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Archive for Tuesday, October 28, 2003

Wrong solution

City commissioners should look again at policies on traffic-calming circles and roundabouts.

October 28, 2003

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Tucked away in the consent agenda for tonight's Lawrence City Commission meeting are two items related to the continued march of "traffic-calming devices" across the city.

Rather than simply putting a rubber-stamp on these items, city commissioners owe it to their constituents to discuss a trend that many Lawrence drivers consider to be dangerous as well as a wasteful use of city resources.

First on the agenda, is a resolution to allow for condemnation of property near the intersection of 19th Street and Barker Avenue for "roundabout improvements." City traffic officials have determined that the current four-way stop isn't sufficient to control traffic at this intersection because drivers don't always obey the stop signs. Rather than step up enforcement or order other measures, they have determined that erecting a physical obstacle in the form of a roundabout, will prevent such violations and smooth the flow of traffic in the intersection.

Although residents of the Barker Neighborhood say they were consulted about the intersection, a roundabout was only the least objectionable alternative they received, not necessarily their first choice.

Further down on the consent agenda is a recommendation from the Traffic Safety Commission to install a temporary "traffic-calming circle" at the intersection of Eldridge and Goldfield streets in west Lawrence. Presumably this structure will be similar to the circles that were installed, then removed, then reinstalled on Harvard Road at its intersections with Goldfield Street and Grove Drive.

The circles were installed in response to the legitimate concern of neighborhood residents about the dangerous speed of traffic on Harvard Road. The situation calls for action, but are the traffic-calming circles the answer?

They certainly present an obstacle that makes many drivers slow down, but the drivers who must slow down the least to negotiate the circles are those who are going straight on Harvard -- exactly the people the circles were intended to affect. Meanwhile, drivers already slowing down to make turns at those intersections are put into a state of right-of-way limbo.

Because they are traffic-calming circles, city officials say, the rules of roundabouts don't apply. The circles also are too small to adequately accommodate the system of yielding to someone already in the circle. Traffic approaching the circles from all four directions is greeted by "Yield" signs. Who yields to whom? If a westbound car is trying to make a left turn, does it yield to an eastbound car or turn in front of it, hoping that it yields?

If two cars arrive at the circle at the same time, who yields? In an uncontrolled intersection, Kansas law gives the right of way to the driver on the right, but the yield signs and the circle confuse the issue. Moreover, city officials have said that because it's a circle, not a roundabout, it's legal for drivers to turn left in front of the circle rather than going around, which works if no one else is approaching the intersection but could be a dangerous move if someone is.

The circles create dangerous uncertainty that may slow drivers down but also impedes the smooth flow of traffic. In addition, they hamper the movement of fire trucks and other large vehicles that occasionally have business in the neighborhood.

Why not deal specifically with the need to slow traffic on Harvard Road by installing stop signs or traffic humps, similar to the one in front of the Lawrence Arts Center?

Rather than simply accepting these recommendations to expand the use of this current rage in traffic control, city commissioners should look again at the use of roundabouts and traffic-calming circles and possible alternatives that could solve the same problems in a less expensive and safer way.

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