The Waco Traffic Circle: An Early Texas Roundabout
By Melinda Luna, PE, Chair, History & Heritage Committee
Different Types of Roundabouts
Roundabouts are a form of circular intersection that are considered safer than traditional intersections. There are three types of roundabouts:
- Single Lane Roundabouts
- Multi Lane Roundabouts
These three types can be further subdivided into rural, urban and suburban roundabouts.
First Mentions of Roundabouts in the United States
The United States history of roundabouts starts in the 1790’s when Pierre Charles L’Enfant first proposed them in the street layout of Washington DC. L’Enfant was a French architect who came to the United States and fought in the Revolutionary War to become an advisor to George Washington. Thomas Jefferson provided L’Enfant with maps of various European cities and thought L’Enfant could copy one of them. He instead created a plan based on ideas from several city maps and presented it to the commissioners of the district. The commissioners were not happy with his plan, and L’Enfant was removed from the project. His plan for Washington DC was still used, however. The roundabout design seemed to have taken off in European roadway planning and design but not so much in the United States or Texas at the time.
The Oldest Roundabout in Texas
The oldest roundabout in Texas was constructed in 1935 in Waco on US 81 and US 77. This roundabout is also known as Circle Road, South Valley Mills Drive, La Salle Avenue, and North Robinson Drive. D. M. Pickett was the Division Engineer, H.R. Pipkin was the Resident Engineer, and J. P. Foly was the contractor out of Dallas who built the Waco Circle and part of the connecting roads.
“The Circle of Confusion”
People traveling between Austin and Dallas through Waco all had to navigate “The Circle”. On March 7, 1935, during the roundabout’s construction, the Waco Tribune reported that two representatives started a house bill against The Circle after they had an accident driving through it. The traffic circle was 200 feet and initially confused locals. There was even more controversy over the project as some nearby landholders went to court to settle disputes in 1936.
As traffic increased and IH 35 was built in the 1960’s, confusion over The Circle remained. There are shirts and other souvenirs that say “I survived the circle.” Some locals even referred to the roundabout as “The Circle of Confusion” while others avoided it all together. When the area was up for rehabilitation, Waco kept The Circle with the goal to improve it because it was a landmark.
In 2013, funding was allocated to beautify roads, and The Circle received a nice upgrade. For $11,561, Baker Brothers of Fort Worth designed and implemented a Lone Star at the center of The Circle, making it more visually appealing. This entire area has seen a recent increase in traffic due to businesses like Magnolia Table.
Today, the public can find educational resources to help navigate projects like the Waco Traffic Circle on city websites such as Frisco, Fort Worth, Sugarland and others. In the early days before the internet, there wasn’t much opportunity to educate the traveling public before projects were completed.
Despite a rocky start with the first Texas roundabout, Texans did build other roundabouts. According to the Texas Roundabout guidelines, roundabouts reduce injury crashes by 30-50% and fatal crashes by 50-70%. With reductions like this, roundabouts are likely here to stay.