Friday, April 27, 2012



     --forming Vermont's first “roundabout corridor”

Vermont Public Radio this week reported the construction start of two roundabouts in the “5th Avenue in the Mountains,” Manchester Center, VT which includes converting an intersection (VT 7A/30) popularly known as “dysfunction junction” to just the opposite, “function junction.”

It took a couple of decades and perseverance but the two intersections involved ensure the far easier followup signal conversion tasks which when completed establishes a walker and bicycle friendly shopping and living environment without a single signal to mar what essentially is a pristine Vermont mountain valley featuring mostly 18th and 19th century style “our town” New England architecture. Manchester's Planner Lee Krohn deserves an award for persistence!  So too do the other leaders of Manchester over many years.  Credit the Town which commissioned now renowned landscape architect Robert A. White of Norwich who guided the Manchester Center plan for walking circulation issued in 1995, the first all-roundabout town center circulation study in the U.S.  (Keene, NH eight years later became the first urban city to study conversion of all its major signalized [and non-signalized] intersections to roundabouts, Missoula, MT the first metro to do the same, and "U.S. roundabout capital" Carmel, IN with a population of about 80,000 already two-thirds of the way towards being in the words of its Mayor a one-traffic signal town with 100 roundabouts).

One cannot forget former VT Senator Jim Jeffords who helped put the word "roundabout" for for the first time in federal transportation law and got funding for undergrounding of the Manchester Center project utilities.  Yes, second roundabout a the “center” of the Center, the upper mini roundabout, will be the first official Vermont mini, a roundabout with a traversable central area (VT 7A/11/30).  With the completion of the two new roundabouts Manchester Center becomes home of the first Vermont “roundabout corridor” as they join the other VT 7A roundabout dating from 1997, Grand Union Roundabout about three blocks south of soon to be “function junction.” The first U.S. roundabout corridor plan belongs to the Brattleboro (VT) Putney Road.

Unfortunately the U.S. lags several developed nations in roundabout adoption even though roundies cut injuries for walkers up to 90% (same for car occupants), cut emissions and gasoline consumption by about a third at busy intersections, increase business vitality in the immediate area, and--like soon to be "function junction"--increase access to and development of nearby land, thereby enabling denser land development which by definition curbs sprawl. Vermont and other states need to join New York and Virginia Departments of Transportation by adopting “roundabouts only” policies. (Two of ten Canadian provinces already boast such policies.)

Now there remains the easiest task of all, completing the 1995 White plan by converting the few signals left along VT 11 to the US 7 interchange.  Then Manchester Center can become a no-signal shopping mecca with completely comfortable and safe walking conditions!

Tuesday, April 24, 2012


THE DECLINE OF CAR TRAVEL IN VERMONT, NEW ENGLAND: IT IS NOT JUST DEMOGRAPHICS AND GAS PRICES AS SURVEYS SHOW IT INVOLVES LOTS OF FACTORS INCLUDING THE APPARENT YOUNGER CONSUMER CHOOSING THE “APPLE-ING” OF LIFE OVER CARCENTRICITY A historic upheaval in U.S. car use and travel trends suggests that the changing curve from ever upward to flat and declining in car comes from some surprising sources, sources unconnected to the easy to point to elements like population growth, gas prices and income stagnation. In slow population growth states--like  five of the six in New England states—these new factors practically assures negative car travel numbers this decade. A study released this month reported in the Financial Times  (April 19, 2012) helps amplify the historic low of New England car travel growth of 3 percent 2000-2010, and this reporting adds to the mounting evidence other New England states will soon join Rhode Island which recorded an unprecedented auto age decade to decade negative 2000-2010, -0.3, in annual vehicle miles of travel. The Financial Times reported U.S. study showing a five percent decline in those ages 14-34 with a drivers license during th last decade. And those aged16-33 with incomes over $70,000 from 2000 to 2009 doubled their use of public transit and cycling. (Nationally all urban trips by bicycle modal share has hung around one percent, but still, doubling any bicycle modal share stands out.) And for that same age group miles driven actually decreased.  Note All these trends do not take full account of the impacts of the 2008 economic collapse and continued gas prices rising faster than general inflation. The Financial Times piece says Detroit carmakers worrying about this trend which hits directly on existing and future car sales potentials. These national trends simply add to the New England demographic typified by Vermont which the U.S. census projects 2000-2030 no increase in 65-and-under population while the the older population will more than double, the latter characterized by historically driving about 40 percent less miles per year than the prime aged drivers, 25-55. My immediate family—myself, three 30-something sons with two married and no children—may be unusual but among seven adults in three households there are two vehicles and three of the seven adults without a drivers license. All live in urban areas and the two cars, both in one household, get used for job commutes of about five miles. Three of our four households depend entirely on walking, bicycling and public transit. Recall the New England numbers from the past decade—3.7% population growth, 3.1% growth in annual vehicle miles of travel 2010 versus 2000, and 0.6% increase in gasoline use. With Vermont leading the three states with negative gas consumption during 2000-2010 with a 8% drop, New England may move very close to 1990 gas consumption by the end of this decade. If the coming generation banks on giving up the car for an Apple-centric, social networking, urban car-free culture, the car travel numbers for this decade may not only decline but continue to decline at a rate not far from the New England 16% 1990s decrease to 3% in the last decade. This could mean a double digit decline this decade, more than my own estimate of -3 to -8% for 2010-2020. My own estimate takes into account the changing age demographic, gas prices increasing faster than incomes and increasing initiatives in tamping down driving mostly through encouraging and improving alternative modes—but that estimate does not contemplate wholesale abandonment of the younger generation of car travel altogether or in the case of the well-to-do dropping their car annual miles of travel. Finally, the New England numbers would be similar to those in other slower growing parts of the nation, primarily the other northeast and north central states and signal a rapid change in travel habits in the faster growing population regions. Finally for Vermont, other New England States, and those with slow growing states which will see mostly 65-and-over population growth consider the mountain to climb even to consider any vehicle miles of travel growth from now until 2030. First, you have to keep all the following factors equal to conditions today: (1) no change in the price of gasoline; (2) no investment in reducing solo commuting or car use in general; (3) no increase relative to vehicle travel of any public transportation from trains to buses; and (4) no efforts at increasing walking trips, bicycle trips or densification of urban land uses. Second, the trend towards less driver licensing and car use by the coming generation—particularly by the well-to-do, must return to turn of the century status. Given these two conditions then—and Vermont is the best example—the only growth which can occur in car travel primarily comes from the increase in the 65-and-over population, the only population segment which is projected to increase in the next 20 years. Moreover, the 65-and-over drivers vehicle miles of travel are 40% less than the average for all drivers. At best one gets—given these assumption—the potential of 0.2-03% growth yearly, 2-3% growth per decade. Perhaps this scenario gives a picture of why the “car travel bears” continue to see negative growth for some time to come.

Friday, April 13, 2012



A question about considering roundabouts at the two intersections involved in a sidewalk project along the Underhill (VT) village section of VT 15 arose during a presentation at the recent Walk/Bike Summit in Burlington. Good question!

The approach taken today for current “roundabouts only” policies at first glance applies to existing and new busy urban intersections serving walkers, including practically all signalized intersections which by nature are “busy.” But installing a first up-to-date sidewalk in the Underhill in a typical rural village center area and also addressing associated intersections with roundabouts at affected intersections? With a series of bicycle and walker projects installing new or major upgrades of existing sidewalks for safety the question of insuring walker safety at associated intersections largely has been ignored.

Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) points to sidewalks as a high level safety treatment which reduces walker injuries by almost 90%--and separately we know single lane roundabouts also reduce walker injuries by a similar 90%. In fact with about 2,500 roundabouts in the U.S. now and “roundabout years” about 13,000 not a single walker fatality has yet occurred.

The Underhill sidewalk project extends about a quarter mile along VT 15 starting at the Park Street intersection and extends just past another busy intersection, Meadow Lane. The sidewalk clearly makes sense and fits the Underhill needs in the rural built up community area and in part replaces an old rundown sidewalk.

Clearly the two intersections in question meet the “busy” category with entering traffic numbers somewhat below the first Vermont roundabout, Keck Circle in downtown Montpelier. Just as clear roundabouts at the two intersections would bring a substantial safety benefit to the sidewalk users. At least one of the Underhill intersections appears to offer no serious right-of-way issues for a roundabout. It should be noted that roundabouts traffic calm by reducing speeds up to 900 feet away along each leg. And for car occupants the single laner also reduces serious injuries by 90%. The VT 15 roadway in question current speed limit of 35 mph also suggests needs to moderate speeds at crossings used by walkers which a roundabout can offer. Across the Lake Champlain the New York State Department of Transportation (NYSDOT) installs only roundabouts at new or existing intersections since that policy policy took effect in 2005.

The landmark U.S. roundabout study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found anything but a roundabout generates on average a 900% greater rates of serious injuries and fatalities. The American Automobile Association (AAA) last November calls for creating a national highway safety policy starting with a goal of a “zero fatality rate.”

One question we need to ask is should we be building new sidewalks whose goal is safety for walkers without building “safe” intersections, i.e., the roundabout, for those same walkers to use? The Underhill sidewalk project cost estimated in 1997 at $360,000. Two roundabouts would more than triple that cost but also provide increased safety to car occupants as well as walkers. Obviously one can argue that the best use of scarce transportation dollars is to invest in converting busy urban signalized intersections to roundabouts—and certainly prioritization of intersections investments would tend in that direction, i.e., the more walkers and vehicles the higher on the list for converting the intersection to a roundabout. On the other hand a roundabout project is “one and done” generally never requiring expensive maintenance and periodic updating typical of the now obsolete signal treatments.

But what of Underhill and a new sidewalk and two busy rural but busy intersections? Can one neatly divide the issue of safety for walkers provided by the sidewalk from the relative unsafety of the two signed controlled intersections which are part and parcel of the Underhill sidewalk route? Do we want to build new infrastructure unsafe for our children? Because there are lots benefits to a roundabout from increasing business access to car occupant safety, then installing roundabouts make sense as part of any new walking facility which connect with or passes through busy intersections The Federal Highway Administration in safety investments values a life saved at $6.0 million (2009 dollars) and $126,000 for an injury.

Vermont's roadway and street policy became muddled last year as it adopted a mis-named “complete streets” law, better described as an “incomplete streets law” which may fairly deal with street sections but totally ignores safety at intersections. The intersection issue in the law can be addressed by adding a policy similar to the NYSDOT “roundabouts only” regulation, and providing guidance regarding new sidewalk projects—such as Underhill—by addressing associated intersections at the same time for “safety” for walkers (and by default car occupants).

Snow plowing and large truck movements often get attention as reasons not to build roundabouts even though neither has any basis in fact. The Vermont Agency of Transportation (VAOT) regularly plows roundabouts, a single laner in East Barre on US 302 and a two laner at the I 91/US 5/VT Brattleboro interchange built more than a dozen years ago. As for trucks 42 daily pass through Keck Circle in Montpelier and 84 tractor trailers through the other Montpelier roundabout at the US 2/302 intersection. The Brattleboro two-laner handles over 900 tractor-trailer trucks daily.

The citizens of Underhill deserve a walker-safe facility and that means the new sidewalk and roundabouts at one or both of the two busy intersections. In this case of walker safety half-a-loaf is not better than one.

Sunday, April 1, 2012



About 100 attendees, mostly biking enthusiasts, gathered at the Main Street Landing “Lake and College Building” in Burlington Saturday (March 31) though nary a discussion occurred at the joint sessions about the treatment critical to walker safety: the roundabout.

Even the keynote speaker who also presented, Jeff Olson, the former New York State Department of Transportation bicycle pedestrian coordinator failed to mention that across the lake the roundabout became his former employer's policy standard seven years ago. While Vermont already has six walker fatalities this year compared to an average of four annually in the recent past, nothing about walker safety creeped into discussions. Burlington itself experienced a fatal and a serious injury at signalized intersections in a recent week.

The nation with an impressive comprehensive highway safety plan—France—leads the world in the number of roundabouts, about 31,000 at the end of 2010 building with 1,400 built yearly 1993-2003. The U.S.? A construction of 750 would be good for this year, about a $1.5 billion investment—if the U.S. invested at the rate of the French in the 1990s we would be building about ten times the current rate, about 7,000 roundabouts annually at a cost of about $15 billion--more than twice the amount built in the 21 years 1990-2011, about 2,500 roundabouts built. One cannot begin the policy of a “zero fatality rate” challenge posed for the first time by AAA without an aggressive investment in roundabouts. The U.S.--and Canada—remain two nations completely lacking even a hint of a comprehensive highway and street safety program, one with measurable goals by mode and ongoing monitoring of performance.

Vermont with eight roundabouts since the first in 1995 will have at least ten by the end of the year as two begin construction in Manchester Center this spring—a “French production rates” would be about 15-20 a year with at least a third in the Burlington metro area.

While roundabouts at busy intersections cut gasoline and emissions (including greenhouse gases) by about a third, reduce delay for all users, traffic calm in all directions to nearly 900 feet, and enable more walking and bicycling, their most important user impact is on average a reduction of serious injuries and fatalities by 90%. Car occupants and walkers get the bulk of the safety benefit and no modes receive a penalty.

Vermont boasts the first state or province policy in law to employ roundabouts at dangerous intersections, but Vermont has fallen behind as New York, Virginia and two western Canadian provinces which adopted “roundabouts only” policies.

Ironically, this year marks the 20th anniversary of the August 1992 three day walking/bicycling workshop in Montpelier where roundabouts were first introduced to community leaders and officials—and Montpelier home to the first northeastern roundabout in 1995, Brattleboro which led the northeast with the first interstate interchange roundabout in 1999 and Manchester Center in 1997 led the construction of the first Vermont roundabouts.

Perhaps next year the Chittenden Walk/Bike Summit will hear about the intersection which is standard in the land across the waters of Lake Champlain. Then perhaps advocacy can nudge the building of more roundabouts thereby bringing improved walker safety not only for the Burlington area but for the State as well.