CEDAR RAPIDS — In the seven years since Jim Novak relocated Novak Auto Sales to the intersection of Johnson Avenue and Jacolyn Drive NW, the business owner had seen more vehicle collisions than he did in the 30 years at the previous location at Wilson Avenue and Bowling Street SW, another busy intersection.
Not only was the Jacolyn-Johnson intersection dangerous, rush-hour drivers used his parking lot at 4547 Johnson Ave. NW as a right-turn cut through to avoid a clogged four-way stop. He said things are better now since the Jacolyn-Johnson intersection reopened as a roundabout — no collisions, traffic flows more smoothly, and his parking lot is no longer a shortcut.
“Everyone complains about the roundabouts, but I love it,” Novak said.
Since 2017, the city of has installed five roundabouts as part of a new approach in which the traffic management tool is considered as an alternative to stop signs or traffic lights when an intersection is part of a project or poses a problem with congestion or crashes.
Roundabouts are believed to reduce crashes and minimize the severity of injuries in the crashes that do occur, improve traffic flow, reduce emission from stop — and-go traffic, and be more cost-effective than traffic lights, which can cost $8,000 to $10,000 a year in electricity and maintenance, according to city officials
Following a review this fall of how the roundabout initiative has worked, officials are calling it a success and say more are coming.
“We wanted to look at what is working and what isn’t,” said Scott Olson, a City Council member and chairman of the city’s infrastructure committee. “Does it meet our criteria with reducing emissions and making a safer intersection? So far, the result is very positive.”
Olson acknowledged some people still don’t like the traffic circles, but Cedar Rapids has mitigated some by using single-lane instead of multilane roundabouts, which can be difficult for drivers to grasp, he said.
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“You can have a good roundabout and a confusing roundabout,” Olson said. “I think we’ve done a good job for creating what is a good fit for Cedar Rapids.”
Cedar Rapids officials refer to their preferred design as a “modern roundabout” with splitters between the entry and exit lanes to slow traffic and provide a break for pedestrians crossing the street.
Cedar Rapids has made education about a roundabouts a priority, including providing information at the farmers market, showing tutorial videos on the city website and even offering test drives when the roundabout first opens, Olson said.
The Cedar Rapids roundabouts are designed so trucks and buses can drive over the top fully or partially if they can’t manage the curve, he said. The biggest thing for drivers to remember is to slow down and look left when merging onto a roundabout, Olson said.
“Once you understand how a roundabout works, it is pretty simple,” he said.
The Jacolyn-Johnson roundabout opened this fall and is the latest addition in the city.
A roundabout on Kirkwood Boulevard SW near the entrance to College Community Schools was the first to be opened in 2017. Roundabouts were opened at Johnson and Wiley Boulevard NW and 16th Avenue and Fifth Street SE in 2018, and at E Avenue and Stoney Point Road NW in 2019.
Kirkwood Boulevard was seen as having a high crash risk, which was an issue being so close to schools, and a police officer had to staff the entrance to College Community for years. The morning and afternoon drop-offs had been plagued with backups.
Since the roundabout, traffic has dissipated and the officer is no longer needed, said John Witt, a Cedar Rapids traffic engineer.
“Bus drivers who were among some of biggest opponents when we were doing the public outreach for this are now among our biggest proponents,” Witt said.
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The roundabout at E Avenue and Stoney Point NW could ease future issues as that area gets busier with the opening of the Highway 100 extension and infill of housing and other development. Johnson Avenue NW has been collision-prone with 21 crashes at Wiley and 22 at Jacolyn from 2013 to 2017. It’s still early, but since opening those roundabouts have had no crashes reported.
“The top question we get is, ‘why roundabouts,” Witt said. “The No. 1 reason is safety.”
Several additional roundabouts are slated for the future.
A roundabout at Williams Boulevard and Dean Road SW is in design and construction is expected in 2020. The intersection sees about 18,000 vehicles per day and has had 24 crashes in the past five years, including one fatality and 12 with injuries and 11 with property damage, according to the city.
Additional roundabouts are in design for Ellis Boulevard NW at E Avenue and at Ellis Boulevard at F Avenue NW as part of a plan to extend Sixth Street NW.
Linn County also has roundabouts planned near the Cedar Rapids city limits at County Home Road at C Avenue NE extension and County Home Road at Alburnett Road NE.
“Outside of that, our staff reviews and evaluates intersections as part of routine due-diligence on all projects, to see if a roundabout would afford better efficiency or safety options than a traditional signalized or stop-controlled intersection,” Witt said.
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