OWN VOICE ARTICLE.
I wish Gilda Radner were still alive, because I’d love to hear Rosanne Rosannadanna’s take on the five (5) roundabouts proposed in the new Coastside Transportation Management Plan (aka: the CTMP), which I dubbed “Dis-Connect The Coastside”. I can hear her now:
“What’s all this I hear about ROUNDABOUTS?!?
Don’t you know you can’t get anywhere if you keep driving in circles?”
It sounds crazy, but there are serious people here, including experienced, diligent, intelligent members of the MCC, who have studied this issue and concluded roundabouts are desirable. And there’s a wave of support for this approach in the U.S. But not by me, and increasingly, not in Europe, where they’re now taking them out.
I had friends die in a roundabout accident. A young couple in my ski house. It was night, a wet winter road, on an unlit rural rotary. Their car spun out, flipped, and they were killed. Another college friend, same conditions, different date & location, spun out and totaled his car. Rotaries are typically sloped slightly away from the center to promote drainage off the road surface. Which means cars tend to fly off the center, if they are driven too fast. Obviously, all those friends were driving too fast for conditions. But they were all young, capable, intelligent and sober. I fear similar accidents will happen here, with the large volume of tourist drivers.
Here are the issues I flag for your attention and discuss below:
- Impact on Emergency Evacuation
- Cost, and who pays?
- Suitability for Mid-Coast
- Myths and Other Issues
- What next?
But for busy readers, let me get to the bottom line:
The need for roundabouts stems from population and traffic increases current residents don’t benefit from and don’t need. Roundabout costs are higher, and it looks like we might be asked to pay for someone else’s growth. Travel on the main route will be slowed to 23 mph. Safety for bikers and pedestrians will be worse. The analysis done by proponents is based on out of date, and/or incomplete, traffic data. Traffic-sensitive lights would work better and cost less.
How did we get here? Well, some of us asked for it. The MCC received complaints a while back about adding traffic lights on Hwy 1, so they spent money to get a consultant to review roundabouts, and went through design iterations. Supvr. Horsley was correct when he said “You guys asked for roundabouts.”
However, the UK is quietly replacing roundabouts with traffic lights. The US is doing the exact opposite. Both cite safety and traffic flow. So who is right?
Let’s dive into each point in more detail:
1. Emergency Evacuation:
It’s been well documented that we’re in the 14th worst disaster evacuation location in California, and that we’re in the highest wildfire risk area in San Mateo County, in an earthquake zone, and in a tsunami zone. We’ve seen the Hwy 1 close repeatedly during accidents, and power outages, sometimes defying logic. And Highway 1 is eroding, maybe suddenly so – depending upon the nature of the next emergency. People remember Paradise, which had far more, and larger, roads than we do Coastside, and that ‘the buildings were the fuel’ for that fire. Meanwhile, the new CTMP proposes up to five (5) roundabouts (Table 19), including two on Hwy 92.
Some of the proposed designs admit that fire trucks are unable to make right turns, but my focus is on allowing emergency vehicles fastest possible access/egress, and driving around (or over) roundabouts – especially 3 or more of them – seems dangerous to all concerned. Unless and until we have an independent consultant (meaning, NOT the County and MidPen’s favored firm DKS) assess the comparative impact for evacuation of : a) roundabouts, b) lights, and c) NOTHING, I’m unwilling to further endanger our lives in event of an emergency.
2. Cost, and Who Pays?
The three roundabouts in the Moss Beach/Montara area average a little over $6 million in initial cost1, excluding details such as: extensive grading, land acquisition, retaining walls, cost inflation by time of construction, ongoing maintenance, and annual reserves for future asset replenishment. The 2017 DKS study of a roundabout at Cypress Ave. estimated a signal would cost $700k, which would be about $750k today. Thus, roundabouts would cost about eight (8) times as much as traffic lights.
One cost advantage cited for roundabouts does not apply here – the cost of electricity for operating traffic lights. The roundabouts would have to be illuminated for safety, as stated in the U.S. DOT case study for Madison Wisconsin.2 So there’s an electricity bill either way.
One of the pro-roundabout studies on the MCC website lists roundabouts as having LOWER costs than signals – because the study attributes accident damages as costs and assigns them to the traffic control system. However, even if accident damages might be less, those costs are paid by the drivers and their insurance firms – not the taxpayers. The relevant comparison is taxpayer costs, now and in the future; and signals are cheaper.
There is much more which can be discussed about the costs, but let’s defer those details to another article reviewing the entire expensive CTMP. For now, note that the CTMP is stating a “fair share” of the costs would be 80% for existing residents and only 20% for new joiners. Yet the costs would not be required if no new traffic were allowed. More on fairness and accountability, later.
A touted benefit of roundabouts is safety. One quote is: “with roundabouts you need a tow truck, not an ambulance” because of the lower risk of head-on collisions.” However, the injury risk to bicyclists and pedestrians is greater. Cyclists have a demonstrably harder time with roundabouts. Research suggests that on large urban roundabouts, cyclists have an injury rate 10-15 times that of motorists.
In the UK they found the following:
Three roundabouts in the northern Gosforth suburb rank fourth, seventh and 10th worst for injuries caused by motor vehicle collisions. In terms of injuries to cyclists, however, they’re one-two-three.
“Roundabouts are brilliant at moving car traffic, but not a safe space for people who cycle or are crossing on foot,”
Note that in the 2017 DKS comparative study of alternative traffic controls at Cypress, “…converting an intersection into a multi-lane roundabout increases the total amount of crashes by 6%.” So, while the crashes will presumably be less deadly, the extra decision-making and confusion caused by a series of roundabouts with people trying to enter, exit, drive ¾ round for left turns, and drive straight through, all at the same time, will increase crashes and curb hits.
Further, that same DKS study acknowledged that “…the National Cooperative Highway Research Program advises that safety benefits appear to decrease with increasing ADT (average daily traffic)”. And what we have here is an increasing amount of traffic with a dominant directional flow (Hwy 1). Roundabouts in semi-rural areas, where two state routes with similar traffic intersect, do provide safety benefits, but NOT in an area with the level of dominant traffic direction and congestion we’ll face on the Mid-Coast.
4. Suitability for Mid-Coast
The current proposal is for three (3) roundabouts in a mile and a half stretch of road. With several side streets along the way. The dominant traffic flow, on Hwy. 1 is fourteen (14!!) times as large as the side streets studied.
“Roundabouts work successfully in many areas to help with the flow of traffic, but not all. We recently had one put in and it is a disaster. I never waited more than one signal to get through the intersection. Because it is a road in the middle of nowhere and all the traffic is from people coming home from work in one direction, it ties up the roundabout for a half a mile. People are desperately making u-turns to get out of the logjam that is a half mile long caused by the one side flying through the roundabout causing the other side to back up. I have gone through this intersection for 30 years and never seen an accident till now.”
And the situation described above is likely here, because the main Hwy 1 commuters will occupy the roundabout and prevent side streets from entering, and increase frustration for all, especially when someone tries to ‘butt in’ to the intersection.
The design speeds for these roundabouts are 23 mph or less, which means that 100% of the time, even during off hours, someone used to driving 45 to 55 mph to get to or from Half Moon Bay will have to slow to 23mph again, and again, and again. All the time. Especially for tired drivers at night, that can’t be a good idea.
A most relevant comparison is (was) the three roundabouts on Alewife Parkway between Cambridge and Arlington, Mass. They were placed in a one mile stretch, but as traffic built up over the years, they had to pull out the third roundabout and replace it with signals.
As the Brits have noted: “Roundabouts, he says, cause tailbacks unless the traffic on each approach road is equal. … “At morning rush hour, people driving west to east get a free run through roundabout, but those giving way while trying to travel from the north into the city centre face huge tailbacks,” he says. “A roundabout doesn’t give us sufficient control of the network to control priority and demand.” A series of lights tied to traffic sensors will be better able to balance loads and ensure the best flow. But as far as I can tell, this was never studied in the most recent study.
A further subtle drawback to the roundabouts is the increased congestion on all the surrounding Montara/Moss Beach streets which will NOT have roundabouts. Since there will be a continuous stream of traffic through the roundabouts, how are people trying to enter from other side streets, especially for left turns, ever going to get out onto Hwy 1? At present, there are middle turn lanes in a number of locations. If there were traffic sensitive signals instead of roundabouts at the major intersections, they would provide occasional breaks in traffic which would allow nearby side streets to clear.
Note also that I, and others like me in Montara who prefer to avoid traffic slowdowns, will be discouraged from shopping or visiting in HMB. We’ll go to Pacifica, which is equidistant, but quicker to reach. HMB businesses might want to consider that in assessing the new traffic plan.
Finally, a series of lit roundabouts is going to bring light pollution to neighboring properties which are currently able to see stars at night. It’s likely to get lost in the tumult, but that is one reason some of us like living here – you can actually see the night sky.
5. Myths and Other Issues:
Let’s examine popular claims and counter-claims regarding roundabouts and signals:
|1||Roundabouts are cheaper than signals because they don’t need electricity.||These roundabouts, per government case study recommendations, will require overhead lights for safety. Thus, no electricity savings.|
|2||Signals cause large backups when the power goes out.||Modern signal intersections with LED lights, charged with solar panels, and equipped with backup batteries, make lights immune to power outages.|
|3||Roundabouts are better for traffic flow.||In some instances, such as on busy main roads, cars entering from the minor road would have to wait much longer for an acceptable gap to enter than it would to wait for a red light. In these instances, traffic lights are a better option.|
|4||Let’s use roundabouts everywhere!||1. Depending to the zealotry of the relevant traffic authority, if roundabouts are placed at every intersection on a major road for a considerable length of road, it can be very frustrating for drivers on the major road. In this situation the roundabout can slow traffic. 2. Roundabouts are only good for equal distribution of incoming traffic. As soon as one road feeds more traffic it will starve the other roads.|
|5||Roundabouts are safer.||UK cities have decided that signal junctions are better for traffic flow and safer for cyclists.It’s also worth mentioning that roundabouts, despite their efficiency in decreasing accidents in heavily-congested areas, are truly harrowing — often fatal — for the blind & impaired.|
|6||Shaw of the FHA, whose traffic simulations found that roundabouts would move more self-driving car traffic than signalised intersections. “The future looks good for roundabouts, if and when autonomous vehicles become a reality,”||MIT simulations found that autonomous cars don’t need signals at all, and function better without traffic controls. Roundabouts will just slow things down compared to traditional intersections.
|7||“A roundabout is an oasis in tarmac. It gives councils an opportunity to put a garden in the middle of a road junction.”A light barrier in the center also helps reduce glare from oncoming motorists.||Emergency Vehicles can’t go straight over the crown of a roundabout island with a scenic garden, delaying emergency response.
|8||Emergency vehicles have difficulty navigating roundabouts at speed.|
|9||Intersections provide street corners – which provide better opportunities for the community and commerce that cluster there.||Roundabouts in Moss Beach will disrupt the parallel shopping complex for both pedestrian and vehicular traffic.|
|10||Cyclists have a demonstrably harder time with roundabouts. Research suggests that on large urban roundabouts, cyclist have an injury rate 10-15 times that of motorists.||
Ghost Bike Memorial to dead bicyclist.
|11||Roundabouts cause tailbacks unless the traffic on each approach road is equal. “A roundabout doesn’t give us sufficient control of the network to control priority and demand.”||Traffic on Route 1 is 14 times greater than expected for side streets. This is an issue we can expect if roundabouts are used here.|
|12||“Roundabouts are brilliant at moving car traffic, but not a safe space for people who cycle or are crossing on foot,”||“Inside the Civic Centre of Newcastle City Council, head of transport investment Graham Grant spreads out a map of the city’s roads. Accident black-spots are highlighted: an algorithm has ranked roundabouts and junctions according to casualties and injuries. Three roundabouts in the northern Gosforth suburb rank fourth, seventh and 10th worst for injuries caused by moor vehicle collisions. In terms of injuries to cyclists, however, they’re one-two-three.” Most Dangerous.|
|13||Improved safety?||VIDEO: Car goes airborne after crashing into roundabout in California|
6. So, What Next?
While we are limiting this article to a discussion of just the suitability of roundabouts for Hwy 1 traffic control, let’s note for further discussion and evaluation other aspects of the CTMP:
- There needs to be, and so far has not been disclosed, a comparative traffic evaluation of roundabouts vs. traffic sensitive signals (and perhaps other alternatives) along the entire roadway from tunnel to Hwy 92 – not just studies of isolated intersections. Perhaps because the MCC supported roundabouts and residents previously opposed traffic lights, the County and its consultants thought it unnecessary to actually research the comparative impacts of each, beyond a single out-of-date study at a single intersection. If residents are actually going to be dealing with population and traffic increases, they ought to understand fully the pros and cons of roundabouts and lights of various types rather than having their initial resistance used to lock them into the wrong decision.
- The cost and benefit of the entire CTMP needs to be justified, and funded. And that includes several things currently missing:
- Full costs of roundabout construction, which are acknowledged as missing in the current paper,
- Operating and maintenance costs, also agreed as omitted in the current paper, and
- Perpetual asset replenishment costs for these controls – once they exist they must be replaced as they wear out, and those costs must be included in the decision analysis and the funding plans.
- The entire CTMP must be subject to peer review by a competent engineering firm who is NOT bidding on any of the work and has NOT been involved in the project to date. This is standard practice in any large engineering effort, and certainly $150 million qualifies as “large”. There are deficiencies in the traffic and cost analysis done to date, which will be outlined in subsequent articles, and they must be identified and remedied by parties without the biases of those currently involved (e.g. County staff, DKS, Mid-Pen).
- I suggest an effort of this magnitude should be subject to a vote. It will have massive consequences for the live-ability and visit-ability of the Mid-Coast for generations to come. Once the unknowns above are completed and corrected in a better study, taxpayers and residents should be asked to agree, rather than have planners and real estate interests in distant offices dictate your future cost and quality of life.
As I said at the outset, there are well-meaning public servants here who have sponsored the idea of roundabouts. My research leads me to disagree with their recommendations. The best answer needs to come from traffic professionals, and the work done to date is demonstrably incomplete. Let’s get that homework done, present the complete evidence, and THEN let the voters decide.