Why Truckee has so many roundabouts and how they may be helping traffic
TRUCKEE, Calif. — During the slow seasons, they operate like a well-oiled machine, but on a bluebird ski weekend, expect to hear plenty of horns honking as out-of-towners nervously attempt to navigate through traffic in the region’s roundabouts.
There are roundabouts in a few places in North Lake Tahoe, but for several years, the tiny 16,000-person town of Truckee has seven of them within its boundaries alone — and more are planned.
Roundabouts are supposed to reduce the number and severity of traffic collisions, but the majority of Tahoe-Truckee area’s traffic comes from out-of-town visitors who may not be used to circular intersections.
“Ten years ago when the master plan was redeveloped, the town adopted a policy that was that we shouldn’t install traffic signals, but roundabouts,” said Truckee Public Works Director Dan Wilkins.
Wilkins is an engineer who’s been with the town for 19 years, so he’s been involved with the construction of all of Truckee’s roundabouts. He said they’re safer and more efficient because of the seasonal nature of the region’s traffic.
ALTERNATING TRAFFIC PATTERNS
“What happens is because of the high visitation in the summer months, you’ll have intersections that would require signals in the summer but not in the winter because the volume is lower,” Wilkins said.
The idea behind the roundabout is simple: cars approach the intersection and yield to the vehicles already in the circle. If there are no cars in the circle, or there is a large enough gap, the driver proceeds.
“If you put a traffic signal in an intersection when there’s no need for a signal, it actually creates a delay,” Wilkins said.
This is because if there are no other cars in the intersection, the driver at the stop light still has to wait, which is inefficient during times of the year when traffic is slower, like Tahoe-Truckee’s shoulder seasons in the spring and fall.
“A well-designed traffic signal will have detection and try to adjust its timing to adapt to the traffic flow, but it’s not as efficient as a roundabout.” Wilkins said. “With a roundabout, each driver is waiting for a gap, so each driver is using space as it becomes available, whereas a signal will cause traffic to be stopped even if there is no traffic on the mainline, and we’ve all been there.”