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The Douglas roundabout has been in operation a month now, and although we at the Alaska Department of Transportation think it has been a major improvement, there are at least a few who think differently as indicated by the complaints about congestion, delays and near accidents published in Empire articles and letters.
First regarding accidents, the roundabout's safety record alone makes it successful. This is important to us because improving safety was the reason we built the roundabout in the first place. Congestion relief is desirable too, but increased congestion would have been an acceptable side effect to us for improving safety at what was one of Southeast Alaska's more dangerous intersections. The roundabout's safety performance has so far exceeded our expectations. Accidents typically occur in the weeks immediately following construction of roundabouts due to drivers' initial unfamiliarity (usually minor fender-benders). In the case of the Douglas roundabout, however, (knock on wood) I haven't heard of a single accident since its Aug. 12 opening, a testament to its design and to the driver education and public information campaign preceding its opening.
But we have also been very pleased about how the roundabout has influenced traffic operations, the clearest indicator being the steady stream of cars crossing the bridge toward Juneau during the morning rush. Nevertheless, curious because of the complaints we read in the Empire, we went out and observed midweek morning travel times on Douglas Highway. From 7:30 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. we drove and timed 13 round trips on the 0.6-mile stretch between David Street and the roundabout.
Traffic was light at either end of our observation period. We encountered very short queues at the roundabout, and our travel time from David Street to inside the circle was about one and a half minutes. As volumes increased, queues and delays began to form. During the 15-minute period between 7:45 and 8 a.m., queues swiftly grew to 1,200 feet in length and our travel times spiked upwards to nearly five minutes; in other words we were delayed at most about three and a half minutes. Before and after this 15-minute peak, queues were relatively short and our maximum delay was 30 seconds. This confirmed our observations that the roundabout has been relieving congestion, not creating it.
But there's still room for improvement. A roundabout's efficiency depends on how efficiently people use it and if more drivers did the following we'd see the roundabout working even better. Drivers should:
Stop stopping in the circle. Some of you North Douglas drivers feel a need to let your south Douglas neighbors in like they used to do for you, but please don't stop in the circle. It creates confusion and violates the rules of the road. Try the following instead: Delay your entry into the rotary an extra second to create a gap for them. It's those close-packed platoons of vehicles that create difficulty for entering motorists. Now, if they don't fill that gap you've given them, just keep on going. You've done your good deed. They lose if they snooze.
Giddy-up, especially you south Douglas drivers. Some of you are passing up golden opportunities to enter the circle. Remember, you're not entering a high-speed roadway. The tight radius of a roundabout's rotary keeps speeds low so you can get in with shorter gaps than what you'd look for on most streets. Also, remember you need not stop at a yield sign unless there's someone to yield to in the rotary. If you're not stopped, you can accelerate to the circle's speed almost immediately. So, look for a gap as you're slowly approaching the yield line. If it's there, giddy-up; get in there.
Use your blinking signals. Everybody driving in the circle should signal their intentions for the benefit of the others waiting to enter. At a minimum, use your right-turn signal as you approach your exit. Not as essential, but helpful nonetheless, would be using your left-turn signal to announce you're continuing around the circle.
Remember to watch out for pedestrians and bicyclists too, and we'll all get along at the roundabout.
Juneau resident Chris Morrow is the construction, maintenance and operations director for the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities in the Southeast region.