On Waterloo's Roundabouts

Homer Watson Roundabout

It has been a couple of years since Waterloo installed its first roundabouts on some major arterial roads. After that time, you’d think I’ve had enough experience in these facilities to have a firm opinion. Strangely, though, the jury is still out.

Waterloo Region has embraced roundabouts in a big way. I can think of no other municipality in the province that has been so gung ho as to make it a policy to place it on what would used to have been major four-way stop intersections on certain major roads. Riding out of the city towards the 401, you encounter two roundabouts in quick succession on Fischer Hallman Boulevard. The new western arterial, Ira Needles Boulevard, has no stoplights from Keats Way all the way down to Trussler Road; drivers navigate six roundabouts instead. A roundabout has replaced a particularly troublesome stoplight at Bridge and Lancaster (demolishing an unpopular strip club in the process), and more are planned in the coming years.

The relationship between the people of Waterloo Region and their roundabouts is an odd one. Clearly, some councillors and planners at the regional level are gung-ho about them, claiming that they’re better traffic managers than stoplights, and move more cars safely through an intersection than four-way stop signs. They claim that they’re safer, and it’s true that while roundabouts have seen more accidents than other intersections in Waterloo Region, mostly due to the drivers’ unfamiliarity with them, those accidents have been far more minor, with far fewer injuries, thanks to the slower speeds involved and the fact that T-bone collisions are now a thing of the past.

But while most people in Waterloo Region seem to accept the presence of roundabouts, they feel a bit leery of them. My father is a case in point. He has never once questioned the wisdom of the region placing a roundabout at the top of the Conestoga Parkway by the village of St. Jacobs, but the first few times he always asked his back-seat driver (me) for advice on how to manage the thing, just as we whipped through on our way to Elmira. Some controversy has erupted with the proposal to put a roundabout at Homer Watson and Block Line, with parents concerned that the new intersection will be less safe for their children walking to St. Mary’s High School, with planners adamant that crossings will be easier, since pedestrians will now only have to contend with one direction of traffic per crossing.

As a younger driver, I’ve grown used to dealing with the roundabouts. A few times through them, and the rules of driving feel like common sense: slow down, yield to cars in the roundabout, accept the inner lane if you’re passing straight through or turning left, accept the right lane if you’re turning right or passing straight through, and signal your intentions all the time. I’ve never been close to having an accident, and my trip down Fischer-Hallman or Ira Needles feels faster for not having to contend with lit intersections or stop signs instead. And, in some ways, they’re actually fun to drive through, making for a roller-coaster touch to an otherwise straightaway drive that the kids in the back seat love.

But I am concerned at the amount of land these installations take up. Already the region has noted that roundabouts aren’t possible in certain places because of the property expropriations required. The middle of the roundabout is essentially dead space, and while some moves have been made towards sprucing these up with plantings or sculptures, it strikes me that too many roundabouts effectively decreases the density of the areas they support.

It doesn’t help that, because of the newness of these installations and the space they take up, roundabouts have become primarily a feature of the suburban landscape. It’s only at Erb and Ira Needles that I see some signs that the new shops and restaurants there actually address the roundabout as a place where people actually want to walk and shop as well as drive through. The smaller scale roundabouts in Williamsburg aren’t addressed by the buildings at all (which are pulled back for parking, and possibly to give the drivers better sight lines), and thus feel as though they are an adjunct of the local parking lots.

If it hasn’t already, I’d like to see the Region take a close look at how its current roundabouts are performing, paying special attention to how much space it has effectively removed from the public use of the surrounding communities. It should consider design guidelines and zoning laws that make these roundabouts places for pedestrians to feel comfortable as well drivers to whip through. It needs to ask itself if a roundabout is just an intersection, or if it’s a streetscape in its own right.

In my opinion, roundabouts have had their benefits, and I’m proud that my region is among the first in the province, if not the country, to embrace them in a big way, but we should continue to look for ways to improve them.

_This post has been crossposted to the Waterloo Wellington Bloggers Association. To comment, click here.

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