Road construction ahead: Expect a roundabout
Engineers peddle newfangled traffic circles for intersections large and small
By JUDY BERNSTEIN
The Hill Country Observer
There's something new in towns tired of cars and trucks backed up at red lights.
Traffic roundabouts are cropping up at intersections across the region, and many more are on the way.
Engineers say these 21st century traffic circles are the biggest improvement for clogged intersections in recent history — a way to keep traffic moving while reducing car and pedestrian accidents.
Skeptics wonder whether roundabouts will work so well as they're installed in more and more places, especially in congested areas with lots of pedestrians.
State transportation officials, though, seem to love the concept, especially in New York, where a roundabout at the intersection of routes 29 and 40 in Greenwich is one of 13 built in recent years around the state.
Nearly 70 more are in the planning and design stages, including projects in Kinderhook and in the center of downtown Glens Falls.
A roundabout near the Shaw's supermarket in Manchester is one of three in existence in Vermont, and officials are considering eight more around the state. Two of those are planned for the complex intersection of routes 7A and 30 in Manchester Center — the intersection known to locals as "malfunction junction."
Massachusetts is getting into the act too, with six recently built roundabouts and 11 more planned or proposed, including one in Northampton.
In New York, the state Department of Transportation is drafting new guidelines that would require roundabouts to be considered for every intersection improvement project across the state.
“There will be more," DOT spokesman Peter Graves said.
A similar requirement is already in place in Vermont, state Agency of Transportation spokesman Ian Grossman said.
Pushing a solution?
Federal and state transportation officials say roundabouts are a proven solution to safety and congestion problems at intersections.
But sudden appearance of the new traffic circles has alarmed some skeptics, who say state transportation officials are pushing the concept — something the officials deny.
“They’re not being pushed," said Graves, of the New York DOT. "We’re going to consider them. I wouldn’t call it an explosion of roundabouts. I would call it more of an educated, controlled growth.”
At the same time, transportation officials admit it won't always be easy to persuade many towns to try roundabouts.
Some roundabout projects, like the one in Kinderhook, have sparked strong opposition. Critics there have said a traffic circle is not appropriate and will actually cause more problems at the northern intersection of routes 9 and 9H.
But transportation officials say they recommend roundabouts only after thorough engineering studies — and that opponents are simply unfamiliar with modern roundabouts and afraid of change.
Old vs. new
Supporters say roundabouts are good for safety because they take the place of traffic lights. That eliminates the danger from drivers running red lights.
Instead, most drivers simply slow down, then proceed around the roundabout. By keeping traffic moving, the roundabouts ease congestion.
For many, though, the image that comes to mind is the multi-lane traffic rotaries of Cape Cod or New Jersey — layouts that have grown more frightening and dangerous as traffic volumes and speeds have increased in the 50 years since the last rotaries were built.
Today's transportation planners go to great pains to distinguish modern roundabouts from the old-style rotaries.
“You do still have a lot of lingering fear that roundabout equals rotary, but they’re completely different in design,” said Aaron Frankenfeld, director of the Adirondack-Glens Falls Transportation Council, a regional planning group.
To counter the fears, the New York DOT's Web site (www.dot.state.ny.us) includes a section on “modern roundabouts,” outlining benefits and explaining in words and simulations how cars and pedestrians can approach and drive through them. The DOT says its surveys have shown public perceptions change for the better once a roundabout has been built.
Supporters say today's roundabouts are smaller, slower and safer. Additional benefits include reduced traffic congestion, an ability to let cars through without a wait at off-peak times, and fewer emissions and less noise from cars idling unnecessarily.
At least two studies appear to support the safety claims:
* A 2001 study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that at 23 intersections where roundabouts were built, total crashes declined by 59 percent. The number of crashes with injuries declined by 76 percent, and those with serious injuries or deaths dropped by 89 percent.
* A 2002 report by the Maryland Highway Administration showed safety improved at 15 intersections in that state where single-lane roundabouts were installed, total crashes down 60 percent, injury-causing crashes down 82 percent and fatal crashes down 100 percent.
Pedestrian advocate Dan Burden, director of the national nonprofit group Walkable Communities, said he is a strong advocate of roundabouts. They can make intersections much safer for pedestrians because they slow traffic and require people to cross only a smaller section of road at a time, he said.
In Greenwich, town Supervisor Donald Wilbur said he's happy with a roundabout completed last year.
“It works great," Wilbur said. "It seemed by far the best way to go, and I’m glad we made that decision.”
The intersection of routes 29 and 40 had been the site of several accidents.
Now, Wilbur said, early opposition to the roundabout has faded, and traffic — including snowplows, trucks and emergency vehicles — flows through without incident.
In Manchester, the existing roundabout on Route 7A solved traffic problems created by a grocery store expansion and new retail stores, said Jim Sullivan, senior planning director at the Bennington County Regional Planning Commission.
He said the roundabout near the Shaw's supermarket worked so well that it helped convince people a more complex roundabout — actually, a pair of roundabouts — could work at the busy intersection of routes 7A, 30 and 11 near Northshire Bookstore.
“The town got used to what roundabouts are,” Sullivan said.
Sullivan said planning to fix the "malfunction junction" intersection has taken years. The complex intersection includes several busy roads, lots of pedestrians and a bridge over the Batten Kill that will have to be extended.
But the complexity helped lead to the choice of a roundabout, because roundabouts are particularly good for busy intersections with many roads coming in at different angles, he said.
A larger roundabout is planned where routes 11 and 30 come in from the east; a smaller one will be built just to the north, where Route 30 diverges to the northwest. Construction could begin as soon as next year.
Critics in Kinderhook
Supporters say roundabouts planned for both Kinderhook and Glens Falls likewise will tame traffic tie-ups at multi-road intersections.
But as these two projects are being designed, some are wary.
In Kinderhook, 300 people fought against the roundabout town officials approved last fall for the junction of routes 9 and 9H and State Farm Road. The state recommended it, and the developers of retail stores proposed at the highway junction backed the idea.
But opponents say the roundabout will be unsafe, particularly with the new stores, fast-food restaurants and the 2,500-student Ichabod Crane school near the circle.
“It’s insanity,” said Allen Schaefer, president of the citizens group Kinderhook Neighbors for Good Growth.
Schaefer envisions traffic jams in the morning as buses enter the school campus, and he said he fears for the safety of students who'll be trying to walk across to fast-food restaurants and stores.
Center of downtown?
In Glens Falls, there’s also been mixed reaction, even on the city's Common Council, which voted unanimously in early May to put a roundabout at the city's busiest downtown intersection.
The roundabout, which could be built by 2007, will steer traffic through the five-way intersection known as Bank Square, where drivers have complained about the duration of red lights.
Glens Falls 3rd Ward Councilman Harold “Bud” Taylor said he’s convinced the roundabout, weighed along with other options, is “the right way to go.”
But Councilwoman-at-large Kay Saunders isn’t so sure.
“The state is really hung up on roundabouts, evidently," she said. "They’re the ones that are pushing this."
Saunders said she voted for the roundabout only because the state recommended it — and because city officials had been told a roundabout might be the only way to get federal and state funds to improve the intersection.
Saunders said she’s afraid people will have trouble navigating it, and she worries it may hurt business downtown.
“People will be so busy watching where they’re driving and that they don’t hit the car in front of them or beside them or a pedestrian, they won’t have time to look around downtown,” Saunders said.
Glens Falls mural artist Esmond Lyons, a self-proclaimed pedestrian advocate, predicts the downtown roundabout will be a “disaster.”
“In a downtown, it puts the pedestrian in the position of having to ask the car for permission to move around,” he said.
For Lyons, though, the issue is even larger than a roundabout at one particular location; it’s the question of how communities handle the growing use of cars, rather than encouraging walking, biking or public transportation.
Communities are all too willing to spend more on cars and traffic but not on measures like better bus service, he said.
“People say that’s a subsidy we can’t afford,” Lyons said.