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  5. Sound Engineering: Wisconsin as a roundabout frontier

Sound Engineering: Wisconsin as a roundabout frontier

Roundabouts are being built more quickly in Wisconsin than in most other states. They also tend to irritate drivers who aren’t quite sure how to handle them, and the Wisconsin state Legislature is currently weighing a bill that would require the Wisconsin Department of Transportation to get local governments’ approval before building new roundabouts. Despite all this, Civil and Environmental Engineering Professor David Noyce argues that roundabouts won’t be controversial for long. Noyce describes the reasoning behind roundabouts, and says that drivers in Wisconsin communities gradually grow to embrace them.

Scott Gordon: Wisconsin has been quicker than most states to adopt roundabouts, which are popular in Europe but have yet to become a permanent feature of roads in the United States. By 2015, Wisconsin may have more than 400 of these circular and sometimes confusing traffic features. Perhaps because they’re springing up so quickly on Wisconsin roads, there’s also some resistance to roundabouts. The Wisconsin State legislature is considering a bill that would require the state to have the approval of local governments before building new roundabouts. Despite some controversy, David Noyce says roundabouts have solid research on their side.

David Noyce: The reason why roundabouts are so popular now is that they solve two problems. They solve an operational problem, so vehicles continue to flow, and they solve a major safety problem. That’s the key. Traditional operational fatalities essentially go away. Sometimes there’s a fatality there if it’s a drunk driver or some other issue, or something that is beyond the norm, so to speak.

Scott Gordon: Noyce is a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the UW-Madison College of Engineering. But how does an academic’s support for the idea translate into a large agency like the Wisconsin Department of Transportation building them at such a rapid pace?

David Noyce: I think when the data started to flow, meaning the benefits of either other states where roundabouts started in a European, Austrailan-type application and kind of migrated to the U.S. As U.S. locations started to put in roundabouts and they started to see the advertised benefit of the operational and safety improvements, that’s when other states, including Wisconsin, started to catch on and realizing it was a good benefit for Wisconsin drivers and Wisconsin intersections. Although there are costs to roundabouts and there are other expenses that may be different than a traditional signalized full-length intersection, you’re not dealing with all the traffic through the lights and the power consumption and the other things that go along with that, so there’s an environmental trade-off with it as well.

Scott Gordon: As for public acceptance, Noyce thinks roundabouts are actually becoming less controversial. He says that the proposed new law might give the public more chances to comment on proposed roundabouts, but might not slow them down much in the long run. 

David Noyce: If the roundabout is being designed appropriately and being placed in the appropriate intersection where it’s going to benefit, then I think the public will see it and I don’t think it’ll change the number of new roundabouts that we see in the state. 

Scott Gordon: It may be frustrating for many drivers to learn how to use roundabouts, but Noyce says drivers in Wisconsin are coming around to the idea over time.

David Noyce: I do recall seeing some data recently where a community, and I can’t name the community right off the top, where they did a survey of a roundabout and do people want a roundabout and do they support a roundabout going in, and the favorable response was in the 20 to 30 percent. After the roundabout had been in place for some time, they asked the same question. The response was 70 to 80 percent of people supporting it. So you find that as they go in and people become used to it, then the controversy isn’t so strong.

Scott Gordon: For more information on Noyce’s research, look up his faculty page at engr.wisc.edu.

Scott Gordon
8/5/2013