DC’s Illustrious History of Traffic Circles

Driving through DC isn’t for the faint of heart. Local drivers spend hours upon hours of time each year just in traffic.

For those not used to seeing them, traffic circles are pretty much the norm in DC. In fact, the District has more than 30 traffic circles all over the area.

While some drivers despise them, they do have a purpose, and it dates back hundreds of years. When the nation’s capital was first planned out by Pierre L’Enfant, it was designed in a grid of north/south, east/west streets.  

The long diagonal avenues were created to make it easier to travel between federal buildings. L’Enfant envisioned building some parklike space where those avenues intersected.

While most are circles today, it’s likely L’Enfant originally saw them as squares. No matter the exact shape, he wanted the space to honor individual states, potentially with state “embassies”.

The idea was to bring in more residents and businesses, then resettle them close to their own home square, further spurring development. The squares would only be about a half-mile apart, with fountains and memorial columns used as focal points to distinguish some of the District’s first neighborhoods.

The state plan never fully came to fruition. Of L’Enfant’s original plan, just five of the public spaces are still circles today, including Dupont, Logan, Scott, Thomas, and Washington. Four of them were named to commemorate Union officers.

Originally referred to as Iowa Circle, Logan Circle includes a statue commemorating a Civil War General and lawmaker. The Dupont Circle Fountain sits at the center of Dupont Circle, which was also named in honor of a Civil War officer.

The National Park Service maintains the park within the traffic circle. Dupont Circle has been known to host political rallies, and people even come there to play chess on the circle’s stone chessboards.

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