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Politically Incorrect

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Politically Incorrect

Round and round and round it goes

My first experience with roadway roundabouts should have put me off them forever. This story happened one day when I was driving in Karachi, Pakistan, population 15.5 million—one of the ten largest cities in the world, and larger than any city in the U.S.

At the time I was driving there, however, the population was only 5.5 million (which would put it in second place against current American cities—only New York City exceeds that amount today), and I think they were all on the road with me.

I was on one of Karachi’s many divided highways, with four lanes going in my direction. Cars all over Europe and Asia are smaller than American cars, however, so they pretty much drove those roads five cars across. And not just cars. Traveling at various rates of “highway” speed on the road with me were cars, trucks, buses, camel-drawn wagons, donkey-drawn carts, and moped/human/donkey-powered rickshaws.
Karachi, of course, has a large Muslim population, and a major religious tenet for them is Insha’Allah, which roughly translated means, “if it’s God’s will.” In driving terms, it translates as, “if it’s God’s will that I die at this red light then I’ll die, and if it’s God’s will that I live, I’ll live—therefore, there is no reason to actually stop at the red light.”

Karachi’s substantial Hindu population also contributes to the adventure of driving through the city, because cows are sacred and are allowed to roam freely. This is hazardous enough in lightly populated Montana, but made for some interesting maneuvers in one of the largest cities in the world.

By the way, they drive on the “wrong” side of the road in Karachi, and the steering wheel is on the wrong side of the car. The stick shift, interestingly enough, is actually just the same, however, so when you pull the shifter toward you and down, you’re actually in third gear, not first.

I was not long into this thrill ride when I encountered my first-ever roundabout, and some small part of me is a little bit amazed that I’m not circling it still. But I didn’t have time to panic; or maybe it’s that I was already in such a state of panic I couldn’t have become any more so. Whichever is the case, I found the roundabout to be a piece of cake—a strangely intuitive way to negotiate intersections that made me an immediate convert.

But I came back to the U.S., where we’re awfully scared of roundabouts it seems, so my second driving encounter with a roundabout didn’t occur until I happened on the one installed about ten years ago in Santa Barbara, Calif., at the end of the 101 exit for Milpas Street. The intersection of Milpas and Carpenteria, which includes two highway ramps, had been an area of frequent traffic delays, and the city wanted to address the problem with a traffic circle. Caltrans didn’t approve, so state law was changed in order to give the city control of the intersection (Milpas is part of State Route 144). I found that one to be a piece of cake, too, though I admit I didn’t drive on it often as I was only in town for a visit.

Then came the Fifth Avenue improvement project in Sandpoint. When was that? Seven years ago? Kody Van Dyck was the director of transportation for the city of Sandpoint at the time (as he is today), and I visited with him for a bit and suggested the city consider installing roundabouts—one of the greatest benefits of a roundabout is the ability to keep traffic moving and avoid back-ups, something Sandpoint is notorious for, especially given its peculiar timing cycles for stoplights. Kody laughed at me. He was very nice about it, and indicated he sort of liked traffic circles himself, but nonetheless let off a few guffaws as he explained to me that Sandpoint just wasn’t ready for a roundabout.

So what, just because we’re rural North Idaho we’re somehow too ignorant to recognize a benefit when it becomes available?! Are our drivers so inept they can’t negotiate a traffic circle?

Whatever the reason, Fifth Avenue was widened and drivers continued to experience clogged traffic thanks to the lights at Larch and Cedar (plus the inexplicable narrowing of the road just past the Visitor Info center going north).

In the meantime, Coeur d’Alene installed two roundabouts on Fourth Avenue. (I think they have four in Coeur d’Alene, but I’m not sure where the other two are.) My sweet boy lives just off Fourth, so when I go to visit I make sure to get off 95 early, just so I can utilize the roundabouts.

They are roundabouts, by the way, and Sandpoint’s is as well. With a roundabout, the traffic in the circle has the right-of-way; drivers entering must yield to drivers already there. A traffic circle is just the opposite: entering drivers have the right-of-way, while those in the circle must yield to those entering.
Now you’ll get the definition right if you’re ever tested on it.

So, almost a decade after the Fifth Avenue improvement project, and Sandpoint is finally installing a roundabout, at the corner of Boyer and Larch. And given the tenor of comments online responding to stories in the Bonner County Daily Bee, Kody might have been right about Sandpoint’s readiness to embrace a roundabout.

Though, by the time you read this, the roundabout should be fait accompli. (Yes, the French have a lot of roundabouts, too.) The roundabout is open for traffic. The city has offered instructions for how to use it online here: (If that doesn't work, just go to the city's website,  select “Public Works,” and select “roundabout driving instructions.”)

Interestingly enough, when the Spokesman-Review’s Dave Oliveria asked for opinions on Sandpoint’s roundabout on his blog, the responses (none from Sandpoint, I think) were all positive.

That happens a lot with roundabouts, it seems. Initially there’s a lot of opposition then, once people actually experience them, they’re fine. In fact, they tend to become, if not proselytizers for the cause, then at least converts.

Why would this be so? Partly because of their ability to relieve traffic congestion, I would guess. Anyone whose regular commute involves wasting a lot of time sitting at a light might tend to appreciate something that gets them more quickly to their destination. But there’s other benefits to roundabouts as well: less time spent idling means less money wasted on gas and less toxic exhaust entering the atmosphere; many studies have shown a decrease in traffic accidents when roundabouts are installed, and when accidents do occur, they tend to cause less damage than accidents at an intersection; there are reduced long-term costs; and to most people, they’re simply more attractive in appearance than a four-way intersection with lights.

My friend Ward, whose house fronts on Sandpoint’s new traffic circle, would disagree with my support. He’s been quite fond of saying he’s willing to sell tickets for seats on his lawn to watch what a disaster this will be. And I can’t blame him for being less than positive about it. No one likes to be a guinea pig, and given the high truck traffic at the intersection of Larch and Boyer, this might not be the location I would have selected for our first traffic circle. (Division and Pine—that’s where we need one! Just sayin’, Kody.)

God only knows there’s a learning curve whenever anything new is tried, but I hope, for more than Ward’s sake, that he’s wrong about what a roundabout will mean for Sandpoint’s traffic.

Although traffic at that intersection will increase by one for a while... that will be me, riding around and around and around.

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Landon Otis

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Roundabout, Sandpoint

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