Going in circles: Roundabouts come round again

Remember the big plans a couple of years ago for a roundabout at the intersection of Preston Avenue and Ridge Street? That project may have faded into the woodwork, but the roundabout is still the darling of progressive traffic planners.

Delegate Mitch Van Yahres became a roundabout fan while working on photo red legislation at dangerous intersections. "Mitch just loves roundabouts," confirms City Councilor Meredith Richards. He's submitted a resolution to the General Assembly for VDOT to look at using roundabouts whenever possible.

"They reduce accidents tremendously, and they keep traffic moving," he enthuses. "I think that roundabouts should be part of the discussion at every intersection."

Roundabouts are not to be confused with the traffic circles and rotaries that drivers plunge into at their own risk.

The modern roundabout is a kinder, gentler intersection, where entering vehicles must yield to those already in the circle, unlike traffic circles, where cars already in– traveling at higher speeds– are supposed to yield to or weave out of the way of those entering.

Van Yahres calls Harrison Rue, executive director of the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission, the roundabout expert. Rue says the traffic plans reduce fatal and incapacitating accidents almost 90 percent over stop signs and traffic lights. And injury accidents drop 76 percent, according to a study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. "The fact that people are moving slower and are more alert reduces accidents," explains Rue.

In hands-on transportation forums, Rue says, local residents identified "50 or 100 potential locations for roundabouts."

VDOT currently is designing a roundabout for the Charlottesville Albemarle Regional Airport. "That's a good one because everyone is annoyed by that intersection," says Rue.

The Jefferson Area Board of Aging has initiated a study exploring putting three roundabouts on Hillsdale Drive because of the high elderly population and high volume of traffic, according to Rue.

"It's a good connector road, but not a great neighborhood road to be able to cross," he says. "Pedestrians have been hit and injured."

Another potential roundabout site mentioned by Van Yahres is the Ivy Road and Emmet Street intersection. "He's dying to get one there," says Richards.

"They've got a terrific problem at that intersection," says Van Yahres– 60,000 cars a day pass through it. And that's before the new UVA parking garage behind the Cavalier Inn gets finished.

"It's a major entrance to the university," he adds. "It could be landscaped in the center and provide more pedestrian safety."

Not everyone shares Van Yahres' enthusiasm for a roundabout at that particular intersection. Activist Kevin Cox disagrees that a roundabout is safer for pedestrians, and he opposes one there for the same reason that advocates want one.

"They don't stop traffic, and the continuous flow makes it very difficult for pedestrians, particularly disabled ones," says Cox, whose wife is blind.

The American Council for the Blind shares the same concern. Because crosswalks are located on the street entering the roundabout and not at a corner, they're harder for the blind to find. And because roundabouts are designed to keep traffic moving, that continuous noise makes it harder for blind pedestrians to listen for a gap in traffic to alert them when to cross.

The safety of disabled pedestrians "would always be a problem," says Van Yahres, "but no more so than at any intersection now."

Neighborhood development director Jim Tolbert has other concerns with a roundabout at Ivy and Emmet. "Given the amount of traffic and the tight physical constraints there, I don't see how you can put one in," he says. "But engineers might prove me wrong."

Cox says he's not against roundabouts per se, but "they're contraindicated in areas with high pedestrian traffic." And at the Ivy Road and Emmet Street location, "I think they want one there just to have a place to put a statue."

Councilor Richards thinks a roundabout could work there, but notes, "The issue will be pedestrians and the blind and disabled."

She also mentions that city staff is looking at the suitability of roundabouts at Hydraulic and Emmet, where shopping center Albemarle Place is planned, and at Emmet and the 250 Bypass.

So whatever happened to the Preston-McIntire roundabout plan? Rue says discussions on that project took place before he got here in late 2001, but he heard that it became too expensive and too complicated.

"You usually don't go for the most complicated place first," he advises. "Instead, you try it out someplace like the airport."

Both Van Yahres and Rue stress the importance of educating the public when a new concept like a roundabout is introduced. "You have to go through a public process before deciding to use a new tool," says Rue.

"Modern roundabouts work pretty well," Richards observes. "They're not Dupont Circle."