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Traffic roundabouts can get some in Sonoma County wound up


In engineering parlance, roundabouts “calm traffic.” The term has a loose, devil-may-care ring to it, unlike “stoplight,” which sounds authoritarian, even rude.

Sonoma County would seem a logical fit for roundabouts, which are touted as safer, cheaper and more environmentally friendly than your standard-issue intersection governed by a stoplight or sign.

Vehicles navigate the roundabout on Petaluma Boulevard South, looking north at Crystal Lane, in Petaluma, on Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2013. (Christopher Chung / PD)

Vehicles navigate the roundabout on Petaluma Boulevard South, looking north at Crystal Lane, in Petaluma, on Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2013. (Christopher Chung / PD)

And yet, few issues spark more controversy around these parts than roundabouts, with Cotati voters going so far as to ban them last November, likely making the city the first in the nation — maybe even the world — to take that extraordinary step.

“I’m sad to say that’s true to the best of my knowledge,” said Cotati Mayor Mark Landman, who opposed the ballot measure that led to the ban.

Undeterred, traffic planners in other Sonoma County cities and at the county level are pressing forward with plans to install roundabouts at several key intersections.

That includes, in unincorporated areas, at Highway 116 at Mirabel Road in Forestville and at Arnold Drive at Agua Caliente Road at the entrance to the Hanna Boys Center in Sonoma. A roundabout also is being considered for the three-way intersection of Highways 116 and 121/12 in Carneros, south of Sonoma.

Tom O’Kane, interim co-director of the county’s Transportation and Public Works Department, called Cotati’s ban on roundabouts “really foolish” and “extremely short-sighted.”

He said he has never heard arguments against roundabouts that “make any sense.”

Nevertheless, there are many in the county and around the nation who view roundabouts with suspicion, as if they were a plot to import European driving habits and force Americans to trade their Fords for Fiats.

The modern roundabout usually features a one-lane traffic circle in which vehicles move counterclockwise around a center circular island, entering and exiting to the right. The motorist entering the roundabout usually must yield to traffic already circling.

They are not to be confused with the smaller traffic circles that Santa Rosa installed, and then tore out, on Humboldt Street and on a street in O’Kane’s northeast neighborhood.

He called those circles “dangerous” and said he was surprised “someone didn’t get killed.”

He said the county’s roundabouts differ in that they are proposed to be about 100 feet wider than what he called a “dinky” traffic circle. He said this will give motorists, bicyclists and pedestrians much more room to navigate the structure.

“Even Caltrans, which is not the most innovative group I’ve come across, has roundabouts, and they work very well,” he said.

Dan St. John, Petaluma’s public works and utilities director, said the biggest obstacle to Americans embracing the concept is the fact that it’s something new and different.

“We’re human. We resist change,” he said.

St. John said he’s not heard any complaints about Petaluma’s roundabouts. But that doesn’t mean everyone there is pleased with them.

From his home overlooking a roundabout on Petaluma Boulevard South, UPS worker Ken Jamison this week described hearing often the screech of tires, cussing and other auditory evidence of road rage.

With its proximity to Highway 101, the roundabout is more heavily traveled during commute hours.

“There will be accidents,” Jamison predicted. “It’s only a matter of time.”

It was apparent after only a few minutes observing traffic flow through the roundabout that not all motorists felt comfortable with the design.

One man driving a Subaru hatchback stopped in the circle to yield to another driver coming in even though he had the right of way. Several motorists stopped at the entrance to the roundabout without needing to, forcing drivers behind them to brake abruptly to avoid a fender bender.

Despite sometimes having to wait five minutes to enter the roundabout in the morning, Carmen Cremidis, who lives in the neighborhood, said she likes the traffic feature.

“I like that it slows down traffic,” she said.

St. John pointed out that intersections with stoplights or signs also inspire “honking and swearing.”

More important to him and other planners is that roundabouts have been shown to reduce the number of serious accidents involving both motorists and pedestrians.

Landman, who researched the issue while opposing Measure U in Cotati, said intersections with a roundabout have a 90 percent lower fatality rate than those that have stoplights.

“I’m not surprised the county is planning to move forward with roundabouts,” he said.

Greg Karraker, who helped lead the campaign in support of Cotati’s ban, said the opposition was not about roundabouts per se but about where they were being proposed.

“The best side effect of Measure U was that it put the stake in the heart of the downtown specific plan,” he said.

Still, Karraker acknowledged misgivings about the ban applying citywide.

“I would have made it (the ban) specific to that location,” he said.

The city is now scrambling to design a smaller project to achieve some of the same goals of making the downtown a more inviting area for residents, businesses and shoppers and to keep a $1.1 million Metropolitan Transportation Commission grant that was to help pay for the Village Main Street plan.

In the meantime, the county is expecting to seek bids this spring to begin construction on roundabouts at Highway 116 in Forestville and on Arnold Drive in Sonoma, O’Kane said.

Cost estimates for the Forestville project are $6.5 million, which O’Kane said would be about $500,000 less than installing a stoplight. The cost of the Arnold Drive roundabout is pegged at about $1.8 million, he said.

The roundabouts will be partially funded by Measure M, a quarter-cent sales tax approved by voters in 2004. The tax money also is being used to study the possible implementation of the proposed Carneros roundabout.

Nowhere in the original ballot measure does the word “roundabout” appear. Rather, voters were told improvements planned at Arnold Drive and at the Carneros intersections would include installation of “traffic signals.”

Asked if that’s tantamount to a bait-and-switch now that the county is potentially pursuing roundabouts for those sites, O’Kane said, “No.”

“Things change over time,” he said. “It’s not like we’re going to spend the money on Petaluma Hill Road when it was supposed to be spent on Arnold Drive. I think we’re being true to what’s being intended.”

But Karraker expressed unhappiness when he was told his tax dollars will be spent on roundabouts, which he and others fought so hard against in Cotati.

“Europeans are used to them. But they don’t seem to quite fit the landscape here,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 521-5336 or derek.moore@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @deadlinederek.

16 Responses to “Traffic roundabouts can get some in Sonoma County wound up”

  1. So in the great words of Ron White, “I wish you the best of luck”…. Sonoma county love the fools that are in office that are going to put a round about in Forestville before the bypass. REALLY!!!!! You idiots… First off we have rock haulers coming through town to get to the quarry… and they are suppose to navigate a round about. What about “us” that haul our garbage to the dump out here??? We have a truck and a trail with all the vegetation and garbage that has to go there and we are suppose to navigate it. In Forestville the intersection at Marabel Rd & 116 is a pain at best on a busy day. Then add big rigs trying to navigate this. Then lets talk about the rock quarry’s that will loss business cause the truckers are not going to loose time on the road over this, again “STUPID AND NOT WELL THOUGHT OUT MOVIE.” And while all of US in Forestville have to just put up with it for God knows how long. Then the best part of putting in the round about, is that the bypass has not been approved and there is no money or FEDERAL MONEY in place to push it through. SOUNDS LIKE WHAT I WATCHED HAPPEN IN CLOVERDALE AND NOW HAPPENING IN WILLITS AND HERE WE GO AGAIN HERE IN FORESTVILLE. Choking off a town. Now think about it… The city people want to work in the city but want to live out side of the city. So strangle a town, drive the prices down and a good piece of land. Buy it up for nothing. Is it just me or does that sound like a racket. Kind like the so called mofia. And who is getting all the kick backs on this one?????If the turnabout was structured like the ones in Europe then maybe. But think about this they are built in large cities???? Is Forestville a large city?? No just a small town they all pass through on the way to the river or the coast…… save what little economy we have and that is the rock quarries…

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  2. Snarky says:

    The statement has been posted that part of the trouble with “roundabouts” is that they are sometimes installed poorly into an intersection without adequate room.

    That may be true!

    But the “roundabout” works just fine and is far superior to a stop signed intersection.

    If you must be critical, put the blame where it belongs which is right on the shoulders of unqualified and/or incompetent county / city traffic staff.

    The proof that “roundabouts” are effective can be seen all around the world.

    It should raise red flags in your mind when only Sonoma County has a problem with them. :)

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  3. James Bennett says:

    Stand firm against these “roundabouts”.

    Stand against them for reasons WAY beyond their illogical face value.

    As I’ve pointed out they represent criteria for grant money eligbility.

    The grant money will be used to install the hardscape that tyrants and oppressors historically prefer. Where the people can be contained. Mao, Hitler, all rounded up the farmers and country people.

    If they can’t meet the grant money guidelines, their “planning” will be thwarted for now.

    Which will give folks more time to wake up.

    Kudos Greg Karraker and everyone who voted and supported Measure U. You might have done a greater service to your communities and freedoms than many even know.

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  4. Sonoma Sam says:

    I think so many loathe the traffic circles because of ill planning. In Petaluma, the one at Casa and Ely has adequate space and works well.

    THe circle on McDowell and Caufield is WAY too small. Whomever diesigned the one on Peteluma Blvd South must have been trippin! Two lanes crush into one and then back to two?

    Traffic circles are not really the problem and there are situations where they are appropriate, the problem is fools who place them poorly without considering reality.

    I do agree that crossing as a pedestrian or moving through as a bike rider is pretty scary. It seems like many drivers see the yeild signs, get confused and focus on merging into the circle making it hard to stop for the crosswalk on the edge. If you look at the crosswalk spacing at McD and Ely, it works because there was enough room for a proper sized circle.

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  5. susan says:

    I cannot comprehend the opposition to roundabouts; they are ALL over the east coast; one,two three lanes..and they have been working well for YEARS. Get over people and learn how to merge!

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  6. BigDogatPlay says:

    “St. John said he’s not heard any complaints about Petaluma’s roundabouts. But that doesn’t mean everyone there is pleased with them.”

    Mr. St. John is either too new in his role or, like most of the rest of city government…. he’s not paying attention.

    Could it be that the continued long wait times at traffic lights in commute directions, when there is no cross traffic needing the light, is part of the grand master plan to sell more of the rubes on the efficacy of wasting money on roundabouts? Caulfield routinely backs up onto the over crossing on commute mornings because the intervals on the traffic light covering north / south on Lakeville are set for far too long a time. If Mr. St. John’s engineers set the lights at reasonable intervals, like most other cities do, then the traffic would flow and we wouldn’t need any more ridiculous roundabouts planted in the middle of arterials.

    But the words of a city engineer in response to my complaint about a roundabout still echo…. “just slow down”. That, in the final analysis, seems to be their goal.

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  7. bear says:

    It is curious that you folks complain about road maintenance and roundabouts in practically the same breath.

    Leaving aside the issue that there may not be enough room for them in many locations (I agree), they nevertheless save money over traffic lights.

    That money could be used to improve road maintenance. What is needed is a study identifying appropriate locations for roundabouts, and documenting the savings that could then be devoted to road maintenance.

    But I see two real problems: resistance to any change, and the fear that drunken wine tasters wouldn’t be able to handle the roundabouts.

    Irony abounds.

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  8. The Hammer says:

    I find it amazing that they can always find and justify a way of spending the taxpayers money.

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  9. Reality Check says:

    Wilson, good points about roundabouts needing more space than most US intersections to work properly. But when properly configured, roundabouts increase traffic flow, reduce travel time, and are safer.

    The point about more rear-end accidents and less T-bone crashes is important. Many California drivers believe a yellow light is a signal to step on the gas pedal. Now, will government put them only where space is sufficient?

    One thing about California, no matter what someone wants to do, others will denounce it as evil. It’s no wonder government here is dysfunctional.

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  10. Phil Maher says:

    Why is it that all these traffic engineers want to stick some curb, island, roundabout, or other some such crap into the middle of perfectly good streets?

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  11. Snarky says:

    People who fear “roundabouts” are unfit to drive and should never have been given a driver’s license.

    That is all.

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  12. Nora Gonzales says:

    We need the potholes fixed, not more large round paved holes that collect trash, make driving very dangerous and serve only those who truly hate the automobile.

    As others have said, this is not Europe and thank God for that. If it were up to many Europeans we would have swans swimming in our creeks and rivers and small children running around singing its a small world in German.

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  13. Dan Drummond Sr says:

    People always get wound up about evading pot holes. But the modern roundabout is safer, cheaper, and more environmentally friendly. What’s not to love about roundabouts?

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  14. Wilson says:

    The main problem with traffic circles and roundabouts around here is that they have been stuffed into the space of a standard intersection when they need at least 50% more room to be adequately sized. So don’t go bragging to me about how they work so well in Europe where they have enough room there to work how they are supposed to work. And one story that I read said that the entire Washington DC street system, including their infamous traffic circles, was designed in a manner specifically to intimidate visitors. They were included specifically to make traffic more difficult, not easier.

    On the northern edge of Petaluma, hay and other feed trucks simply cannot pass through the traffic circles on both Magnolia and Corona and must make long detours around them. Other large vehicles, such as buses, delivery vehicles, garbage and fire trucks are forced to crawl over the inner curb. This action twists and tortures the vehicle frames, leading to breakage and other damage far sooner than would occur under normal circumstances. Law enforcement officers and ambulance drivers are greatly hampered in their duties when encountering the obstacle that is a traffic circle. They just hate them.

    I had a conversation recently with a member of management of a very large nationwide delivery service. (Hint, they drive brown trucks) I asked them about traffic circles. The response was that they have less T-bone crashes because of them but far more bumper to bumper incidents.

    One aspect that I have never read about traffic circles is the very real danger they present to bicyclists and pedestrians. If the traffic never stops, then vehicles never stop having the right-of –way so a pedestrian can have it and cross the street safely. I visited Humboldt Street in Santa Rosa last year to see that mess for myself. There was simply too much for drivers to do in merging in and out of the traffic circles to have any time at all to look for pedestrians. I felt frightened trying to cross that street. Bicyclists have to merge with the vehicle traffic well before the traffic circles and do the same look left, steer right maneuver. And don’t get me started on bikes needing to rapidly accelerate and decelerate as traffic circles often require.

    So if you want to put in roundabouts here, give them enough space to work properly. 116 and Mirable in Forestville and Arnold Drive at Agua Caliente Road in Sonoma both need to be large enough to accommodate a big rig safely. Do it right or shut up and stop wasting taxpayer money.

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  15. James Bennett says:

    Adherent mainstream media socially engineers a polarity between cyclists and motorists.

    Adherent municipalities civilly engineers polarity between cyclists and motorists.

    This is ICLEI directed.

    If you have any doubt search ICLEI Complete Streets; the results go on and on.

    They have great resolve to appease their globalist masters because it’s implementation is part of criteria for grant money eligibility.

    Let’s say you have a town on a major blvd./hwy. in any town USA, four lanes with a center left turn provision. Looked the same way for generations. Lined with locally owned property and small local business’ that have defined the town for as long as anyone can remember.

    Then comes the town’s ICLEI Charter membership (that the citizens have no knowledge of).

    They’ll bribe the town with grant money and train the planners how to impose their hardscape.
    First you reduce this main artery from five lanes to two, with a center divide to prevent ingress approximately half the time. Then you make big wide accomadation to bikes. Then you call an ICLEI parking consultant, they’ll have your down town parking reduced by 15-20% with planters and red curbs, etc.. Then they install “parking kiosks”. “Mixed Use” zoning makes everyone non-conforming (which is like a salvage title car in commercial real estate) bringing everything in decline in preparation for…Smart Growth.
    The Roundabouts screw the property owner/retailer that paid a premium to have a captive audience on the corner for a minute or two at the red light.

    True to the ICLEI model, the elected officials are reduced to rubber stamp change agents creating an illusion of normality, when nothing could be further from the truth. The unelected City Mgr., planners, “boards” and councils (COGS ‘n MPOs) set forth the directive which is incentivized and thoughroly outlined in their UN training material drafted by the American Planning Association. Big books like Growing Smart and Local Agenda 21 Planning Guide are on the desk or shelf of all the planners in the US.

    They’re in a hurry ’cause One Bay Area is comin’ to town and they want that big MTC/ABAG grant money.

    Contained next to trains, propaganda, fluoride, neighbors turning in neighbors, disarming the populace; this is starting to remind me of another time and place in the 1930s.

    That didn’t go very well.

    Is this ‘The Final Solution’?

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  16. Kirstin says:

    Mr. Karraker is correct when he states that rounabouts “don’t seem to quite fit the landscape here.”

    The city and county governments need to stop wasting money on these planning “innovations” and instead concentrate on maintaining the road surfaces which, through negligence, have deteriorated badly in many places. Period.

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