Archive for Thursday, August 15, 2002

Driving in circles

August 15, 2002


Do you have a problem intersection? How about building a roundabout?

Roundabouts, or their junior counterpart, traffic-calming circles, appear to be the traffic control device du jour for Lawrence.

Are vehicles moving too fast in your neighborhood? Are drivers sliding through stop signs? Is traffic backing up at a certain intersection? A traffic-calming circle or a full-fledged roundabout is the answer, according to city officials.

A number of temporary and permanent structures already have cropped up around Lawrence, and the city now is considering another full roundabout at the intersection of 19th Street and Barker Avenue. Why? According to the city's traffic engineer, David Woosley, there are many accidents at the intersection, which currently is controlled by a four-way stop. The number of accidents and the traffic volume at the intersection would justify a traffic signal, Woosley said, but residents of the neighborhood say they prefer a roundabout.

A roundabout is a good solution, he said, because it's too easy for motorists to ignore or slide through a stop sign, but the physical barrier posed by a roundabout forces them to at least slow down. So much for law enforcement.

Neighbors have been concerned for some time about the number of motorists who use Barker Avenue to avoid Massachusetts Street between 15th and 23rd streets. Other traffic-calming devices also are being considered along Barker to slow that traffic. Might there be a way to divert traffic off that street? It seems that if the 19th Street intersection were converted to a two-way stop only for traffic on Barker, the wait at that intersection might encourage more motorists to take another route, while saving the city the cost of constructing a roundabout.

Roundabouts and traffic-calming circles are intended to promote a smooth traffic flow as well as slow traffic. The temporary circles on Harvard Road don't seem to fill that purpose. It's true the barrier posed by the circles causes drivers to slow down, but largely out of uncertainty for who should yield to whom. The recent addition of "yield" signs at all four approaches to the intersection of Harvard Road and Goldfield Drive does little to clarify that situation.

It's perfectly legal to turn left in front of one of the circles, Woosley said, but it's "desirable" for vehicles making a left-turn to go around the circle if there are other vehicles at the intersection at the same time. Of course, it would be physically impossible for a large vehicle  say, a moving van  to turn sharply enough to get around the circle, so it would be forced to turn left in front.

Another kind of large vehicle that would encounter these circles are city fire trucks. Officials of Lawrence-Douglas County Fire and Medical have made no secret of their dislike of roundabouts and traffic-calming circles. In some cases, fire trucks can simply drive over the raised circles, but they sometimes have to back up and maneuver to get through. How would it affect public safety if a roundabout were placed on a thoroughfare as major as 19th Street?

This also raises the question of how the city balances the interests of neighborhood residents with the interests of other residents. Most roundabouts and calming circles have been approved in response to neighborhood initiatives. Neighborhood concerns should be a high priority, but they aren't the only consideration.

It's always good to look at new ways of solving old problems, but just because roundabouts and traffic-calming circles are the latest thing in traffic control, doesn't mean they're the right solution for every problem intersection in Lawrence.

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