When U.S. 41 was built in 1918 in Sarasota, it ran through downtown. In 1960, to reduce traffic downtown, the eastern shore of Sarasota Bay was filled in, and U.S. 41 was moved to run along the bayfront as it does today.
In October 2000, the Sarasota City Commission presented a draft of Sarasota’s Downtown Master Plan to the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) for review. New urbanism consultant Andres Duany recommended that Sarasota needed to become more walkable or pedestrian friendly to fully utilize its commercial and residential potential.
This led to proposals in the plan for traffic-calming devices in the downtown area and especially along the bayfront. These devices included reducing the number of lanes along the bayfront and roundabouts to replace the existing signaled intersections at Fruitville Road and Gulfstream Avenue.
The thought of narrowing U.S. 41 along the bayfront created a major public outcry, and the proposal was dropped. This left the two roundabouts as the main traffic devices to create a more pedestrian friendly environment along the bayfront.
On Oct. 25, 2000, FDOT wrote a letter to the city of Sarasota explaining its concerns about the introduction of roundabouts, including:
• The proposed roundabouts at U.S. 41 may result in additional traffic congestion and their approval should not be expected.
• Recommendations about signalization, such as installing new signals and modifying existing signal timing to facilitate pedestrian movement, must also be considered from the viewpoint of traffic movement and must meet signal warrants before they can be approved.
• U.S. 41 in the downtown area is currently operating at a level of service (LOS) “F” (A is very good; F is failing). With the changes proposed in the master plan, FDOT said it expected U.S. 41 will operate at an even poorer level of service.
After the city completed a final draft of the master plan in November 2000, FDOT authorized the consulting firm of Reynolds, Smith & Hills Inc. to conduct an assessment of Sarasota’s master plan. In a letter dated April 13, 2003, FDOT wrote regarding a roundabout at Gulfstream: “The department supports the concept of a three-legged signalized intersection at this location. A signal will provide a safer crossing for pedestrians than in-ground flashers in a roundabout.”
Flash forward to 2008. The Sarasota City Commission conducted a series of charrettes to explore “connecting the downtown to the bayfront.” Once again, the emphasis was on how to make the bayfront more pedestrian friendly.
The results of the charrettes clearly were biased — in large part because of the way they were framed. A question posed to those attending was not: “Should we make the bayfront easier to cross by calming traffic?” It was: “How can we make the bayfront easier to cross?”
This approach attracted a localized group of participants (66% said they lived within a five-minute walk of the bayfront), with a strong skew to pedestrians and bikers. The roughly 18,500 people who drive U.S. 41 every day (37,000 vehicles divided by two to reflect round trips) were not well represented in the charrettes.
Only 20% of the attendees said they lived beyond downtown Sarasota.
This means the opinions and suggestions that came out of the charrettes are far more reflective of the people who want to cross Bayfront Drive than those who actually use it as a road. Given the relative size of these two groups, 18,500 daily drivers versus a count by the Mobility Now group of 491 pedestrians (982 crossings divided by two for round trips) at Bayfront Drive, Gulfstream Avenue, Main Street and Ringling Boulevard, we have “public opinion” based on the view of a group that only represents 3% of the total users of the road.
The roundabout craze
Are roundabouts the way to make Bayfront Drive more pedestrian friendly?
There is no doubt that roundabouts can improve the driving and pedestrian experience. The reality, however, is that one size or type does not fit all situations. And, what works in one location may not work in another. The Clearwater roundabout is an excellent example.
Like Gulfstream Avenue and U.S. 41, the Clearwater roundabout is a three-legged intersection. It handles more cars and pedestrians than U.S. 41 at Gulfstream. Unfortunately, citing a three-legged design as a factor in potential roundabout efficiency is like saying a lion and an elephant are the same because they all have four legs.
The FDOT Roundabout Guide, considered the Florida pre-eminent authority on roundabouts, suggests that among the key elements determining the efficiency of a roundabout is the amount, speed and direction of the traffic flow. While the amount of traffic is in comparable ranges, the speed and directional flow of the traffic at the two intersections are different.
The majority of the traffic at the Clearwater roundabout enters the roundabout from the mainland and exits in one direction toward Clearwater Beach. The other two entry/exit legs carry little traffic to a residential neighborhood and a beach-access area.
This means there is less entering and merging required to enter the roundabout from two of the three legs.
It also facilitates pedestrian access because most pedestrians use the northwest half of the roundabout and don’t need to get all the way across the center circle.
The situation at Gulfstream is different because traffic is equally heavy in all three directions, and pedestrians trying to cross U.S. 41 would have to get all the way around the roundabout via a series of pedestrian splinter islands. This takes longer, is more inconvenient and forces pedestrians to step in front of slow-moving cars more often, presenting safety concerns.
And then there is the signalized-light issue. If Clearwater is such a good example of how a roundabout works, then why is there a signalized light at the eastern entrance from the mainland? Roundabouts aren’t supposed to need signalized lights. If they do, it’s technically a traffic circle, not a roundabout.
The light at the Clearwater roundabout is green most of the time. It only operates when there is a traffic backup entering the roundabout, a clear indication that the roundabout doesn’t function optimally in high-traffic volumes. If it did, it wouldn’t need a supporting signalized light.
Solution for Sarasota
Given the FDOT’s documented shortcomings of roundabouts as a traffic device along the bayfront, what is Sarasota’s best option for improving pedestrian access? “Best” means without appreciably impacting car traffic on a state road. The FDOT’s letter of 2003 states: “A traffic signal at Gulfstream will provide a safer crossing for pedestrians than in-ground flashers in a roundabout.” This position has also been supported by the Mobility Now organization that advocates for pedestrian issues.”
This suggests that a compromise is in order. Leave the traffic signals in place, but adjust the crossing timings to allow more comfortable pedestrian access. While the FDOT ruled last February that the standard crossing time of 4 feet per second or 30 seconds at Gulfstream Avenue is adequate to properly serve pedestrians, FDOT may be more receptive to a slight adjustment in signal timing than a roundabout it has previously turned down.
The Longboat alert
For those of us living on Longboat Key who depend on optimal passing through Gulfstream Avenue for our daily needs, medical emergencies and hurricane evacuations, we must begin an initiative to work with the FDOT to ensure our needs are protected.
We cannot assume FDOT will continue to hold its previous position on roundabouts. For one, FDOT officials report there is a pending traffic engineering conference to discuss and review the existing Florida Roundabout
Guide. What’s more, you can be certain the city of Sarasota will continue to push its roundabout agenda; the city has just hired a roundabout consultant specialist as part of its planning team.
The Longboat Key Town Commission needs to review the data and letters the FDOT has used in its earlier rulings, including the recent Wade Trimm Study that led to the FDOT’s refusal to approve the proposed roundabout on U.S. 41 in Venice. This body of information should be the basis for a Longboat plea to the FDOT to preserve our critical southern exit point from the Key.
Remember, Gulfstream at U.S. 41 is already rated with a level-of-service “F.” We can’t afford any unnecessary slippage in the road’s performance. Be sure to contact your commission representative and urge him to act on this important
Sandy Gilbert is the former chairman of the Longboat Key Planning and Zoning Board and an active participant in Sarasota’s Downtown Mobility Study and the connectivity charrettes.