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How to Get Public Support for Roundabouts

by Kevin G. on March 20, 2014

Everyone is in favor of roundabouts, right? They are safer, they alleviate traffic congestion, and they are aesthetically pleasing. So, what’s the problem? 
The problem is the unknown, especially in areas where roundabouts have not been built.  This lack of understanding can lead to a public backlash and prevent you from ever getting your roundabout project off the ground.
Several years ago, I was invited to give a presentation at an out-of-state county engineers’ conference. Immediately following my presentation, an engineer from the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) presented on roundabouts. Being from an area that has been very progressive with roundabouts, I soon became a co-presenter and answered numerous questions regarding how roundabouts affect the public.
That presentation, along with the numerous conversations I’ve had over the last few years, prompted me to tackle the topic of how to get public support for roundabouts. The problems or concerns do not lie in the engineering, but instead are centered on the public’s perception and understanding of roundabouts. Let’s face it, in many areas, roundabouts are a new idea and new ideas can be scary if not properly presented and supported.
As engineers, we would love to discuss and debate the technical aspects of roundabouts. You know, exciting topics (“tongue-in-cheek”) like the reduction of cues for left hand turns and proper designs reducing right-of-way acquisitions.
Asleep yet?  This is not what our clients or the public needs to know about roundabouts. Our clients need to know what concerns the public has and how to address those concerns.
How do you propose a roundabout solution for your community? 
The first thing you need to do is address the communities concerns head on. The following is a list of several of the most common concerns:
1.      Is the roundabout needed; and will it even improve traffic?
2.      Are roundabouts safe?
3.      Is it hard to change driver behavior regarding roundabouts?
4.      Are roundabouts cost effective?
Let’s address these common and legitimate concerns one by one.
Is the roundabout needed; and will it even improve traffic?
This is not a yes/no question. Like all engineering solutions, roundabouts have a time and a place. An experienced design engineering firm who is proficient in traffic analysis will need to let you know if your intersection can be improved with a roundabout.  I know from personal experience, when roundabouts are designed and placed properly, they provide a tremendous reduction in traffic and congestion. One intersection by my house went from a 10- 15 vehicle cue during rush hour to a 0-2 car cue during that same time. Your design engineer can give you specifics on how the traffic will improve.
Are roundabouts safe? 
Unlike the previous question, the answer to this question is a simple yes! No roadway design is 100% safe and accident free. However, much research has shown that collisions not only go down with roundabouts, but the collisions that do occur have fewer injuries and damage. The reason for the improved safety is actually quite logical. Crashes at roundabouts are not head on. Instead, they occur at angles because of the flow of the traffic entering the roundabout. This type of collision is the reason for a reduction in injuries and damage.
Is it hard to change driver behavior regarding roundabouts?
Roundabouts present a challenge because they are different. They are different from what we are used to and different from what we are comfortable with. So yes, there is definitely a learning curve. However, consider that 5 years ago almost no one had a smart phone or a DVR. Now almost all of us do. Simply put, the public will adjust and typically will fairly quickly. Just like any advancement, there will be some resistance to change. However, once the change has been made and implemented, no one ever wants to go back.
Are roundabouts cost effective? 
A case can definitely be made for the cost effectiveness of roundabouts. Yes, there will always be a cost for an improvement. So, if you are comparing a roundabout cost to the existing four-way stop, yes there’s a cost. However, when compared to traditional roadway improvements such as; turn lanes, accel/decel lanes, and traffic signals, they can be very cost effective. When considering the cost of a roundabout, you need to strongly consider the long term maintenance costs. There is no need to replace signals, signal lights, signal loops, etc. Basically, once installed, there is little to no maintenance for roundabouts. Additionally, many new studies have shown that roundabouts actually help your community go green. That’s right, there is a tremendous reduction in fuel costs due to the virtual elimination of starting and stopping that is associated with traditional intersections.
Now that you have the answers to some of the primary concerns to roundabouts, you are ready to communicate this information with the public. This information can be conveyed through public meetings designed to discuss community improvements. We often assist our customers, not only with the design of roundabouts, but also the implementation. We have attended many public meetings to discuss the benefits of roundabouts in an effort to help communicate with the public, and we have found this a very effective way to get public support for roundabouts.
One last thing you need to keep in mind. Once roundabouts have made their way into your community, the public will love them so much that the next challenge becomes explaining that you can’t put a roundabout at EVERY intersection. Perhaps the next blog will be on how to inform the public that roundabouts aren’t the only solution.
Tagged roundabouts