Marolt: Traffic circles giving us the run-around | AspenTimes.com

Marolt: Traffic circles giving us the run-around

Roger Marolt
Cluster Phobic

Traffic circles are a funny phenomenon. It feels like they’ve become more a status symbol for affluent communities than actual traffic-management tools. To some, they look better than plain old traffic lights, but that’s subjective. Even though they take up about four times as much land, I guess most modern esthetes prefer them to intersections.

I believe Beaver Creek tried too hard. It squeezed so many roundabouts into its faux Anaheimian village that they are almost concentric. You have the feeling of driving across the Olympic flag there. It has turned driving into intense amateur competition, except for the hotel van drivers who are pros and easily cut off confused visitors, forcing them to circle for another attempt, and therefore should be disqualified from entering them.

I’m not sure what to say about Snowmass Village’s big, new roundabout near Town Center, which is not to be confused with the center of town, although they might be the same, yet that conclusion continues to defy proof. Did the long-anticipated installation solve any problems? To its credit, it has slowed traffic down at that intersection that is kind of blind coming out from above the Conoco station. The engineers will surely claim this has made the intersection safer, but I’ve never heard of any accidents there nor seen any statistics indicating that more fender benders happen there than in normal intersections, so I don’t think it made the intersection safer. I’ll concede it’s easier, though.

I know roundabouts are supposed to slow individual cars down while speeding up traffic flows at the same time. It’s like congestion alchemy, turning gridlock into quality time. Perhaps that idea worked a little too well with our town’s first attempt at circular roads down by the rodeo grounds. That is a short and exciting section of pavement.

It’s a small-enough roundabout to where you can engage drivers coming from other directions in impromptu games of chicken. It encourages people to speed up and avoid eye contact as they get nearer to the roundabout, hoping to shoot through just ahead of the car converging fast from another direction. I don’t think the situation is as dangerous as it is competitive. Nobody looks scared when they get cut off there; they just look mad, like NASCAR drivers do when a competitor sneaks in just ahead of them as the caution flag comes out.

That roundabout also has some exciting attributes of a go-kart track, especially heading east down Brush Creek Road. If you come into it next to the right-hand curb, you can delay the start of your turn a second or two so that you can then graze the apex of the inside circumference and then exit in almost a straight line through the slight S-curves before the road straightens out. If you do it right, you can carry a lot of speed to the point where the bike path crosses. You can tell a lot of people are practicing this maneuver by the grooves formed in the track — I mean road.

Overall, I think our roundabouts are better than Aspen’s, whose big one spins off cars to the schools and hospital and is poorly designed for the way traffic moves there. Basically, you have a massive flow of commuters flowing east in the mornings that continually has to yield to a trickle of traffic coming out of Aspen and through the roundabout to drop kids off at school or go to the hospital. It’s like 1,000 cars have to stop to let one minivan through every 30 seconds. It is the perfect engineering execution of almost complete inefficiency. The process is reversed in the afternoons with nearly identical ineffectiveness caused by downvalley-bound minivans cutting off tired workers trying to get out of town.

The Aspen roundabout works really well about 22 hours a day. The problem is that it takes rush hours off. The unfortunate thing about that is it requires most of the rest of the day to clear out the logjam of cars it created just when we needed it most.

I hope we’re finished building roundabouts in Snowmass Village. There was no technological breakthrough or great new discovery that suddenly made traffic circles relevant. They’ve been the bane of Europe for decades. I’m convinced they are a fad here and, like a stain, impossible to remove once set. I’d like to be on the cutting edge when lighted intersections with programmable turn signals come back in vogue.

Roger Marolt believes we could have discouraged car trips from Aspen to the school campus by programming a left-hand turn signal in the intersection to once every 10 minutes. Email roger@maroltllp.com.


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