Round and round we’ll go

We have to confess that, when we first heard that the City intended to build four “roundabouts” along a 1.7-mile stretch of Central Avenue, our initial reaction was to shudder.

What immediately leapt to mind was a scene from a trip to Paris years ago.  We were in the passenger seat of a rental car studying maps.  (No GPS in those days.)  As the car approached the Place de la Concorde, this is what it looked like:

All right, maybe it wasn’t quite that bad – but it sure was scary to us.  We knew the person behind the wheel could handle herself in a courtroom – but could she, having learned to drive in North Dakota, maneuver a car through all this chaos?

It turned out we didn’t need to worry.  Without a second’s hesitation, our driver barreled into the traffic, and before we could finish the “Hail Mary,” she had brought us safely to the other side.

Is this, we wondered, the experience the City was planning to subject Alameda drivers to?  Had John Knox White and his ilk devised a diabolical scheme to frighten local residents out of their cars?

Well, no (at least as to the first question).  There are no plans to replicate the Place de la Concorde.  But there are plans – which Council approved on April 20 – to put two roundabouts on Central Avenue right away, with two more in the wings once funding becomes available.

Today, we’ll take a look at what the City’s transportation planners have in mind.  (Special thanks to senior transportation coordinator Gail Payne, who not only supplied us with relevant research but also answered all of our questions, obtuse as they sometimes were.)

Rather than refer simply to “roundabouts,” the planning gurus use the term “modern roundabouts” to distinguish them from “traffic circles.”  As they define the term, a “modern roundabout” is a one-way circular intersection in which traffic flows counter-clockwise around a center island.  So-called “splitter islands” deflect traffic as it approaches the roundabout, and entering traffic must yield to traffic already circulating in the roadway.

Here’s a simple – we hope – diagram prepared by the National Cooperative Highway Research Program of a typical “modern roundabout”:

Technically speaking, there currently are no modern roundabouts in the City of Alameda.  (What some local residents may call “roundabouts,” the gurus call “traffic circles.”)  Nor did the City include any as part of the Central Avenue “complete streets” plan authorized by Council in May 2013, and none were incorporated in the “concept” for the plan approved by Council in February 2016.

According to Ms. Payne, City staff and its consultants, CDM Smith and Kittelson and Associates, began researching modern roundabouts – which she described as a “relatively new countermeasure” that is “now seen as a more mainstream best practice treatment” – for the Central Avenue project in early 2020.  This effort, she said, was “in line with our relatively new Vision Zero policy that directs staff to focus on these more serious collisions” (i.e., those resulting in fatalities or severe injuries).

What was so great about roundabouts?  Well, the various presentations by City staff and its consultants cited research showing that intersections with roundabouts are significantly safer than intersections with traffic signals or stop signs.  For example, the Federal Highway Administration reported a study in which converting intersections with two-way stops to roundabouts reduced “severe crashes” by 82 percent, and converting intersections with signal lights to roundabouts reduced such crashes by 78 percent.  Similarly, the National Cooperative Highway Research Program found that replacing “conventional intersections” with roundabouts reduced total crashes by 35 percent, and crashes resulting in “severe injuries” by 76 percent.

These findings make eminent sense:  A driver will need to slow down when she approaches, enters into, and circulates through a roundabout.  In such a case, if a collision does take place, it ordinarily will happen at a lower speed and result in less serious injury.

Equally logical are the oft-cited environmental benefits of roundabouts:  Unlike at a traffic signal or stop sign, a driver going through a roundabout won’t need to stop, wait, and then start up again.  As a result, less fuel will be consumed, and fewer pollutants will be emitted.

City staff and its consultants presented their “final concept” for what now was called the Central Avenue “safety improvement project” to the Transportation Commission last November and to Council on April 20.  The plan called for roundabouts at four intersections:  moving from west to east, (1) Central Avenue, Main Street and Pacific Avenue; (2) Central Avenue, Fourth Street and Ballena Boulevard; (3) Central Avenue, Third Street and Taylor Avenue; and (4) Central Avenue, Encinal Avenue and Sherman Street.

This map shows the four locations marked with red circles:

At the April 20 Council meeting, City planner Andrew Thomas reported that the budget for the Central Avenue project contained sufficient funds to build two of the roundabouts now – but not all four.  (Ms. Payne told us each roundabout will cost about $3 million to construct.)   Mr. Thomas stated that staff had selected the two intersections deemed the “most dangerous” – Main Street/Pacific Avenue and Third Street/Taylor Avenue – to go first.  (Ms. Payne pointed to an analysis showing that these two locales were “higher collision intersections” than the other two, which, she said, are “lower tiered collision intersections.”)

Here’s what the design for the two new roundabouts will look like.  First, Main Street/Pacific Avenue:

Then, Third Street/Taylor Avenue:

At the April 20 Council meeting, most of the discussion about roundabouts involved the one proposed for the Encinal Avenue/Sherman Street intersection, which was not one of those scheduled for the first round.  The design prepared by the consultants would bar access from Sherman Street into the roundabout, turning the block south of it into a cul-de-sac.  We’ll spare our readers the details of the debate, but suffice it to say a lot of residents didn’t like that idea – and their objections found a receptive ear in Mayor Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft, who joined Councilwoman Trish Spencer and Councilman Tony Daysog in opposing the proposed design.  (For those keeping score, this may the first time those three found themselves on the same side.)

Ultimately, Mr. Thomas got Ms. Ashcraft to buy into an alternative configuration that eliminated the cul-de-sac and instead allowed southbound traffic access from the roundabout to Sherman Street, and created a “slip lane” for residents on the block to use to turn right onto Encinal Avenue.  Ms. Spencer and Mr. Daysog still weren’t satisfied, but Ms. Ashcraft’s vote was enough to give staff the go-ahead for a project that included the alternative design.

We didn’t do any exact tabulation, but at both the Transportation Commission and Council meetings, the vast majority of public commenters endorsed the “modern roundabout” concept (if not always its use at Sherman Street and Encinal Avenue.)  But a number of speakers raised what we considered a legitimate issue:  pedestrian safety.

As the drawings above show, the design places a pedestrian crosswalk on each street leading into the roundabout.  The crosswalk is set back about a car’s-length from the circulating roadway, and it is divided into two segments of equal length separated by a “splitter island.”  According to the consultants, this design allows pedestrians (or bicyclists who choose not to ride through the roundabout along with the cars) to cross one lane of traffic, pause, and then cross the opposite lane of traffic.

Here’s the problem:  The roundabout creates a constant traffic flow into and out of the intersection – unlike intersections with traffic signals or stop signs, vehicles won’t need to stop when they enter or exit the roundabout.  Instead, they’re supposed to yield to any pedestrians in the crosswalk.  But will a driver exiting the roundabout have enough time to react?  And what if she doesn’t?  By the same token, a pedestrian about to enter a crosswalk may be able – unless she is visually or hearing impaired – to see or hear a car heading into or out of the roundabout.  But can she be sure the driver will see her – or that the driver will stop?

This problem, of course, becomes especially acute for people who do have visual or hearing disabilities.  And they made their concerns known both to the Transportation Commissioners and to the Council members – sometimes, in dramatic fashion:  “I’m a dead duck if I start crossing the crosswalk,” one told Council.  “There’s no protection for me.”

(Mayor Ashcraft cut off this speaker as soon as the clock timing public comments ran down to zero, even though it appeared that the speaker was in the midst of completing a thought.  In this regard, Ms. Ashcraft has proved to be an even more rigorous – or, should we say, more rigid – enforcer of time limits than Chief Justice John Roberts, who at least lets an advocate finish a sentence before requiring her to sit down.  See sidebar.)

Curiously, the consultants, who had offered plenty of statistics to back up their recommendations, stated that no “definitive” study had been done about accidents being caused by vehicles failing to stop for pedestrians in crosswalks adjacent to roundabouts.  In fact, they seemed almost to pooh-pooh the issue.  “We can’t ever guarantee a safe crossing for anyone across any intersection, signalized or roundabout,” one consultant told Council.  “But overall when you look at roundabouts and their safety benefits for all users, including disabled folks of all types, overall I believe these are a safer option than a signalized intersection.”

Nevertheless, the consultants assured both the Transportation Commission and Council that the design drawings for the roundabouts would include features – like flashing or auditory signals – to warn drivers about pedestrians in a crosswalk.  How to alert visually or hearing impaired people to the presence and location of cars poses a tougher challenge, but Mr. Thomas promised that staff “absolutely” would pay attention to the needs of disabled people in the final design.

One of the links Ms. Payne sent us when we asked for background information about roundabouts was to a YouTube video entitled, “Why the U.S. Hates Roundabouts.”  Thanks to the video, we now know that, in reacting to the concept as we did initially, we were suffering from the “availability heuristic.”  Our readers can watch the video for themselves, but please note that it’s Chevy Chase in London, not us in Paris, whom it depicts as being trapped for hours trying to get out of a roundabout.  Nevertheless, once the project gets built, we’ll probably still be inclined to bike, not ride, down Central Avenue.


Central Avenue project: 2020-11-18 staff report to TC re Central Ave. project; 2020-11-18 Presentation to TC; 2021-04-21 staff report re Central Ave. project; 2021-04-21 Presentation

Roundabouts: 2021-01-27 Presentation re Roundabouts; NCHRP Report 672 re roundabouts; IIHS, Roundabouts; FHA, Roundabouts; nchrp_rpt_572_presentation_handout

About Robert Sullwold

Partner, Sullwold & Hughes Specializes in investment litigation
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28 Responses to Round and round we’ll go

  1. Adrienne says:

    I agree with Council Member Spencer that it would have been helpful to see an animation of exactly what the roundabouts would look like. Still not happy with the proposed changes at Sherman St.

    • After this comment was posted, one of our readers sent us a link to a Berkeleyside article about the roundabouts proposed for the Gilman Street exit off I-80. It contains an animation that our readers may find helpful. (We did.)

      • Trish Herrera Spencer says:

        Thank you for sharing this. Has two simulations of proposed project, including roundabout and ped/bike bridge. The engineers working on the City of Alameda’s proposed Central Avenue changes should have included similar simulations of the entire proposed project including each of the four roundabouts and alternative at Sherman, based on actual/predicted usage numbers of pedestrians, bicyclists and cars, ideally at anticipated highest usage, morning commute or 3 p.m. school release. Animations are a great way to see and understand proposals of this type; that’s why other jurisdictions routinely use them. There were/are no such simulations of the proposed Central Avenue project.

  2. Dan says:

    A roundabouts will be an opportunity for sideshows…After all that’s what sideshows are about…. spin in circles…

    • Waste of money says:

      That was my thought too- perfect for sideshows, and I predict the “circle” will be occupied by distracting political signs, shouting people with causes, the “unhoused” looking for a handout, and maybe a statue or two to pull down.

      The “continuous flow” of traffic is bad for pedestrians on streets that are already dangerous and constantly busy in the mornings and afternoons when parents, kids and older residents cross an intersection like Sherman.

      Think about it. If say a PG&E truck or a moving van double parks on one of the feeder streets (a daily occurrence on Sherman) it will back up the entire roundabout.

      Is this a case of spending state and federal money just to spend it?

    • David says:

      You clearly have little idea what roundabouts are about….

      The big open space in the middle of a 4-way intersection is what actually facilitates sideshow behavior like donuts. The are donut skid marks right now at such an intersection on Central just East of St. Charles.

  3. Curious says:

    Is the city required to perform some kind of analysis of success of the changes they make? Are there any key results they may monitor?

    I’m worried about Otis Dr modifications and how the affect the traffic in nearby neighborhoods. Before, it was easy to drive down the Willow St with no traffic and nearly zero traffic lights. Now, I often find myself following 6-7 other cars. I wonder what Willow St residents think of it.

  4. Mike McMahon says:

    I would love to see the city of Oakland create a roundabout on the Oakland side of Park Street. A flow of traffic around Nikkos seems to make sense to me. The number of traffic lights make it a nightmare if you want to leave Alameda and go south on 880.

  5. Bay Farmer says:

    While I usually find myself nodding in silent agreement to your posts Robert, my reaction to this one is stark in contrast. I consider myself a long-time fan of roundabouts and in the years I spent in the U.K. and driving elsewhere in France, I found them to be expeditious and generally safe. I noticed a few weeks ago that the City of Grass valley made excellent use of one where a frontage road provides access to a freeway. All of these positive experiences share one property in common, and without that property, roundabouts are dangerous and most certainly would lead to death and injury. To wit: pedestrian crosswalks are not part of the solution. Absolutely, and without equivocation, if a current Alameda intersection has school crossing guards in the morning and afternoon, a roundabout is utterly contraindicated.
    I mentioned roundabouts in the U.K and France. Where they use roundabouts pedestrians are routed through tunnels beneath the traffic. That is also why you don’t see pedestrians in the Arc de Triumph photo. Underground pedestrian tunnels. Virtually all of the U.K roundabouts I have traveled upon were in very high traffic areas where there are no significant…or even visible… pedestrians. That is the entire principle of roundabouts…traffic DOES NOT STOP and moves smoothly as cars enter and leave the circle. Stopping, however briefly, at the entrance to the roundabout causes immediate and serious disruption to that flow (and instantly triggers a cacophony of honking car horns.) If you have traveled to London over the past 30 years you will notice that the legendary “Piccadilly Circus” roundabout has been moved slightly and replaced with…an intersection with pedestrian crossing lanes. Why? Pedestrians and roundabouts DON’T belong in proximity, and London finally got tired of the hundreds of tourists getting hit each year. Yes, that’s hundreds.

    I mention this because the transportation cabal also indicate that they think a roundabout is a perfect solution for the 4 way intersection of Island and Meccartney on Bay Farm.Think about it: a bustling playground/basketball court, the only supermarket on Bay Farm, kids and shoppers everywhere, and the piece de resistance; a school…several actually…near enough to justify school crossing guards in the sleepy morning commute hours and afternoons. It is, quite simply, madness to place a roundabout here. Following the bizarre “hey…WE are the experts” logic of the traffic committee, I expect to see…that’s right…school crossing guards controlling the roundabout. At that point, it is no longer a roundabout. It’s just a very poorly thought out, dangerous intersection.

    • David says:

      The transportation cabal has clearly had a long-standing early onset case of euro-phile-itis, where they figure any transporation solution in Europe has to be migrated here.

      In this case, I happen to agree, most specifically with regards to the two initial proposed 5+ street intersections on Central.

      However, they are likely to blow it by force fitting some sort of pedestrian cross walk solution which runs counter to the purpose of roundabouts.

    • AN says:

      This is simply not true. Yes, mega roundabouts use stoplights or subways. But there are smaller roundabouts all over the place with zebra crossings. The difference is that in the UK drivers stop at crossings unlike in Alameda. And maybe the epic tourist carnage is because people drive on the other side of the road… The rate of death on UK roads is much lower than on US ones. The comments on this thread are ill informed. It’s almost as if no one wants anything to change in Alameda ever. Bring back the Sizzler, I say.

      • Bay Farmer says:

        Oh good heavens AN. Pure rubbish. Stick to pining for Sizzler restaurants as you apparently have never lived in the UK and appear what little you know about UK driving, was gleaned, no doubt, from the giants of journalistic excellence such as Tik Tok and Instagram.

    • AN says:

      I’m afraid you’re completely wrong about my knowledge and experience of UK driving. And you’ve apparently not lived here long enough to remember the amusing hue and cry over the closing of the Sizzler and gas station on Otis twenty odd years ago. Never ate there myself. I’ll defer to you on the Arc de Triomphe (it’s a French word) as I’ve not been there in a couple of years.

      • Bay Farmer says:

        AN, I can’t figure out what point you are trying to make re: Arc de Triumph. It has never had surface pedestrian crossings…no matter how many years it has been since you last visited. As for the Sizzler and gas station at South Shore, my Alameda residency goes back far further. So…are you equating poor judgment regarding roundabout location with the Sizzler/gas station elimination? Interesting, um…argument.

      • hilaria baldwin says:

        This AN and Bayfarmer crosstalk is genuinely hilarious! Love it!

  6. David says:

    I too have driven in Parisian roundabouts, and my take away from it was NOT that the roundabout structure is flawed, but that volume exceeds capacity.

    I do think that Americans have some inherent mental block with negotiating roundabouts. Not sure what it is, or why, but it’s surely there.

    Building ped tunnels is surely not going to happen in Alameda, as the pedestrian mitigation approach. I also really wonder – a flashing light cross walk to stop cars BEFORE entering the roundabout will help peds on one side of the street… but is the expectation also that oncoming traffic from the other direction will also stop – stop in the roundabout itself – for pedestrians? Counter-productive to the roundabout.

    Finally, pray they don’t do with roundabouts what they did in Berkeley, which demonstrated that the traffic engineers don’t understand roundabouts any better than the average motorist. They put a stop sign on the road just before the roundabout *eye roll*

  7. Mark Greenside says:

    I have spent thirty summers driving in France and I can tell you several things: (1) Most French drivers hate roundabouts, especially those outside of major cities, and (2) roundabouts are where many car accidents happen. The good news is they usually are not serious or fatal, as cars are moving slowly. The bad news is they are costly, time-consuming, and frustrating.

    Traffic control used to mean enhancing the flow of traffic. Now, more and more, in places like Berkeley and Alameda, it means inhibiting the flow, making it more dififcult to get from point A to point B, which is a nuisance in ordinary times and dangerous in times of emergency.

    Look at Webster Street, the crosstown street for ambulances and fire trucks. Four lanes have been reduced to two plus a bike lane and bus traffic. It’s often congested and confusing, which is not too good if you’re waiting for that ambulance. Adding roundabouts to the mix will make getting anywhere even slower. This seems less like traffic control and more like ideological control: Achtung! You vill not drive zat car!

    • David says:

      Absolutely! Current Alameda city hall dogma seems to be to inhibit car volume. So I’m really surprised they are looking at roundabouts, which are intended to facilitate it.

    • Reality says:

      The average traffic speed on Central has been surveyed at about 31 mph, well above the posted speed limit. There are about 5 schools within a block of Central, which is the most saturated of any area in Alameda. I’ve heard of numerous students getting injured by cars during this stretch of road, including couple years ago when it seemed like a weekly occurrence, and a 7-year-old student was even killed some years ago. If your priority is speed and not safety, then there’s no point in discussing further.

      And your claim that “roundabouts are where many car accidents happen” is a bit misleading. Of course, intersections of any kind are bound to have more accidents than other parts of the roadway. But roundabouts have been proven to reduce accidents by 50% compared to signaled intersections.

      • More cops! says:

        Fix the speeding in Central (and everywhere else) with traffic enforcement. It worked well back when we had it.

        (But we’d need a council that gives a damn about law enforcement to return to that level of sanity.)

  8. Candace Gutleben says:

    Roundabouts are to move cars more quickly and safely, along with their occupants. They have their uses. They’re great for suburban-spread and a car culture. They are not designed for pedestrians or walking streets with local shops and restaurants. Not only were they never intended for pedestrians, there are no studies showing improved pedestrian safety. The statistics for improved safety apply only to car occupants who suffer fewer sever or fatal injuries in specific areas and cities, not to pedestrians. Cars have the right of way on roundabouts. Pedestrians do not. That’s the point. Unaccompanied school-age children, the blind community of Alameda, some seniors and those with mobility challenges will be particularly vulnerable. The traffic engineers and city council members are responsible for the safety of all who use our streets. Last week, they approved four “modern roundabouts”. Therefore, it is now incumbent on them to work closely with the blind and physically challenged communities, i.e., Lighthouse for the Blind, seniors, etc, to increase safety for them as well. An experiential “walkabout” with experts in a heavily used roundabouts would be a good way to “see” for themselves. Unaccompanied school-age children using these car-centric intersections is unthinkable. Parents and schools need to teach children about the dangers of roundabouts. As someone has already noted, flashing lights, stops signs and crossing guards defeat the intended purpose of a roundabout – that of moving cars. Technically, that’s correct. However, now that the city is committed to this “improvement”, the city leaders and concerned residents must consider the realities of all those who use our streets, especially the most vulnerable.

  9. Reality says:

    Is it correct to assert that there are no roundabouts – or traffic circles – in Alameda? We have two over at Bayport. They’re both adjacent to an elementary school and a park. Seems like we use them just fine without issues.

  10. Ani Dimusheva says:

    Traffic “expert” job security – creating problems, to be solved with even more clutter and confusion. Cant believe 3 council members are able to approve a major, controversial project like this – should be a consensus.

    • Reality says:

      I don’t think it’s controversial at all. I watched the council meeting and read the correspondence. It felt 90% of residents spoke or wrote in favor of the Central Ave redesign. The largest issue was the proposed dead-end at Sherman St, which was solved with a one-way slip-out (or slip-by?) lane.

  11. Tedrow says:

    I lived in a rural area, the Tri-Cities of WA and roundabouts installed on a busy boulevard/entrance to a freeway and near a library and school caused numerous accidents — a round about installed near a school and Library — also totally confusing to many. People tended to miscalculate their speed and so on…. Consider that US driver’s training (If taken) does not teach people how to use these. What a mess. I’ve had experience with roundabouts driving in England which is a whole different world in comparison with our already troubled “sharing of the road” issues in Alameda.

  12. Karen Bey says:

    I have to say that my experience driving on Otis Dr. is so much better. People can now walk on the sidewalk without fear of getting hit by a cyclist. Cyclists have their own protected lane, and
    automobiles are forced to slow down — reducing the chance of automobile accidents. I love it!

    I can’t wait to see the City do this on Central Ave. Cars are now speed racing on Central Ave. I see this everyday and feel helpless to do anything about it. I’m afraid someone is going to get hurt!

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