Editor’s Note: This is the first of a two-part series on roundabouts in Carmel, Ind. City Editor Robin Roy spent two days of non-stop driving in the Indianapolis suburb, which has 42 roundabouts.
That sure is an odd looking sign … but keep the eyes on the road now. But … hmm … two side-by-side squiggles with a dot in the middle of one and four arrows shooting off both.
What is that?
Looks almost like the singer Prince’s name, when he changed it to that symbol. Keep driving, though.
Here’s the intersection. Slow down. Glance to the left. Here comes a car around the curve, but there’s enough room. No need to completely stop. Keep going around the curve and veer off to the right. Oh, that’s what the sign meant.
Such is the first experience driving on a roundabout in the city of Carmel, Ind., which has directional signs unlike any in Sarasota, or most other American cities, for that matter.
Carmel, a suburb 23 miles north of downtown Indianapolis, has 42 completed roundabouts and is in the process of constructing or designing 33 more — all of them built at the direction of Mayor Jim Brainard.
The mayor was invited in January to Sarasota by the Downtown Partnership to make a presentation on the merits of roundabouts.
“They’re safer. They cost less to build, cost less to maintain, and they’re better for the environment,” Brainard said.
The roundabout’s roots
But just how much of a roundabout advocate is Carmel’s mayor?
Let’s put it this way: City engineers don’t have to convince him that an intersection should have a roundabout — they have to convince him why an intersection should not have one.
That’s quite a difference from Sarasota, which is in the middle of an impassioned debate over the 11 roundabouts it’s in the process of building, designing or discussing (see map, page 8).
Brainard’s conviction over roundabouts stemmed from grad school and a family ski trip.
His first encounter with them occurred when he was a grad student studying in England.
“I saw how well they worked there,” he said.
It wasn’t until years later in Vail, Colo., that his wife’s skiing accident helped convince him that roundabouts were better than traditional traffic lights.
“My wife broke her leg, so I had to make several trips to and from the hospital,” said Brainard. “Every time I went in a taxi, I asked the drivers how they liked roundabouts. They said what used to be 20-minute trips now only took a few minutes.”
Just a year after being elected to his first mayoral term in 1996, Brainard ordered the construction of the first roundabout on the Hazel Bell Parkway on the eastern edge of Carmel.
Roundabouts were so new in the United States — the first modern roundabout was built in 1996, in Provo, Utah — that Brainard was having trouble finding construction specifications for the work crews. He had to write to Australian government officials to get copies of their specs. So, the first roundabouts in Carmel were built to Australian standards.
The U.S. government has since created its own specifications, and it did so with the help of Carmel city engineers.
A shift in sentiment
As the first Carmel roundabouts were being built, public opinion was much like it is in Sarasota today.
Brainard said most residents were against them. Their reasons: They thought they’d be more dangerous, more expensive, too hard for the elderly to navigate.
But as drivers started to use them, the sentiment began to turn around. Brainard estimates about 90% of Carmel residents prefer to drive on roundabouts.
“They’re awesome,” said Porter Paints Manager Tony Bumgarner. “You don’t have to stop. Where I live on the southeast side of Indianapolis, we only have stop signs with one-lane roads. Ugh. It takes forever. I can’t wait to get to Carmel, because it’s not start-and-stop, start-and-stop anymore.”
“Sometimes I’d have to wait five minutes at traffic lights,” said Porter Paints employee Krystal Bryant.
“Roundabouts are confusing at first, but once you’re used to them, they’re great.”
Steak ’N’ Shake waitress Joni Root said she goes out of her way to travel on roads with roundabouts.
“It’s made traffic backups disappear,” she said. “My commute is much shorter than it used to be.”
“I love them,” said Greg Baker, owner of Smart Stop Cleaners, which is located at one of the city’s busiest intersections. “The only problem is at rush hour, cars want to plow through like a convoy.”
Those same locals, though, raise a concern that many have discussed in Sarasota.
“I could see elderly people having a problem,” Bryant said. “Some people go through, and they’re confused.”
“I see some elderly drivers pull up (to a roundabout) and stop, instead of yielding,” Baker said.
John Dorsey, 72, has lived in the Carmel area for 30 years, and he is not a fan of roundabouts.
“I don’t like them,” he said. “I avoid them as much as I can.”
Brainard, though, said roundabouts are better for the elderly, because traffic naturally slows down through them. He said there’s more reaction time for drivers.
Safety is one of the benefits Brainard touts. Insurance Institute of Highway Safety studies show that roundabouts have 80% fewer accidents than ordinary intersections. And the accidents that do occur in roundabouts result in fewer injuries because the speeds are slower, and the accidents typically are sideswipes, not T-bone crashes.
The Carmel Police Department had similar findings. In 2007, intersections that were converted to roundabouts had 78% fewer crashes (see box on front page).
Brainard said cost is another major factor that favors roundabouts.
In Sarasota, it costs about $800,000 to build a roundabout, but it’s about $300,000 more for a new, signalized intersection, because the traffic-light arms have to be built to withstand hurricane winds.
Maintenance costs are also lower because there are no stoplights to service. And, because cars rarely stop as they enter the intersection, less fuel is used.
Will they work in Sarasota?
What Carmel’s mayor sees as a success in his city may not automatically translate to a success in Sarasota, but there are many similarities between the two cities.
Carmel has a population of 85,000, similar to estimates of Sarasota’s population during tourist season.
Carmel’s median age is 40. The last full census in 2000 listed Sarasota’s median age at 41.
Carmel also has a thriving arts district, which will soon have a new performing-arts center, which Brainard likens to the Van Wezel.
Whether those similarities will mean roundabouts will work in Sarasota remains to be seen. But it will be seen, with many Sarasota roundabouts already in the works and plans for more being discussed.
What’s also clear is that Brainard, who’s in his fourth term as mayor and plans to seek a fifth, has no intention of slowing down the pace of roundabout construction in his city.
“I foresee a Carmel with no traffic lights,” he said.
Join the Neighborhood! Our 100% local content helps strengthen our communities by delivering news and information that is relevant to our readers. Support independent local journalism by joining the Observer's new membership program — The Newsies — a group of like-minded community citizens, like you. Be a Newsie.