Often I’m incredibly grateful for how Chinatown was designed and preserved. I have read and listened to stories about how community members had gathered at local restaurants to spend hours planning and, sometimes, arguing, about parks, parking lots, and pagodas. Yeah, pagodas. In 1980, a giant pagoda was proposed to be built in the middle of Cermak and Wentworth, along with “friendship gardens.” It all may seem trifling, but their efforts have had a cosmopolitan impact. In post-pandemic times, Chicago’s Chinatown continues to be an attraction for people all over the world. Through its ups and downs, it’s safe to say that Chinatown seems to be doing well. In fact, maybe a little too well.

Pick any weekend. Parking lots overflow with cars, restaurants with people, and trash cans (and bushes, sidewalks, flower pots) with discarded boba cups. So many boba cups. The problems only multiply when events, like the annual Chinatown Summer Fair, pop up. On this hot and muggy weekend, cars are stuck bumper to bumper while the roads are blocked off by barricades, giant inflatable bouncy slides, and volleyball exhibitions. 

How can we improve the infrastructure to better suit a cultural hub that has evidently outgrown its shell? For as long as Chinatown continues to be a tourist destination, cars are here to stay. Perhaps the ideal solution is not to expand car capacity but rather improve car flow.

The six-way intersection of Archer, Cermak, and Princeton is one of the neighborhood’s central valves and seems like a good place to start. It has long red lights, impatient drivers, and frightening left-turns. It’s a driving experience that leaves a lot to be desired.

Enter the modern roundabout. Okay, hear me out. The modern roundabout is not the confusing, high-speed merry-go-round that trapped the Simpsons during their vacation in the UK. And, I promise, they’re not that hard to understand. Critics might argue that roundabouts are confusing because it’s easy to miss your exit. While a reasonable concern, people driving through traditional intersections still make this error regularly. 

Oh, cursed roundabouts—however will we reverse your trickery? Well, by completing another revolution. Since drivers are already moving in a circle, they have the option to drive straight, turn, or turn back without having to drive around a block or make abrupt and dangerous turns. 

Roundabouts are not only more convenient for drivers, they’re safer. Instead of using traffic lights, modern roundabouts utilize a system of yielding. It forces drivers to slow down and watch out for others, which results in fewer collisions and fatal accidents for all road users. This is what I like most about the roundabout: it changes driving habits without coercion and fines and increases driver vigilance.

Roundabouts are also superior to standard traffic light intersections in terms of efficiency and environmental sustainability. According to the Illinois Department of Transportation’s page on roundabouts, they cost less to maintain and minimize time wasted at red lights during off-peak hours. They can accommodate trucks and large vehicles, too. Best of all, these benefits result in lowered costs to the community. 

It would be easy to convert this particular intersection because each way is either one or two lanes. Left turning lanes, because there are no left turns in a roundabout, can become pedestrian refuge islands. This also provides an opportunity to create visual interest in the giant empty space where the roads meet. Maybe Chinatown can finally have that giant pagoda after all. 

Roundabouts are not only for the benefit of motorists; well-designed ones can protect pedestrians and cyclists, too. Like with anything else, roundabouts will have trade-offs and accessibility challenges should be considered with careful research. 

Chicago has been alight with controversy about the 2021 speeding ticket law, with no clear indication whether the benefits outweigh the costs. I’m not a traffic safety expert, but I do want safe roads for everybody and more efficient and environmentally friendly city planning. Circular intersections are cool, but there should be no expectations for a magic bullet or quick results. Rather than rely on disparate and, ahem, roundabout methods to improve congestion in Chinatown, Chicago can turn to many tried and true design and policy solutions from all over the world.

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