About those roundabouts

One of my unofficial duties as a MnDOT employee is to respond to a near-constant barrage of opinions from my family and friends regarding the condition of our state’s roadways. (My wife, for example, half-jokingly tries to ascribe personal responsibility to me for the congestion she faces on her morning commute.) Interestingly, one of the issues that gets brought up to me most often in private conversations is roundabouts — the circular intersections that are widely praised by engineers but often vilified by a skeptical public.

From a public interest perspective, the verdict on roundabouts is overwhelmingly positive. With very few exceptions, roundabouts have been shown to dramatically reduce both the frequency and seriousness of traffic accidents when compared to other types of intersections. One oft-cited source, the National Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, reports that U.S. intersections converted to roundabouts have experienced a 35-47 percent decrease in crashes and an 72-80 percent decrease in injury crashes (source here). Moreover, because the don’t have stop signs or traffic lights, roundabouts have been found to reduce traffic delays and pollution.

Perhaps not surprisingly, research on these potential benefits has precipitated a rash of roundabout construction. In Minnesota alone, 115 have already been built, with another 39 either planned or under construction, according to the Pioneer Press. Love them or hate them, roundabouts are becoming a fact of life here.

Of course, not everyone loves them. In spite of their stellar  record, roundabouts remain something of a political lightning rod. This article in the Mankato Free Press and this news segment from KSTP provide typical examples of the kind of skepticism officials face when proposing to put in a roundabout. The problem is persistent enough that many officials see a need to develop a public relations game plan. On June 19, the Transportation Research Board is offering a free webinar entitled “Community Outreach: Successful Outcomes for Roundabout Implementation,” designed to help transportation professionals understand and respond to political opposition to roundabouts. It’s free for employees of TRB sponsor organizations (including MnDOT); a $99 registration fee is required for employees of non-sponsors.

For those who are unfamiliar with roundabouts, there are some good resources designed to help people understand their purpose and benefits. Several years ago, the Local Road Research Board produced the video above (along with an accompanying brochure). MnDOT also has a resource page devoted to explaining the use of roundabouts.

Those with more than a passing interest in the subject might also want to check out these recent MnDOT/LRRB-sponsored studies:

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