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Meet the urban roundabout (and don’t freak out)

Mark McCulloch
Washtenaw County

People who live in Europe know what to do when they’re driving along and come to a roundabout.

They've been a fixture in road design there for many years.

Michigan drivers are starting to get more familiar with roundabouts. And now, there’s a new kind to get used to: the urban roundabout.

The first two in Washtenaw County recently opened in Ypsilanti.

So what’s the difference?

“It’s about 50 feet less in diameter,” says Mark McCulloch, a senior project engineer with the Washtenaw County Road Commission.

McCulloch says these compact roundabouts offer some advantages: “It’s less land that we need, so ... it translates to fewer impacts to property owners, less expense to purchase the land to build it, and fewer materials needed for construction, which makes it faster to build.”

McCulloch says roundabouts don’t always make sense. Some intersections should still have traffic lights. But when they do make sense, McCulloch says they can be safer.

“It slows everyone down to a point where we’re eliminating those high-speed, T-bone collisions that we’re used to … seeing at the signal intersections.”

Credit Washtenaw County
Washtenaw County
Some helpful roundabout driving tips, courtesy of Washtenaw County.

McCulloch acknowledges there are some downsides to roundabouts. Especially for pedestrians with disabilities like blindness. He says there’s a national discussion underway to investigate remedies for that problem. But he says for most able-bodied pedestrians, roundabouts are actually safer. He says that’s because traffic is only coming from one direction, and cars are generally  moving more slowly.

And for drivers, McCulloch says, the benefit is less waiting.

“When they come up to a light with a lot of congestion, they have to wait multi cycles to get through … they can get through the intersection much faster, especially during off-peak hours.”

As for those drivers for whom the roundabout triggers a wave of anxiety, McCulloch has this advice:

Take your time, be patient, and use your turn signal.

Sarah Hulett is Michigan Public's Director of Amplify & Longform, helping reporters to do their best work.
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