Finley Vinson has advice for city officials considering installing their first roundabout: Find the city’s worst intersection, the one everyone hates, the one that can only be improved. Put the roundabout there.
It’s advice, said Vinson, director of the Conway Street & Engineering Department, that was shared with then-Mayor Tab Townsell and then-city engineer Ronnie Hall as they were researching a roundabout as a solution to problems at the complicated intersection of Tyler and Winfield streets and Washington Avenue. “At the time, this was one of the most hated intersections in town,” Vinson said.
At the intersection, at the northwest corner of the Hendrix College campus, two unaligned streets — Winfield and Tyler — crossed Washington Avenue, and two traffic signals just a few yards apart directed traffic. The roundabout that the city installed in 2005 replaced those signals with an elegant design that kept traffic flowing and safe.
Conway now has 23 roundabouts and serves as an inspiration to other city planners and engineers seeking a solution to congested or confusing intersections. Roundabouts have sprouted up in Fayetteville and Jonesboro. They can be found in Little Rock and North Little Rock. The $16 million widening of Alcoa Road in Benton includes four of them. Even a small town like Piggott is studying their use.
A roundabout, as described by the Federal Highway Administration, is a circular street intersection in which traffic travels counterclockwise around a center island. The vehicles entering the roundabout yield to the traffic already circulating within it, and the curving nature of the design forces lower vehicle speeds, usually 15 to 25 mph.
Traffic engineers, city planners and others love roundabouts (not to be confused with rotaries or traffic circles; see glossary) for a number of reasons. According to the FHWA, they’re:
► Safer. Roundabouts result in a greater than 90 percent reduction in fatalities, a 76 percent reduction in injuries and a 35 percent reduction in all crashes.
► Efficient, reducing delay and increasing traffic flow.
► More environmentally friendly. Because vehicles don’t stop in roundabouts and don’t have to accelerate quickly, they spend less time idling, cutting pollution and fuel use.
► Cheaper, at least in the long run. Although roundabouts sometimes require the acquisition of more right of way, they require no signal equipment to install and maintain.
But what about drivers? How do they feel about roundabouts? Vinson and other traffic engineers interviewed by Arkansas Business said that, almost universally, once drivers overcome their skepticism and get used to them, they like them. Recent comments on an article about the Alcoa Road project on the website BentonProud.com, a blog maintained by the city of Benton, illustrate the driver divide:
- “When all is said and done, the change to roundabouts will be an adjustment, but one well worth it.”
- “This is by far the dumbest and most egregious waste of funds this city has ever had.”
Fayetteville has built four roundabouts and two mini-roundabouts, with its first one opening in 2012 at an existing four-way stop at Futrall Drive and North Hills Boulevard near Washington Regional Medical Center.
“It’s really functioned well, handling the ebb and flow of traffic,” said Chris Brown, Fayetteville city engineer. “That’s really the beauty of the roundabout. As things change, as the traffic increases or as it decreases, it really handles that ebb and flow much better than a signal does.”
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But the public was initially skeptical. “We got a few jokes about being glad it was near the hospital, so they wouldn’t have far to go when they ran into each other,” Brown said. “It was really interesting because you read the literature, what other cities have gone through — everybody says it’s going to be a disaster,” he said, “and then the public perception once it’s in, it’s very positive.”
Little Rock now has more than 20 roundabouts, with its first installed in 2001 at the intersection of Romine Road and 36th Street, said Jon Honeywell, director of the Little Rock Public Works Department.
“There’s a lot of them out in west Little Rock, in the newer residential subdivisions,” Honeywell said. Real estate developers are responsible for these. “They’re using those quite a bit now for their intersections just because of their traffic-calming effects,” he said, adding that maintenance of them was also easier.
“When conditions are correct, they’re much safer,” Honeywell said. “They actually have better capacity than traffic signals,” adding, “Crash rates are reduced and those accidents that do occur tend to be at a much slower speed and they’re not that T-bone-type collision. They tend to be more of a glancing” collision.
Roundabouts have been so successful in Conway, that the city now has a “roundabouts-first policy, which means that when considering any kind of improvement to an intersection, we always consider a roundabout first,” said Vinson, the Conway engineer. “We have to be convinced that a roundabout won’t work in order to consider something else.”
For him, the greater safety of roundabouts is compelling. “There’s not much that a transportation agency can do to improve safety other than installing a roundabout,” Vinson said. Half of all vehicle accidents happen at intersections, “so if I can make intersections safer, I’m saving people’s lives,” Vinson said. “We’ve never had a fatality at a roundabout.”
In Little Rock, a typical roundabout costs about $500,000 to $600,000, Honeywell said.
McClelland Consulting Engineers of Little Rock has developed something of a specialty as a designer of roundabouts. It has designed at least 20, though not all have been built, said Maneesh Krishnan, assistant manager of the firm’s transportation department.
More municipalities throughout the state are studying roundabouts as solutions for intersections that experience a high number of accidents or have issues with traffic flow, he said.
Thirteen years after Conway constructed its first roundabout, the intersections have become something of a badge for the city, and the Conway Area Chamber of Commerce has made the installation of large-scale public art within the city’s roundabouts part of its recently launched capital campaign.
For Vinson, while the function of roundabouts is paramount, there’s something to be said for their form. “They’re also beautiful. I mean, I’m an engineer, so it doesn’t even make my list, but a lot of people in Conway think they’re beautiful.”
• Roundabout. This is a usually circular street intersection in which traffic travels counterclockwise around a center island. The vehicles entering the roundabout yield to the traffic already circulating within it, and the curving nature of the design forces lower vehicle speeds, usually 15 to 25 mph.
• Mini-roundabout. A circular intersection smaller than a roundabout, a mini-roundabout has a traversable center, a central island that allows large vehicles like buses to pass over them.
• Traffic circle. Traffic circles, which include a raised island in the middle of an intersection, are seen most often in residential neighborhoods as a traffic “calming” tool and are meant to be used in areas of lower traffic volume.
• Rotary. Rotaries are much larger circular intersections and can include multiple lanes of traffic and signal lights. The main difference betwen a rotary and a roundabout is that you choose your lane before you enter a roundabout. Switching lanes within a rotary isn't just common, but also encouraged.