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Coming ‘Round to an Old Idea

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Calabasas has its well-heeled residents driving in circles. But few seem to mind.

The upper-crust community in the foothills of the Santa Monica Mountains is one of the latest California cities to build traffic circles and roundabouts.

“It’s good because it slows down traffic, and we have a lot of kids around here,” said Randy Marks, who lives a few yards from one of several roundabouts installed over the last two years in Calabasas.

The city known for its annual pumpkin festival may be on the crest of a hot new trend. Although roundabouts are as common as pubs in Europe, there are only about 300 in the United States, mostly on the East Coast.

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Last year, roundabouts were constructed in Santa Barbara and Seal Beach. Calabasas has built about a dozen over the last two years. And more are planned or under consideration in Castaic, East Los Angeles, Berkeley, Carlsbad and Fresno.

The California Department of Transportation is also putting a new spin on freeway offramps. After years of skepticism about roundabouts, Caltrans approved preliminary guidelines in 1998 for building roundabouts adjoining state roads and freeways.

In fact, Calabasas is so high on the concept that it is planning roundabouts at both Lost Hills Road offramps from the Ventura Freeway.

“We are definitely looking to do three or four more, but it will take time,” said Robert Yalda, Calabasas’ director of transportation and intergovernmental relations.

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Roundabouts may confuse some novices, but advocates say they appear to reduce deadly accidents.

A recent study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety of 24 intersections converted to roundabouts found a 38% drop in accidents and a 89% decline in accidents that caused death and serious injury.

In a roundabout, motorists must slow to about 15 mph to merge onto a one-way roadway, typically built around a landscaped circle. The elimination of traffic signals tends to prevent the sort of catastrophic accidents that occur when a driver runs a red light and plows into crossing traffic. Mistakes at roundabouts usually result in fender benders, not fatalities, traffic experts say.

The roundabout design also eliminates left turns, a major cause of accidents. Collisions resulting from drivers turning right into fast-moving traffic are also taken out of the mix.

In hopes of reducing such accidents, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority agreed in July to spend $6.8 million to build a roundabout where Cesar E. Chavez Avenue, Indiana Street, Lorena Street and Brooklyn Place meet--a notoriously dangerous East Los Angeles intersection known as Cinco Puntos (Five Points). The project is expected to be completed in 2006.

But in Southern California--home to the nation’s worst traffic congestion--many cities are looking to roundabouts for another reason: increasing traffic capacity.

Santa Barbara cut traffic delays in half last year when it installed a roundabout at Milpas and Carpinteria streets near U.S. 101.

Two more roundabouts are planned adjacent to California 217 in Goleta, west of the city, to improve the flow of traffic heading to UC Santa Barbara.

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Roundabouts move more traffic because motorists must merge into the first available gap in the stream of circling vehicles. Traffic flows constantly--as opposed to the pattern at traditional intersections with signals, where drivers must stop for red lights even when there are no other cars present.

Los Angeles County officials hope to improve traffic flow at two intersections in Castaic, adjacent to the Golden State Freeway on Hasley Canyon Road. Construction on the $25-million project, which includes a road and bridge widening along with the roundabouts, will begin in January.

Another plus for roundabouts is that they eliminate the need for signals, which require electricity 24 hours a day and regular maintenance of the bulbs and circuitry.

Yalda said a typical traffic signal and a landscaped roundabout cost similar amounts to install: about $120,000. But a roundabout’s maintenance--which amounts to watering and pruning the trees and greenery--costs about one-third as much as a signal’s.

Fern Huddleston, a longtime Calabasas resident whose home is next to a roundabout at Ambridge and De Berry drives, was initially skeptical about the traffic-calming qualities of the project. But she now notices that traffic on her street has slowed a bit.

She also thinks the landscaped circle is a nice addition to the neighborhood.

“Aesthetically, I love it,” she said as she looked from her porch at the trees and shrubs sprouting from the nearby roundabout.

But roundabouts have some drawbacks.

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To provide enough room for big rigs and fire engines to navigate, they often require more land than traditional intersections. Sidewalks are sometimes sacrificed to provide the space.

And because roundabouts are so scarce in the U.S., many American drivers are stumped at how they should insert their rectangular car into the round (traffic) hole. The California Department of Motor Vehicles drivers handbook gives no clue about how to tackle the task.

Some older traffic circles have become notorious.

In Long Beach, some find the crossing of Pacific Coast Highway, Lakewood Boulevard and Los Coyotes Diagonal so confusing and frightening that an urban legend has emerged. Critics like to say the roundabout’s designer was killed while attempting to make his way around the circle. But the 1930s-era intersection is so old that no one quite knows whether that is true.

One recent foray into the traffic control alternative failed. Claremont built a circle in August 1999, then dismantled it in less than a year.

Transportation officials had hoped the redesigned intersection of Indian Hill Boulevard and Bonita Avenue would attract more pedestrian shoppers and improve traffic flow.

To appease skeptical residents, the city agreed to a six-month trial of the traffic circle. A city survey shortly found out that 63% of Claremont residents opposed the roundabout. They considered it confusing and dangerous.

“The public hated it,” said Craig Bradshaw, Claremont city engineer.

The roundabout was ripped out in April 2000. The city has no plans to go down that road again.

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If you have questions, comments or story ideas regarding driving or traffic in Southern California, send an e-mail to behindthewheel@latimes.com.


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