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June 15, 2011

It's a Roundabout Not a Rotary, Stupid

Time lapse photograph of the Winooski rotary at night If you care to thumb through this week's Seven Days, you'll find a little story about the hipsterfication of Winooski. Well, not exactly. It's more about how the tiny city is leveraging the talents of its newest residents — young creatives — to make itself rad. (Read: hipsterfication) Leading the charge is Jessica Bridge, Realtor, tattoo studio owner, lady about town and president of the WInooski Community Partnership, the downtown business group charged with upping the city's awesome quotient.

When I talked with Bridge for the story, we spent a lot of time gabbing about the 10-ton elephant in the middle of the street — the rotary. Actually, it's technically not a rotary; it's a roundabout, or so says the city manager. But who can trust those people? Can you call it a traffic circle? What about a thoroughfare oval? A vehicular infield?

Anyway, here's what Bridge had to say about the roundabout: Get over it. Literally, that's what she said. I should put that in quotes so you know I didn't make it up. Since the roundabout was constructed six years ago as a way to make traffic flow more efficiently, people have used it as an excuse for why people don't come to Winooski and why businesses don't set up shop there. But, argued Bridge, the roundabout is not the cause of the city's issues. So get over it.

The roundabout serves a function. It wasn't meant to be anything but a traffic calming device. That it was even landscaped in the center is a bonus, regardless of whether or not the city's residents take advantage of the 14 benches scattered inside the roundabout. As Bridge said, it's not going to be a skatepark or an amphitheatre or an ice skating rink, so get over it. Though it might be a sculpture park, if the WCP gets its way.

Despite its being such a huge part of downtown 'Noosk's built landscape, I've hardly given a thought to the roundabout. I used to live in the UK, which I'm pretty sure invented the roundabout in some quaint thatch-roof cottage in the Cotswolds, so I'm pretty familiar with how to navigate them. Winooski's has never seemed all that exceptional or problematic. But perhaps that's because I don't live there and don't tend to think about things that do not immediately or directly affect me. Like Kim Kardashian's ass. Or third world debt.

But, since I'm a bangin'-ass journalist and all about "participant observation," I figured I needed to actually witness the impacts the roundabout has on the city. And what better way to do that than by hanging out inside the roundabout?

I figured I would stay there for an hour — it was a beautiful day, and I could work on my tan while getting paid. (Really, let's not kid ourselves — I'd have to camp out there for three years to get any color). I sat on one of the benches, applied some SPF 3000 and began observing.

And really, there was nothing to see. At least not inside the roundabout.

Every so often, a person would walk past me, crossing from one side of the roundabout to the other. None of them tarried in the space, despite the soothing water feature and swaths of green grass just begging to be sat upon. By my count, 15 people walked through the roundabout in an hour, en route to somewhere else. There were a couple of college-aged folks shuffling to Spinner Place, a pair of kids on scooters and a father/daughter combo carrying fishing poles and a tackle box. Cute.

After about 15 minutes of observing, I was cooking on that bench and decided to move to some shade. I parked it under one of the roundabout's many trees and resumed my "reporting." I will tell you that watching traffic is an acquired taste, like okra or men with hairy backs. It's generally pretty boring. Cars sped around the roundabout's curves, one after another, in an endless stream of metal and rubber. I tried counting the vehicles, but my efforts were futile. Plus, counting traffic is stupid. Unless you're Rain Man.

But, while I was trying to count, I witnessed a highly entertaining exchange between the respective drivers of a Ford F-150 and a Honda Civic, which I will recount for you below.

In this production of "Roundabout Road Rage," the role of Maniac will be played by the late Macho Man Randy Savage, while snapping into a Slim Jim. The role of Pencil Neck will be played by that guy who played Lewis in Revenge of the Nerds.

Maniac driving the F-150 (to the Honda Civic): "Stay in your fucking lane!"

Pencil Neck operating the Honda Civic: "Fuck off!" 

And scene.

Wow. High drama at the roundabout. Sadly, that was about as interesting as it got. Flags fluttered, seagulls turned, the occasional plane roared overhead. But no more road rage. Soon I was lulled to sleep by the swaying of the tree branches above me. I woke up to three high school kids staring at me like I had a nipple for a nose, which I do, but that's a story for another day.

What I learned about the Winooski roundabout during my reporting was this: Despite the cacophony of the traffic sounds and the somewhat intimidating crossing situation, the roundabout is a pleasant place to be. And, love it or hate it, it's going to be there for some time to come. So get over it.     

Photo via Winooski Falls.

It's true, everyone needs to get over it. The road is built, and it's a done deal. I will say however, that this particular roundabout was built incorrectly. The roundabout needs two lanes around the entire circle. At the top of the circle, everything bottlenecks. This is why it doesn't work very well. Every rotary or roundabout in the world has two or three lanes inside the circle. This allows cars to flow smoothly in, keep moving, change lanes if necessary, and then flow out, all without stopping. Roundabouts work flawlessly all over the world, and in many parts of america. The problem in winooski is that the traffic still comes to a stop. Bad design.

I have to agree with Slim -- yep, people need to get over it, but that doesn't mean it was built correctly. I recently moved away from Vermont, but I lived in Winooski for seven years prior. My beef with the rotary is that it's DANGEROUS, particularly for pedestrians -- and, I should know because I nearly hit a half dozen of them while trying to look behind me, to the side of me and all around me to make sure my car wasn't going to get clipped by other drivers who were doing the same thing.

My understanding of a roundabout is that it's designed to keep traffic moving -- but the Winooski roundabout has cars stopping every 50 feet for pedestrians (sometimes with traffic lights, sometimes not). The circle is simply too small to have traffic lights -- as I'm stopping, the guy behind me is still looking in his blind spot to ensure he won't crash (thereby not noticing a line of cars stopped in front of him).

So, I understand the sentiment: Get over it. But, c'mon, you can't ignore safety issues.

IIRC the Winooski roundabout was originally built with two lanes all the way around but for some unknown reason they changed it within the first year, before folks even had a chance to learn how to navigate it properly.

It's there, and that's that. Get over it? No I don't think so. Remember it so that the next City Officials decide to do something intellectually challenged you can stand up and say wait a minute, hold on here. This country in general is way to passive about shit. Get mad, get angry, hold public officials accountable for doing dumb shit.

On another I agree that the main issue is the pedestrian cross walks, it defeats the entire purpose. Round about, rotary, traffic circle....I'm not sure it meets the definition of any of these. As for traffic flow it probably made it worse as now traffic has to filter on to the narrow tiny side streets to get on to Mallet's Bay Ave or even go to the fricken post office. But whatever, it is what it is and it isn't the reason for Winooski's trouble developing it's downtown area.

That falls to other reasons. A particular restaurant I visited the other day seemed to be more concerned with charging insane amounts to prove they are a hip posh place to eat. Food was terrible, service was terrible, and the price was unreasonable. They will be out of business shortly. 15 minutes to get a beer, and we were literally the ONLY table in the place.

Outside of that, whoever the utter moron was that went and patched all the concrete ought to be kicked down the road. Here you have a brand new "rotary" that they went and dug, up and patched it like it was a High School building trades class. But Hey, with all the "hip" new people flooding in I guess they have enough funds to not worry about things being done in a professional manner.

I adore the rotary. My morning and afternoon traffic challenge. It makes me feel alive. I look forward to finding out who is a dick for not allowing folks to merge from West Allen Street and who dares to test the timing by merging from East Allen Street....Glory be to Winooski for making the traffic circle something for Mario Andretti wannabes to play on....

I gotta say, I love the roundabout. I've never thought there was something to "get over." I drive through frequently -- I've lived a few blocks north of downtown for 8 years -- and I walk through several times a week when I take the bus, or go to Cupp's, or to the library. I think it's much safer for pedestrians. I try not to cross in the middle, but at one of the spots along the top, so that I'm walking around it rather than through it. That way, I'm only crossing one lane of traffic at a time. But I've only felt endangered maybe once or twice over the years while crossing in the middle.

And as a driver, I have no complaints. The intersection that was there before had people backed up farther and more frequently than the roundabout. Do people really not remember how bad that was?

I used to live in Winooski and went through that intersection every day. Usually at 7 and 4. Never once had an issue with back ups, at least not as a result of the intersection. If it was backed up it was usually due to some idiot driver. At least at those times anyway. I dare say whether its a conventional intersection or the rotary at 5-5:30 it's going to be backed up regardless. Maybe someday they will complete all three legs of the circ and that will alleviate traffic snarls. But my guess it we will have personal hover crafts before that happens.

Like the jug handle, if people actually obeyed the "DO NOT BLOCK INTESECTION" signs traffic would flow fine.

That thing stinks, particularly the unexpected bottle neck.
"Get over it" perfectly captures the Stalinesque character of central planning.
I have gotten over it, I take I-89 around Winooski where I used to drive it daily and, shop and dine there.

I don't mind the roundabout when I'm in my car. It's still totally weird, but I'm pretty used to it, and I've learned to avoid Route 15 around rush hour, lest I get stuck in a backup all the way to the train tracks (which I think would happen with or without a roundabout). I do think that signage could be improved, though, because that thing totally vexes out-of-towners.

The roundabout is pretty scary on a bike, though, and there's no real way around it since Winooski actually enforces their "no bike riding on the sidewalk" ordinance. The bike lane just disappears once you're in the roundabout, and next thing you know you're stuck between two cars that each want to merge into the other lane...yikes.

This pretty much sums it up. Big ups to the guy who created this page ;)!/pages/The-Winooski-Rotary/116357248426874

The bottleneck at the top is a flaw, but what backs it up are the out-routes backing up to the round-a-bout. If the noosk could time those lights a little better so the flow would be better accommodated during rush times.

But overall its better then it was. Sometimes I go around it twice making Mario Andretti noises just for kicks.

Even though this probably not the best rotary/ roundabout in the world, I would still rather have this then a typical intersection with stop lights, ect. Think of the 80% of the time when the traffic isn't bad, and you don't have wait at a stop light while no one else is coming the other way. That's why these are more efficient. The signals in Winooski only change if someone needs to cross. You have to wait for your turn when the traffic is bad...but I'm okay with this because it usually saves a lot of time otherwise.

I would echo the WTF sentiments in this thread regarding the bottleneck at the top of the roudabout and add my own about the TRAFFIC LIGHT that was added in the middle (look no further for an indicator of just how thoroughly un-thought-through the project was from the get go). Regarding the relative safety of the thing, this needn't be anecdotal. Somebody somewhere must have statistics of pedestrian injuries in the years before and after the introduction of the roundabout. Any idea where to get that info, 7Days journos?

Bill, IIRC, they were originally going to build pedestrian underpasses (deemed too expensive), before switching to pedestrian overpasses/bridges. That pissed some people off because it was going to be an eyesore or some such nonsense, so they ended up having to put in the pedestrian crossing lights, which I believe ended up being more expensive than the pedestrian underpass would've been.

Which pretty much sums up city planning in VT. Let's not pick on Winooski, almost every town is just as inept.

Point taken about town planning, Ben. And I'll add that the rest of the Noosk is looking pretty sweet these days. We took a little stroll through the farmers' market and along the river on Sunday while waiting for our Sneakers table and it was lovely. If not for that stupid roundabout...

I agree with Cathy Resmer -- I really like the roundabout. It has made my trips through Winooski much smoother, faster, and occasionally more interesting. The traffic lights, though ... although I assume they're for foot traffic, I can't tell you how many times I've almost run through one because I missed seeing it turn red while I was watching ahead for what the heck traffic was doing.

"Please take the third exit on the roundabound."

Bill, I'm pretty sure traffic studies relating to the roundabout can be found through the CCMPO (Chittenden County Metropolitan Planning Organization. ) Or at least, they're currently studying the effects of the "circulator" on traffic flows and safety. I think they will soon be conducting a Road Safety Audit for the roundabout. I also would bet the AOT has hard figures on roundabout traffic.

The problem with the roundabout is that it doesn't do what it was put in to do. It does not make traffic better. As a matter of fact, if anything, it makes it worse. During rush hour traffic can even be backed up so far as the cemetery on the hill (take it from one who has seen it from the vantage point of the CCTA bus)

I've lived here since 1981. I used to like Winooski. I don't think the problem with Winooski is just the roundabout, even tho as many folks stated, the roundabout is poorly designed. It's the ugly block building sitting next to it. It's ugly and out of place there. There is no charm at all to Winooski. Why they put that building there is beyond me, but that is the problem with the downtown area, that building is just awful.

Traffic discussions aside, my opinion about the problem with the rotary is (and the reason the storefronts on the south side of it still sit vacant) that there is no parking over there. Why didn't city planners put parking spaces there as they did on the north side? why not make the center smaller, clearly no one hangs out there much anyway, add some parking and a second lane?

Perhaps it might be improved by giving two lanes- the inner circle could go clockwise, the outer one counter clockwise.
It might be fun for a while.

I've been through Winooski only two or three times since the big revitalization and I never stop there any more. I can't stand the roundabout, those big ugly buildings are indeed eyesores and there's absolutely no reason for me to go there for anything.

The roundabout is built. What needs to be built is a pedestrian bridge and remove both pedestrian traffic lights.

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