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In Winooski, Learning to Go in Circles

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VERMONT -- Last Friday, about 200 Winooski residents joined Vermont politicians to celebrate the opening of the Onion City's newly redeveloped downtown. They huddled under a white tent pitched in the city's newest park. A year ago the gathering would have been, more or less, in the middle of a drive-thru bank. Instead, the area is now the center of the city's new roundabout.

Traffic has been moving around the giant, two-lane oval for almost a month, but some residents are still skeptical of the structure -- at least according to Governor Jim Douglas, who mentioned the roundabout in his speech. He said some residents had "expressed concern" to him just that morning as he ate breakfast at a local diner. Douglas sought to reassure them. "I'm confident that we'll all get used to the change," he told the crowd.

Tony Redington, of the volunteer-run Northeast Area Roundabout Coalition, agrees. Redington spent 15 years as a transportation planner for the Vermont Department of Transportation. He'd like to see the state put a moratorium on building anything but roundabouts. He says roundabouts are more efficient and more pedestrian- friendly, and prettier than intersections. Most importantly, he adds, they're safer.

"The traffic signal is sort of like the American equivalent of a landmine," Redington charges. He cites a 2001 study by the Institute for Highway Safety that found roundabouts in the U.S. resulted in a 90- percent reduction in disabling injuries for auto occupants during crashes. He claims that by converting even a modest number of American intersections to roundabouts, 2000 lives would be saved each year. Planners in other countries have already figured this out, he says; European nations such as France and Great Britain -- where the roundabout was developed in the 1960s -- have built thousands of them. The U.S. has about a thousand roundabouts. According to Redington, Vermont has just five.

Roundabouts save lives because they eliminate deadly perpendicular collisions, and they force cars to slow down, explains Redington. "It's speed, stupid," he says. Unlike rotaries, or traffic circles, which give entering traffic the right of way, roundabouts slow entering cars, and give preference to the traffic that's already in the circle. Traffic in a roundabout should never exceed 30 miles per hour, while traffic in rotaries often moves much faster.

Redington has just one piece of advice for drivers: Don't slow down while you're in the loop. Drivers might think they're being polite, when in fact they're "depressing the efficiency" of the roundabout. "It's like having a green light and not going," says Redington. "If you have a green light, you don't wait for the people who have the red light to move."

Vermonters still seem to need this advice; in a recent online poll conducted by the Williston Observer, three years after a roundabout debuted at Maple Tree Place, 67 percent of respondents said they didn't know how to use it.

And Williston residents might be getting another roundabout, at the intersection of Rt. 2 and Oak Hill and North Williston Roads. Williston Selectboard member Virginia Lyons says the board is considering replacing the four- way stop, which backs up during the morning and afternoon rush hours. "We really feel this is an appropriate place to have a roundabout," she suggests. "It helps move traffic through, but preserves the pedestrian friendliness."

That's what Redington likes to hear. He notes that both the New York and Maryland departments of transportation encourage planners to choose roundabouts. "The question," he says, "is why would you build anything else?"

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