The expression “driving in circles” is starting to take on new meaning in Milwaukee lately, and we’re not talking about the Marquette Interchange project.
More and more highway projects throughout the area are incorporating modern roundabouts into their designs: from the Sixth Street Bridge and 25th and Canal streets in Milwaukee’s Menomonee Valley, to Moorland Road south of I-43 in New Berlin, and most recently, the intersection of highways 38 and K in Racine, which opened last November. And this is just the beginning.
In addition to the four roundabouts now in operation in the greater Milwaukee area, 23 more are in the planning stages, according to Patrick Fleming, standards development engineer for the Wisconsin Department of Transportation. A second roundabout at I-43 and Moorland Road is scheduled to break ground this summer. And statewide, about 150 more are expected to be built.
Incredibly popular in Europe, these traffic-regulating designs have made the jump to the United States. Not to be confused with the old-fashioned traffic circles most predominant on the East Coast (like Washington D.C.’s Dupont Circle), which have a large diameter and operate at speeds of 40 to 50 miles per hour, the modern roundabout is smaller and specifically designed to control the speed of drivers.
According to Fleming, the DOT policy is to consider installing a roundabout anytime a traditional intersection is being considered.
“Roundabouts have many advantages,” says Fleming. “The biggest one is probably their impact on driver safety.” Compared with signal-controlled intersections, roundabouts reduce fatalities by 90 percent, injuries by 75 percent, and total crashes by 30 to 40 percent, he says.
“The reason for this reduction in crashes and crash severity is related to the number of conflict points [a signal has 32, a roundabout eight] and the reduced speed at which a vehicle must go through the roundabout,” says Fleming.
One of the biggest obstacles seems to be the skepticism of citizens. Ald. James Witkowiak’s 12th District is home to the Sixth Street roundabout. When that project was being planned, neighborhood meetings resulted in a split consensus.
“Most of the residents who originally opposed to the idea were afraid of the unknown,” says Witkowiak. “The roundabout seems chaotic at first glance.”
These negative reactions tend to change once people actually begin to use the roundabout, though. In an opinion study done by the National Cooperative Highway Research Program, initial opinions of proposed roundabouts were 68 percent negative. But after using them, 73 percent of people had only positive things to say.
It also doesn’t hurt that the overall cost of a roundabout is cheaper than a traditional traffic light-controlled intersection because there are no signals to maintain. Landscaping and the installation ofpublic art in the circle makes them far more aesthetically pleasing as well. In downtown Okauchee in Waukesha County, for example, residents spruced up a roundabout by adding a four-sided clock.
Negotiating a roundabout takes a little practice. But, as one staffer in Milwaukee’s City Hall put it:“If you’re not sure where you want to go, you can just keep driving around the circle until you make up your mind.”