Like an eternal force, there exists in Long Beach a presence that has persisted throughout time, evoking both adoration and fear. Some seek its destruction while others revere it. Despite the ongoing tax situation, this enigma, known as the traffic circle, continues to thrive, captivating the minds of residents and visitors alike for over half a century.
The traffic circle is a four-legged creature that engulfs approximately 100,000 cars each day, only to disperse them in various directions. This perplexing intersection has been a source of great concern, sparking countless debates and narrowly avoided collisions since its inception 56 years ago. It is a place where sleek sports cars and clunky sedans converge, where the notion of right-of-way is shared by all. Here, red lights and traffic officers are conspicuously absent. If fate strands you in the inside lane, you could find yourself eternally circling. Some drivers face this challenge with bared fangs and a menacing stare, while others simply close their eyes and speed through.
Next to the Grand Prix, the traffic circle is arguably the wildest ride in town. Surprisingly, according to the Long Beach police, it is also one of the safest. Monique Drew, a local driver, scoffed at the notion, recounting her numerous close encounters, all of which she adamantly claimed were not her fault. Nan Roberts, the director of major gifts at Cal State Long Beach, even jokingly remarked that she felt safer driving the wrong way out of London at the age of 19.
Nonetheless, Traffic Enforcement Cmdr. Charles H. Parks attests to the infrequency of accidents at the traffic circle. The Fire Department paramedics rarely find themselves responding to incidents there, and the sole fatality that lingers in memory dates back to 1988 when a motorcyclist recklessly plowed through it without even bothering to turn. With pride, Parks declares it the safest intersection in the city, despite his wife’s aversion to driving through it.
Conversely, traffic circles, known as roundabouts or rotaries elsewhere, are common fixtures throughout the East Coast and Europe. Experts assert that they are among the safest and most efficient means of moving vehicles. In theory, traffic flows like a river, unhindered by red lights. Each driver enters at a 45-degree angle, virtually eliminating the risk of head-on collisions.
However, Southern California drivers tend to dismiss such claims. The mere suggestion of constructing a traffic circle in Ojai years ago led to a local revolt. Former Long Beach resident Eric Donald, who once faced threats from another driver at the circle, attempted to convince the Department of Motor Vehicles in 1981 to acknowledge traffic circles in its instructional materials. The DMV dismissed his request, citing the scarcity of such intersections in the state. Frustrated, Donald eventually moved to Cypress.
Across California, traffic circles are a rarity, and Long Beach is home to one of the largest. Situated at the convergence of two state highways, Lakewood Boulevard and Pacific Coast Highway, it is deeply ingrained in the fabric of the city. Many Long Beach residents wish to see it vanish, contemplating the construction of a tunnel or bridge, but city officials swiftly dismiss such proposals due to exorbitant costs. Surprisingly, there are individuals who genuinely appreciate the traffic circle’s existence.
Valerie Cottongim, for example, finds excitement in navigating the circle three times a week on her way to the gym. She describes it as a legal opportunity to unleash her inner race car driver, comparing it to a thrilling E-ticket ride at Disneyland. Meanwhile, Bert Resnik diligently avoids the circle while his wife, Annette, deliberately seeks it out.
Many drivers recall their first encounter with the circle vividly, akin to reminiscing about the Sylmar earthquake. With an estimated 108,000 vehicles passing through daily, there is an abundance of opinions regarding the correct approach to navigating it. Some insist on coming to a complete stop upon entering, while others believe that doing so would be a grave mistake. The presence of a diagram explaining the specific routes and corresponding lanes is of little help, as by the time drivers see it and process the information, they are already halfway through.
For first-timers in standard sedans, traversing the circle is akin to strapping on a pair of rental skis and attempting to make their way down the Matterhorn using the snowplow technique. District 5 Councilman Les Robbins, expressing his frustration, refers to it as a chaotic mess, recounting his near misses.
Oddly, the true origins of the traffic circle remain shrouded in mystery. Historical records only mention that it was “worked on” as early as 1932 and designed by the unidentified “Los Angeles Regional Planning Commission.” Various rumors prevail, including one suggesting that the designer met their demise within the circle’s confines, while another claims that it was their offspring who suffered such a fate. In a curious twist, a third rumor suggests that the designer was not a man but a woman.
For better or worse, Long Beach seems destined to retain its traffic circle for at least another 20 years. Discussions have surfaced regarding the installation of a ramp to divert Pacific Coast Highway traffic, but until then, the circle has become an unofficial landmark. To alter its form would be akin to attempting to fix Barbra Streisand’s nose.
City Traffic Engineer Dick Backus affectionately speculates that many Southern Californians are only familiar with two things about Long Beach: the Queen Mary and, of course, the iconic traffic circle.