Municipal Law Alert, May 2008
The environment has become the focus of many media campaigns. The airwaves are full of advertisements imploring people to “go green” or conserve resources. A frequent target of “green” initiatives is automobile travel.
Environmental concerns are one of the driving factors behind a traffic control model that is being considered in many municipalities: the roundabout. Roundabouts serve as a substitute for the more traditional stop sign, traffic light or turn lane systems at intersections. Modern roundabouts are different from traffic circles. Traffic circles are infamous in European countries and often involve two-way traffic with the entering traffic having the right of way. Roundabouts only involve a single stream of traffic being routed around a central island and entering traffic must yield to the central traffic. Locally, there are examples of roundabouts located near Hudson at the intersection of Highway 35 and Hanley Road and in Rice Lake.
Environmental groups support roundabouts because they reduce the number of vehicle starts and stops and vehicle idling time. These reductions in turn reduce fuel consumption and air pollution.
Significantly for municipalities, roundabouts are also supported by the Wisconsin Department of Transportation due to advantages of safety and efficiency. If a municipal intersection with a state highway needs to be improved or rebuilt, the Department of Transportation will seriously consider roundabouts in lieu of traffic signaling.
The most common cited advantages of roundabouts are measurable reductions in the number of accidents, continuous traffic flow and reduced delay during peak travel periods. In addition, roundabouts eliminate the costs associated with the maintenance of signals and providing power to operate signals.
While there are advantages to roundabouts, there are also downsides to their use. Public perceptions of roundabouts can be negative. A certain amount of driver education is necessary for drivers to learn how to appropriately navigate a roundabout. Emergency vehicles can no longer preempt signal control and move rapidly through an intersection. There are additional maintenance costs associated with central island landscaping. Furthermore, because they involve more road bed being laid down, construction costs are initially higher, along with the costs for right of way. Larger vehicles may have difficulty navigating a roundabout if the size is too small. Finally, pedestrians will have a longer travel path.
There is no clear answer to whether a roundabout should be installed at an intersection. What is clear is that municipalities will be hearing a lot more about roundabouts in the future.