Roundabouts have been gaining popularity in Northeast Ohio over the past decade, even if the public doesn’t always consider them to be a well-rounded solution.
A listener asked “OH Really?” to find out about the evidence that they're safer than traditional intersections. We looked into the circular logic to see if it is a better way to make traffic go-round.
In the 1985 film “National Lampoon’s European Vacation,” Clark Griswold -- played by Chevy Chase – gets trapped in a multi-lane traffic circle in London. Repeated trips past Big Ben and Parliament become a constant source of annoyance. It’s the kind of thing that makes Alice Ramian nervous. A roundabout is slated to open next month right in front of the supermarket she frequents in the City of Green.
“I don’t care for roundabouts if they’re more than one lane. Because when there’s two lanes and you have to get into an inner lane and people aren’t paying attention and then they cut over in front of you and you end up going around the roundabout a couple of times. But the single ones are very simple to navigate.”
The city started installing roundabouts a decade ago, and has three up-and-running. Six more are slated
for construction in the next five years. But the single-lane roundabouts in Green are different from the large, multi-lane traffic circle which trapped the fictional Griswold family in London. City Engineer Paul Pickett explains as he views the construction of the new roundabout near the supermarket.
“They don’t have the same engineering characteristics. There was an evolution – it started in the United Kingdom – they had a lot of circular intersections as well but were trying to figure out how to make them safer. And through a lot of iterative experimenting with geometry and everything, they decided that if you make them small enough and narrow enough where people really have to slow down, you can really make them a lot safer.”
Round or square?
Why not control traffic with a traditional intersection instead of a roundabout?
“They reduce the number of conflict points at an intersection. A conventional four-way intersection has 32 conflict points. You could draw a diagram and see what that means, but a roundabout converts that into just eight conflict points. You’re basically turning everything to a right turn, and you’re either going to have a rear-end accident at either approaches, or a side-swipe accident as you enter.”
Basically, it’s better to have some scrapes on a vehicle than a head-on T-bone collision, according to Justin Chesnic. He’s spokesman for the Ohio Department of Transportation’s District 4, which covers the northeast corner of the state.
“They’re not perfect, you’re still going to have crashes in roundabouts. But what studies have shown is about an 80 percent reduction in those serious crashes.”
Right now, his department is building a roundabout in Mahoning County and is almost done with two in Lake Township.
“There’s a couple hundred roundabouts within the state of Ohio. On the state-maintained routes, we’re looking at somewhere between 45 and 50. Last year, we built a roundabout that’s being maintained by the City of Twinsburg, up on State Route 91. The City of Green in this area has built roundabouts as well, like on State Route 241 and Steese Road. They’ve also built and are maintaining one on State Route 619 and Pickle Road that just finished last fall.”
Safety and cost savings
Most traffic circles and roundabouts are managed by the cities where they are located. Green has built – or is building -- so many that the Summit County Sherriff’s Office said the city is “ahead of the curve.” City Engineer Paul Pickett said the advantage -- aside from safety -- is cost.
“What it does save us is the maintenance on traffic signals that we would otherwise have. You can end up building quite a bit of pavement to make a signalized intersection work. When we do cost analyses on both, they really come out equal," Pickett said.
“The one downside to roundabouts that is most obvious to us: if you do have to perform any maintenance work, it’s a lot harder to do. You can’t just put a flagger out there and have people go around you.”
Still, he said the large green space in the center is something that appeals to people.
“We basically love them because we’ve proven to ourselves – and at least some of our community – that they do work. Folks aren’t crazy about them because it’s a new thing, it’s confusing to a lot of people, and I suppose one of the bigger complaints we hear is, ‘well they’re really not bad if everybody knew how to drive them.’”
Casey Kelley from Green said she does know “how to drive them.”
“[I] lived in Goodyear Heights, so I did the Tallmadge Circle all the time. And these new ones aren’t that terribly difficult. They’re much easier than waiting in the long stop sign that used to be right there. The one on Rt. 619 and Pickle has already helped. [Previously], on a Sunday, you could find traffic backed up over the bridge that crosses over I-77, on Rt. 619.”
And she also eventually got used to driving in Tallmadge Circle.
“The reason Tallmadge was daunting is because of how large it was. There’s always the joke of ‘there’s Big Ben again’ if you keep missing your exit.”
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Correction: This article has been updated to fix a misspelling of the last name of the character Chevy Chase played in the "Vacation" movies.