Going round and round for the better
Carbondale is about to become an official Colorado town.
Yes, it’s got one of the best mountain views anywhere. It’s got easy access to all the outdoor activities, legal pot, ethnic diversity that reflects the state, and a mix of cowboys and hippies, entrepreneurs and dreamers.
But it hasn’t had a roundabout.
That’s under construction. Full disclosure: The roundabout at Colorado Highway 133 and Main Street is about a quarter-mile from my home. But my interest and mild amusement with Colorado’s seeming obsession with roundabouts predates the orange fences and detour that create a slight inconvenience for me this summer.
A couple of years ago, American dialect quizzes were popping up on Facebook, and one of the questions was, “What do you call a traffic situation in which several roads meet in a circle and you have to get off at a certain point?”
One of the options was “I have no word for this,” which was my best answer. (Others were “traffic circle”; “rotary,” New England’s term; and, of course, “roundabout.”)
But then I took the Interstate 70 exit into Avon, and I found some (mostly unprintable) words for these things as my Google maps application on my phone got really confused and giant pickup trucks roared into the series of circles.
I’ve gotten used to them, mostly, and if everybody else in the circle is familiar and plays nice, they work pretty well.
I’ve lived and traveled around the country, and my observation is that Colorado is in love with these things like nowhere else. In 2011, I heard a Department of Transportation traffic engineer say on the radio that when the Willits roundabout opened, he parked and just watched drivers use it for a while.
So, with one going in down the street from me, and the first one in my new town, I thought I’d call a CDOT engineer.
And after chatting with Sean Yeates, resident engineer for traffic and safety in a region stretching from the Eisenhower Tunnel to Utah, I’m almost excited about this.
“Thanks for asking about roundabouts!” Yeates said in an email after we talked, to which he attached a PowerPoint presentation from the Federal Highway Administration containing Everything You Wanted to Know about Roundabouts But Had Never Thought of Asking.
“I think they’re addictive,” Yeates told me on the phone.
Among the reasons:
Roundabouts reduce injury crashes by 72-80 percent and cut total accidents by 35-47 percent, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
Besides slowing traffic, they reduce vehicle “conflict points” from 32 in a normal intersection to eight in a roundabout, mostly by eliminating left turns across traffic. Pedestrian conflict points are reduced from 16 to eight, according to the PowerPoint, and pedestrian fatality risk is greatly lowered with slower speeds.
Accidents that do occur tend to be slower in speed and sideswipes, rather than T-bone or left-turn crashes.
They reduce auto emissions by eliminating idling at stops. That also makes them quieter because of fewer start-ups and less braking.
Pedestrians must look only one direction and “well-designed ones will have shorter crossing lengths to refuge islands,” Yeates said.
Cities don’t have up-front costs for traffic signals ($100,000-$200,000), or ongoing costs for electricity and maintenance of lights.
The circles can create signature gateways to towns. Carbondale’s, of course, will have a sculpture, but that’s another column that Carbondale trustee Allyn Harvey just wrote.
Mark Lenters, a roundabout expert with GHD Consulting, said roundabouts in Vail and Avon, in particular, saved road capacity that allowed significant development.
In Carbondale’s case, the roundabout is expected to improve traffic flow and reduce backups on 133 as traffic pulls off of Highway 82.
The overall project also includes better pedestrian and bike paths alongside 133 and pedestrian crossings not only at the roundabout, but also at Snowmass Drive, Cowen Drive and Hendrick Drive.
I’m going to make a safety suggestion as a guy who hates to get off my bike at crosswalks: We should walk bikes across the roundabout. It’s easier to stop and harder to fall.
Overall, this sounds pretty good. I do worry about visitors, an important part of our economy, being confused. Yeates agrees. “Just now,” he said after lunch Thursday, “I was behind a car [in a Grand Junction traffic circle] with out-of-state plates and they didn’t seem to know where to go.”
It’s so tempting here to try to make a joke about marijuana tourists. Like, if Avon had recreational sales, those visitors might never go straight.
Randy Essex is editor of the Post Independent.
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