Roundabouts Are Here To Stay, With More On The Horizon
By Craig Manning | May 16, 2021
It’s time for locals to get used to roundabouts. That’s the advice of Grand Traverse County Road Commission (GTCRC) Manager Brad Kluczynski, who tells The Ticker that the trend of roundabout construction in and around Grand Traverse County – and statewide – “is not something that’s going away anytime soon.” In light of in-progress roundabout construction at the intersection of Parsons and Airport Access roads, as well as work slated to start in June on new a roundabout at Four Mile and Hammond, The Ticker takes a closer look at the trend, digging into the numbers to ask the question: Do roundabouts really work?
Proponents of roundabouts say they’re effective at reducing the severity of car accidents and improving traffic flow. According to James Lake, communications representative for the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT), state, national, and even local numbers offer strong evidence for those benefits.
Lake says MDOT’s last big-picture study of Michigan roundabouts occurred in 2011, with the department looking at “21 single-lane roundabouts and 14 double-lane roundabouts across the state.”
“That study showed a 49 percent decrease in total crashes, 79 percent reduction in injury crashes, and 88 percent decrease in fatal and serious injury crashes in single-lane roundabouts,” Lake says. “For double-lanes there was a 17 percent decrease in total crashes, 57 percent decrease in injury crashes, and 38 percent decrease in fatal and serious injury crashes. For traffic flow, there was a sample of roundabouts taken, with a 65.1 to 93.8 percent reduction in delay when comparing before and after travel times at those intersections.”
A follow-up study, Lake notes, “is just getting underway” – and could offer a more representative view of roundabouts and the advantages (or disadvantages) they bring. When MDOT conducted its study in 2011, Lake says there were just 38 roundabouts in the state. Now, there are “at least 168 roundabouts in Michigan…and eight more in development or under construction.”
Several pending roundabouts are right here in northern Michigan. In addition to the Parsons/Airport Access and Hammond/Four Mile roundabouts, Grand Traverse County’s East-West Corridor Transportation Study has recommended two additional ones on Hammond Road (at the Three Mile and Garfield intersections) and two on Keystone Road (at the Cass Road and West River Road intersections). South Airport has also been identified as a spot that could benefit from roundabouts, at intersections with Garfield, Barlow/LaFranier, and Park.
Kluczynski says that just because a roundabout idea was recommended in the corridor study doesn’t necessarily mean it will come to fruition. The county relies on OHM Advisors, a consulting firm, to study intersections that have been flagged as potential roundabout sites. OHM assesses everything from traffic counts to accident data to determine if an intersection is a good candidate for a roundabout.
“They have seen far more examples and far more configurations than we have,” Kluczynski says of OHM Advisors. “We rely on them to do the study to say, ‘The best bet here is to build a roundabout, and this is the design you want.”
Kluczynski continues: “For example, we knew that we were going to do Four Mile and Hammond this summer because we knew – based on car volumes, and based on the backups we were experiencing in mornings and evenings – it was an ideal fit…Keystone and Cass Road, same thing.”
Kluczynski says the county is “waiting on some safety grant money” for a roundabout at the intersection of Potter Road and Garfield, and that the potential Hammond/Three Mile and Hammond/Garfield projects are currently in the feasibility study stages.
As for proof that roundabouts solve traffic problems once built, there isn’t much data yet locally. “We were way behind the curve,” Kluczynski says, noting that the city and county are just in the early stages of embracing roundabouts. Regionally, though, Lake reports that MDOT’s roundabouts are doing their jobs.
In 2013, MDOT built a roundabout in Mesick at the intersection of M-115 and M-37. In the three years leading up to the project (2011-2013), Lake says MDOT tracked 19 crashes at the intersection, including two that resulted in severe injuries, one with more mild injuries, two crashes with “possible injuries,” and 14 collisions that resulted in property damage only. Since 2017, there have been only nine crashes, none of which led to injuries. “In fact, there were no crashes at all in the intersection in 2020,” Lake says.
It’s a similar story at MDOT’s other major northern Michigan roundabout, at the intersection of US-131 and M-186/State Street in Fife Lake. From 2014 to 2018, Lake says there were 26 crashes at the intersection: “one fatal crash, three severe injury crashes, two injury crashes, three crashes with possible injuries, and 17 crashes with property damage only.” Following the roundabout’s 2019 construction, MDOT tracked seven crashes in 2020 (with no injuries reported) and no crashes so far in 2021.
MDOT is also building two roundabouts on M-37 south of Chum’s Corner, at the intersections of Blair Townhall Road and Vance Road. The Blair Townhall Road intersection has seen 24 crashes in the past five years, including one fatal collision and eight others with injuries. The Vance Road intersection has seen 32 crashes in the same time period, “including one severe injury crash and 10 other crashes with injuries.”
Perhaps the most well-known roundabouts in Grand Traverse County are the two on M-72, at Lautner Road (pictured) and at the access road that leads to the Acme Meijer. Lake says MDOT has not tracked those roundabouts in the same way it normally would because they were installed under different circumstances.
“The two roundabouts on M-72 in Acme were put in under permit in anticipation of the increased traffic volumes the adjacent development would prompt, and one of those intersections did not exist prior to the roundabout construction,” Lake explains. “Usually in northern Michigan we install roundabouts at existing intersections that have a severe crash history…”
Both Lake and Kluczynski acknowledge there is some continued resistance to roundabouts. Lake says MDOT hears from drivers “who feel uncomfortable or anxious driving in roundabouts,” while Klucynzki is aware of the annoyance some Grand Traverse residents feel about long construction timelines and big infrastructure spending related to the projects.
But both see the narrative shifting. “We find drivers are driving slower and are more attentive when navigating a roundabout,” Lake says. “As there have been more roundabouts built on state highways and local roads in northern Michigan, and they’ve become more familiar, there does seem to be more acceptance of them and acknowledgment of their safety benefits.”
“It’s a changing world,” Klucynzki says. “We don't build grid systems like we did when highways were first being built. We make them safer and we make them something that is going to flow traffic more smoothly, so we don't have people sitting there wasting gas at intersections continuously. So you’re going to see more roundabouts – both from us and from other traffic agencies throughout Michigan – for the foreseeable future.”Comment