First, freshly painted bike lanes appeared across town. Then, back-in, angled parking came to Spruce Street. Now, the long-awaited roundabout at Higgins, Beckwith and Hill is set to debut. Knock on wood (and ignore those nasty bulbouts), but transportation-conscious Missoula is beginning to resemble an enlightened European city.
That's apparently cause for celebration. Thursday morning's roundabout ribbon cutting includes all the fanfare of a Griz Homecoming weekend. There'll be Mayor Engen, Montana's entire congressional delegation and a veritable parade, including a fire engine, Mountain Line bus, the Western Montana Shrine Club Motor Patrol and a peloton of cyclists all navigating the roundabout.
Surely, the hoopla's designed to educate we simple-minded Montanans, for whom a roundabout is about as foreign as a 10-lane-wide tollbooth. It's all an elaborate effort to make sure the city's $600,000 stimulus-funded solution to one of its most awkward intersections doesn't backfire.
"Part of it is just getting to the people and letting them know that we're more than happy to present to them the ABCs and 123s of roundabout education," says Project Manager and Jackson-5 fan Gregg Wood. "I think there's going to be a learning curve. We don't anticipate any large problems, but I think people need to understand the yield concept there."
Go to the city's Higgins Roundabout website and, beyond a long list of roundabout instructions and links, you'll find an animation—reminiscent of the "Frogger" arcade game—that allows you to watch how all road users should use the circle thingy.
It seems like a little too much handholding to us, but you can't blame the city for doing all it can to make the transition safe and quiet the critics. Around the country roundabouts are booming largely due to their impressive safety record. Some groups say roundabouts lead to a 60–90 percent reduction in injuries compared to a traffic signal. But they're still contentious. Over in Nampa, Idaho, one report claims a city council member actually lost his seat last year over his support of a roundabout.
"The first thing I would say to [critics] is this is very important for community safety," says Philip Demosthenes, a Denver-based roundabout expert. "It calms down the traffic, it saves lives, it saves injuries...If people are uncomfortable with them, I'd much rather have them uncomfortable with the roundabout, and angry about something, than risk having more injuries in the community."
We agree. And while the roundabout may take some getting used to, it's further evidence that Missoula is farther down the road than most other cities.