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Embracing Innovations: Making a Dent in Resistance to Roundabouts; PennDOT’s Journey to Safer Routes

March 25, 2020 08:00 AM
By: Rich Kirkpatrick, PennDOT Bureau of Innovations

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​Moving innovation to reality poses a challenge, perhaps no more so than in preparing and convincing drivers that roundabouts are a welcome traffic improvement.

Far too many drivers in Pennsylvania remember their trips to the New Jersey shore and other Garden State points and encountering dreaded traffic circles, a mishmash of fast moving, seemingly crazed drivers who appeared bent on creating traffic mayhem.

The people at PennDOT have been working hard for several years to make the point that the modern roundabout is as far removed from Jersey traffic circles as Erie is from the Atlantic Ocean.

"The general feedback we get from the public is similar to what other states are getting: People oppose them until they're built, and then they want us to build more of them," said Jeff Bucher, P.E., PennDOT's Central Office roundabout coordinator.

"The main issue with initial public acceptance is the misconception that they are similar to the old traffic circles in New Jersey, many of which have been removed," Bucher said. "The primary differences are that in roundabouts, the entering traffic yields to the circulating traffic, and that they are as small as practical for the design vehicle (typically a semi-tractor trailer), thus making them low speed, and there is no pedestrian access to the center island."

The reaction from the borough manager in Saegertown Borough, Crawford County, is typical of what PennDOT hears.

"While it was painful at times during construction, the wait has certainly been worthwhile," said Borough Manager Charles T. Lawrence Jr., in a letter to PennDOT District 1 after the roundabout in the town was completed. "The 'nay-sayers' and skeptics have been reduced to minimal now that traffic is flowing so smoothly through town."

PennDOT built two roundabouts simultaneously in Saegertown, and the community adjusted to the innovations very successfully.

McMahon Associates prepared a video charting the reaction to a roundabout project it managed in Swarthmore Borough, Delaware County. The video is replete with borough officials and the police chief talking about their initial concerns only to see them cleared away as the project developed. "It filled in a missing piece (in the borough) and is very successful all around," one citizen is quoted as saying.    

PennDOT's former District 4 Community Relations Coordinator James May handled public and media reaction during construction of three adjacent roundabouts on the road approaching Wilkes-Barre/Scranton International Airport. He fielded a call from a senior citizen in Archbald Borough, Lackawanna County, who offered an idea to help ease initial driver confusion on the airport approach through the roundabouts. She said, "Why not paint airplane motifs on the roadway?"

"I told her it was a neat idea," May said. "We did that …  A grandmother had an idea, and it resulted in a really positive story."

May also arranged with a WNEP-TV reporter to try out the roundabouts in a golf cart, explaining how they worked, which resulted in very positive coverage.

PennDOT's District 5 encountered a unique challenge while working on plans for a roundabout at the intersection of U.S. 222 and PA 662 in Richmond Township, Berks County.

The intersection to be replaced was heavily used by local Amish and Old Order Mennonite communities. To ease their concerns, PennDOT District 5 Community Relations Coordinator Ron Young helped organize a special outreach meeting with the communities' members. The meeting was held at the Fleetwood Grange.

"The Amish and Old Order Mennonites were a bit leery, as they need to travel the roundabout using horse and buggies, bicycles and on foot at the same time as passenger vehicles and large trucks," Young said. "The design team found a video of a busy roundabout in Canada with horse and buggies, cars and trucks using it - and showed them the video."

The team also fully explained how the design speed inside a roundabout of 18 to 24 miles per hour is about the same speed as a horse and buggy, so they will travel roughly the same speed as the rest of the traffic in the circle. They also fully explained how a bicyclist has the option of riding through the roundabout, or they can dismount and walk through as a pedestrian.

The $6.6 million project replaced a signalized intersection with a modern roundabout, along with widening U.S. 222 to four lanes at the roundabout approaches. Since its opening in May 2018, the roundabout has seen no major crashes.     

Bucher noted that PennDOT's public involvement outreach varies from project to project, but PennDOT has produced three roundabout brochures (Pubs. 578, 579, 580) as well as videos located on PennDOT's YouTube channel.

"We are currently working on developing additional standard public involvement materials, including a scale model of a typical roundabout for use at public meetings," he added.

PennDOT conducted a crash data analysis last year of the first 11 roundabouts on state routes where there previously were stop signs or signals.

"The data shows them performing even better than the national studies," Bucher said.

A more recent analysis showed that fatalities, injuries and crashes decreased overall at 19 roundabouts at 16 locations.

The key safety benefits to roundabouts are that vehicles speeds are geometrically restricted to below 30 mph, thereby virtually eliminating high speed impacts, which cause the most severe injuries and fatalities, Bucher said.

That translates into a safer environment for pedestrians as well, since a pedestrian has an 80 percent chance of being killed if hit by a vehicle traveling at 40 mph, but only a 40 percent chance of getting killed if hit by a vehicle traveling at 30 mph.

Roundabouts have been supported and encouraged by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) since the early 1990s based on their significant safety and operational benefits over traditional intersections, Bucher said. Roundabouts are a feature of the FHWA's Every Day Counts initiative and reflect the innovations being championed by the State Transportation Innovation Council (STIC). There are now over 4,000 roundabouts throughout the country.

PennDOT built its first roundabout in 2005 and currently has nearly 50 open to traffic on state routes and more than 40 are expected to go to construction in the next three years.

"We seem to be gaining some headway, especially with local governments, but they typically go along with their constituents' perceptions," Bucher said. "The news media has been slowly coming around as well with more positive articles as they start to realize how well they work. They are also endorsed by AARP."

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