A recent article in Macleans commented on the proliferation of roundabouts in Canada, and the ability that they have to scare seniors. The article outlines many great reasons for making use of roundabouts as opposed to more conventional intersection designs commonly found in Canada, i.e., the four-way stop, and the T intersection. Research out of Europe and the US has shown that roundabouts result in fewer, and less severe accidents because vehicles tend to be moving slower, crashes tend not to be head-on or broadside, and they tend to reduce the risk of drivers misjudging the gaps in oncoming traffic. All great things. But, the article raises very real concerns regarding pedestrian safety. Who does have right-of-way? What visual queues are drivers, pedestrians and cyclists given with regard to right-of-way? Should motorized vehicles always have right-of-way? Can pedestrians and cyclists be given right-of-way in urban/built-up areas, while vehicles retain right-of-way everywhere else?
The safest approach is to separate pedestrians and cyclists completely from the roundabout by incorporation of under or overpasses, but this is not likely to be practical, nor cost effective in an urban pedestrian friendly setting. Additionally, underpasses are often perceived to be unsafe, and overpasses uncomfortable.
It would appear to me that transport engineers spend a lot of time designing traffic calming measures (right angle connections, splitter lanes, traversable aprons and lane dividers, etc.) for roundabouts to make them safer for motorized vehicles, but comparatively little time seems to be spent on making them safe for pedestrians and cyclists. Whether this is a fair assumption or not, if we consider Bev Sandalacks comments on walkability then the pedestrian and cyclist environment must also be safe and comfortable. As Bev notes, the morphology of a place, the roundabout in this case, will influence how it is used by vehicles, pedestrians, and cyclists. With respect to pedestrian navigation, the built form should tell pedestrians, cyclists and road users where they belong and highlight those places where conflict might occur. When it doesn’t, confusion will likely ensue.
Unfortunately, one thing that I have noticed is that it is not always very clear where the crossings at a roundabout are, which will result in greater cognitive disability. The addition of pedestrian crossings, at least, will help inform both pedestrians and vehicle traffic of the existence of a pedestrian right-of-way. Planter boxes, Bollards, raised crossings, etc., can all aid pedestrian navigation, and indicate the likely presence of pedestrians to drivers. I also find that crossings are often placed quite close to the beginning of the exit lane from a roundabout, most likely because the crossings are commonly placed so that one vehicle can sit between the crossing and the entry to the roundabout. This leads me to ask, are drivers able to navigate the exit and identify if there are pedestrians or cyclists in the vicinity. This may seem simple enough, but when many locals tell me that they find roundabouts uncomfortable, it makes me wonder if pedestrian/cyclist crossings shouldn’t be located further away from the roundabout for the simple reason that it gives everybody more time to see what is going on around them and react accordingly. Another small design change could be to introduce a couple of bends in the alignment of the crossing on the splitter/median as this would help to force pedestrians and cyclists to reassess traffic gaps mid crossing, from a safe local. Many of these approaches are not new and have been used in many different parts of the world, particularly in the Netherlands, but few methods appear to have been adopted here.
I like roundabouts, but I don’t believe it is a good idea to make pedestrians cross multiple lanes on roundabouts clearly designed to move traffic. Whereas, in instances where the focus is clearly on the pedestrian, or should be focused on the pedestrian (urban settings), then there are many design features that could be incorporated into roundabouts that aren’t. Perhaps if they were, roundabouts might not scare quite so many seniors.