Roundabouts: Proceed with Caution

It seems as if we woke up one morning to discover that someone, somewhere, decided it would be a good idea to build five roundabouts on Division Street. For those who did not attend a design charrette, or follow the process, it was a bizarre bit of news. The city was serious about tearing up four intersections and creating one new one, and making all of them roundabouts. It was as if the city commission nonchalantly decided to paint all government buildings hot pink.

Roundabout supporters on the city commission and elsewhere recited facts about the advantages of roundabouts: fewer accidents, fewer fatalities, they're easier for pedestrians to cross, they create slower and less noisy traffic, and besides, everybody else is doing it.

One problem standing in their way? Studies indicate that before a roundabout is built, two-thirds of the public oppose them; one-third support them. But after a roundabout is up and running, another third of the public is won over, and then the numbers shift: two-thirds like the roundabout, and only one-third is left unhappy about the new traffic gizmo.

Recognizing this, the city brought in roundabout advocate Ian Lockwood to educate citizens about the magic of roundabouts. This is akin to bringing in Donald Trump to speak about smart growth in downtown Traverse City. While Lockwood can speak from personal experience about many successful roundabouts, citizens and decision makers need more unbiased information.

Roundabouts on Division Street will supposedly make it easier for pedestrians to cross from adjacent neighborhoods to get to the Munson Medical Center and the restaurants, shops, condos, and events at The Village at Grand Traverse Commons. But two authoritative figures from Michigan State University who have studied pedestrian safety in roundabouts have points worth listening to, as well.

Tom Malek is an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at MSU with a Ph.D. in Transportation; he says roundabout designs cause a blind spot for drivers who are unable to see bicyclists approaching from the right rear. He cites increased accidents at the modern roundabout on campus, and says roundabouts don't belong in a walkable community culture, although he has recommended them for intersections with little or no pedestrian traffic.

Michael Hudson, director of the MSU Resource Center for Persons with Disabilities, says vision-impaired pedestrians find roundabouts unsafe to cross because they only hear a continuous whirl of noise – an issue that wound up in an Oakland County court under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Oakland lost, and part of the settlement calls for the county to install special safety equipment so that pedestrians – with or without disabilities – can activate traffic signals to stop traffic. Hmmm … that sounds similar to a system already in place at three of the five intersections in question along Division Street.

Studies do indicate that roundabouts reduce the number of fatal accidents. However, that is not an issue along Division Street. According to the Office of Highway Safety Planning, between 2005 and 2009 there was only one fatal traffic accident in Traverse City, and that was on Grandview Parkway, nowhere near an intersection. (By the way, the intersection with the most accidents in 2009 – 40 of them – was Fourteenth and Division streets. None were fatal.

Roundabouts may work in Traverse City, but I'll withhold my judgment until we at least see a computer model, with accurate analysis, that fairly compares Division Street to similar streets with similar traffic counts, and similar seasonality and similar climate.

If roundabout supporters want to win over public opinion, they'll have to put aside the sales literature and A) define exactly what they're trying to accomplish, and B) conduct a thorough and fair study of how one, or up to five roundabouts will improve life for drivers and pedestrians along state highway M-37/Division Street in Traverse City.