabouts is a major consideration. Resistance to roundabouts in the United States is often rooted in cultural perceptions and concerns about cost and design. Despite these challenges, once drivers understand roundabouts, their apprehension tends to diminish, and public acceptance can increase over time. The integration of autonomous vehicles presents both opportunities and challenges for roundabouts. Autonomous vehicles need to be able to navigate roundabouts safely, and public perception of autonomous vehicles may impact their acceptance. Overall, the data supports the adoption of roundabouts as a safer and more efficient approach to managing traffic.


Abolishing traffic lights and embracing roundabouts as a new approach to managing traffic has the potential to save lives, reduce emissions, and improve traffic flow. While there are challenges and resistance to overcome, the safety and efficiency benefits of roundabouts make them a compelling alternative. As technology advances and public perception evolves, the integration of autonomous vehicles with roundabouts may further enhance their effectiveness. It is time to reconsider the traditional traffic light system and explore the potential advantages of roundabouts in creating safer, more sustainable, and efficient transportation networks.

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