Public art in roundabouts helps calm traffic, create sense of place

At the center of Tampa's Channel District roundabout, just north of the Florida Aquarium, a 19-ton sculpture known colloquially as "The Exploding Chicken" provides an attention-grabbing vantage point for motorists as it fluffs a flurry of metallic yellow feathers 36 feet into the sky.
 
George Sugarman's untitled abstract-expressionist sculpture, which in the 1990s got its enduring moniker from a sardonic newspaper columnist, is a downtown Tampa landmark. Longtime residents remember the eye-catching sculpture when it sat next to what is now Rivergate Tower at the corner of Kennedy Boulevard and Ashley Drive for many years before being relocated to the center of the Channel District roundabout in 2013, making it among the first examples of roundabout art erected in the Tampa Bay Area.
 
As populations swell and roadways clog, local cities must respond to the challenge of moving increasingly multimodal traffic safely and efficiently. The modern roundabout -- backed by case studies that indicate over 75 percent crash reduction at intersections, 20 percent reduction in traffic delays and a whopping 100 percent reduction in pedestrian fatalities -- makes a compelling statistical argument. Add artwork and roundabouts can become an even more attractive traffic calming solution.

That's why traffic engineering experts are leading efforts across the nation to bring roundabouts to congested intersections with the goal of improving traffic flow and creating safer and more walkable cityscapes. 

While cities like Clearwater -- the Bay area's earliest roundabout innovator -- continue to focus mainly on function, some municipalities, including Sarasota and Tampa, have begun to explore how art in roundabouts can help calm traffic and contribute to local placemaking efforts.
 
Cultivating community in East Tampa

Due to 14 crashes documented between 2009 and 2014 followed by two deaths in a hit-and-run crash in early 2017, a dangerous stretch along East Tampa's 34th Street currently claims "high-priority" project status on the FDOT's roundabout radar.

"Of course, no crash is acceptable, but this went beyond the normal-expected amount," says Jean Duncan, Tampa Director of Transportation and Stormwater Services.

?The DOT approved highway safety funds for a three-roundabout corridor on 34th Street -- at East 21st Avenue, Lake Avenue, and Osborne Avenue -- slated for construction beginning in early 2020.

"It's still a learning curve for people to get more comfortable with them, but once they do, it's really the safest thing way to create an intersection,'' Duncan says. "Changing traffic patterns can disturb people because we're creatures of habit -- but we're a little thick-skinned on this controversy because we know it's the best decision. Some things are a gray area, but this is not."

She notes that Tampa's transportation department is encouraged by support from the City Manager of Art Programs, Robin Nigh, and the East Tampa CRA, which aims to provide a call to artists and public art funding for the 34th Street roundabouts. 

"Where I reside is: Let's keep things safe. But we in the engineering space do want more aesthetics to come around with the roundabouts," says Duncan. "It's a little hard to quantify, specifically, but we know that landscaping and art create traffic calming because it changes the context of where the driver is: The less wide, open, blank concrete, the more apt the driver is to be paying attention to their environment," says Duncan.

From a placemaking perspective, Nigh notes:

"Philosophically, you can crawl all over this in lots of ways: I can't think of a better place that needs roundabouts, in terms of safety -- and it's also a good opportunity to create something that is a visual signifier for that community. Art plays into how people engage with the built environment -- with each other -- in that space," she says.

While some in East Tampa, a largely economically challenged neighborhood, have criticized the city and state for not doing a better job communicating with residents about why the roundabouts are planned, many have become supporters -- even champions -- when safety improvements are explained and they feel like their concerns have been heard so they can be part of the solution.  

"We want to work with the community and make sure it says something for them, about them, and to them. They would very much like to have an African American artist -- and they want that artist to have some level of engagement with the community," Nigh adds.

Public art in roundabouts is a three-pronged placemaking opportunity, Nigh says. In addition to improving traffic safety, she believes the 34th Street roundabouts create an opportunity to promote better quality of life, foster community identity with an emblematic signifier, and develop economic impact through art. Put simply:

"People want to be in an area that makes them feel nice," says Nigh. "You really make a space sing if you have all the evaluative measures in place relating to scale and content. This is not just going to be plop art."

Clearwater and Dunedin ramp up roundabouts

Although Clearwater has yet to explore public art in its roundabouts, the city is a trailblazer in the Tampa Bay area movement to incorporate the circular intersection solutions. To date, there are 34 roundabouts throughout neighborhoods in Clearwater.??City of Clearwater Traffic Operations Manager Paul Bertels got a surprise while typing up the city's roundabout inventory. While 33 of Clearwater's current roundabouts were built since 2000, Paul stumbled across the construction date of the 34th and final roundabout he added to the otherwise chronological list: 1953.
 
"It was just a fluke that when [Belleview Court] went in in the 1950s, they built a roundabout in the middle of the development. In those days it was just kind of an odd feature. No one really thought about it," Bertels says.
 
Nowadays, it seems everyone has an opinion. When construction began on the Clearwater Beach entryway roundabout in 1999, it was the first attempt in the region to transform a major intersection via roundabout -- on a hotly-debated learning curve.
 
The largest and busiest roundabout in the region, the Clearwater Beach entryway roundabout has experienced several tweaks to improve safety and flow in the last two decades. Most recently, in 2017, Clearwater added a decorative fence that guides pedestrians to the roundabout's three designated pedestrian crosswalks.
 
"We had a problem for years with pedestrians crossing anywhere they wanted. Nobody got hit, but it caused a lot of concern among residents and business owners," Bertels says.

"We now have better traffic flow through the roundabout. We've gotten a lot of positive comments from the residents, business community, and pedestrians. Now, they understand exactly where they have to cross."
 
Bertels believes locational context matters when cities consider art in roundabouts. Clearwater Beach, a bustling spring break haven, nixed proposals for a dolphin sculpture that celebrates the Clearwater Marine Aquarium's resident celebrity, Winter the Dolphin, at the center of the entryway roundabout. The sculpture was denied, Bertels notes, based on concerns that tourists might put themselves in danger by cutting through busy roundabout traffic for a photo op with the statue.

Elsewhere in Clearwater, JoAnna Siskin, a Skycrest resident, was instrumental in garnering support for the four-roundabout corridor constructed in her neighborhood on Cleveland Street in 2009. Public support, Siskin says, is vital to creating a Complete Street: Clearwater neighborhoods seeking traffic calming solutions require approval from at least 65 percent of residents. Siskin's Skycrest neighborhood, which includes two grade schools located on busy roadways, has over 900 residents.

"We divided into teams and went door-to-door to have [our neighbors] sign a petition. People were curious because a lot had never heard about traffic calming. You had to explain to them what it was about -- but once they understand, they're supportive," Siskin says.
 
In 2018, Siskin helped secure a state grant for another Skycrest Complete Streets project on Drew Street -- a corridor that in the last five years reported 1,600 crashes and two fatalities.
 
In Clearwater's neighboring City of Dunedin, Forward Pinellas awarded a $100,000 design grant in 2018 to create a more connected, walkable downtown through a Complete Streets project on Skinner Boulevard (S.R. 580).

A 2018 grant application from the City of Dunedin states: "Where Main Street is more welcoming and safer, Skinner, by contrast, is unwelcoming with the high-speed traffic and lack of safe infrastructure for pedestrians. Even with existing bike lanes, novice cyclists or families biking the trail do not feel safe biking on those bike lanes. Businesses have noticed that this is affecting their success and are encouraging the transformation of Skinner Boulevard."

Roundabouts were proposed for Skinner Boulevard in public discussions as recent as early 2019 -- including potentials at Douglas Avenue and MLK Boulevard. Other Dunedin Complete Streets design proposals include road diets, bulb outs, pedestrian refuge islands, and reduced speed limits.

Both the Drew Street and Skinner Boulevard Complete Streets projects will require additional grant funding for construction once the design phases are completed.

Roundabouts improve pedestrian safety in Sarasota
 
Navigating roundabouts may pose a learning curve for the uninitiated -- but the data supporting their common-sense geometry outweighs roundabout rookies' reluctance.

The City of Sarasota rolled out its first modern roundabout in the low-traffic Hillview district in 2008. A second roundabout at Five Points Park, the heart of downtown, arrived in 2012.
 
"City staff wanted to get the single lane roundabouts completed, first, so people could get used to them before we moved on to multi-lane roundabouts," says City Engineer Alex Davis Shaw.

"When we installed the Five Points [roundabout], some merchants didn't like it at first -- but what I thought was really neat was that some of the folks who initially didn't like it started asking that we create more once they saw how it works," she adds.

In response to increased density related to development in the Rosemary District just north of downtown and east of Tamiami Trail, and the Bayfront 20:20 Project to the immediate west, the city of Sarasota aims to complete an additional 16 roundabouts with FDOT funding by 2025.
 
Roundabouts recently installed at Orange Avenue and Main Street, Ringling Boulevard, and Palm Avenue, and at the intersection of Palm and Cocoanut avenues are accompanied by colorful sculptures. The City Public Art Fund for such projects is maintained by financial contributions from private developers.

Sarasota's next two high-profile roundabouts, located at Tamiami Trail and 10th and 14th Streets, are scheduled for completion by spring 2020. Each has a $200,000 art budget.
 
"The City saw this as an opportunity, rather than just having landscaping, to really showcase Sarasota as the city promoting the arts," says Sarasota City Planning Director Steve Cover.
 
Cover notes that roundabouts move traffic anywhere from 30 percent to 50 percent faster because they force motorists to slow to 25 mph or less while eliminating timed signals. Roundabouts promote controlled, continuously moving traffic -- reducing collisions, injuries and death, upkeep expenses, and pollution from idling vehicles.

"My background is rooted in architecture and urban design. I love that when you're driving up on a street that's coming up on a roundabout with art, you have a focal point at the end of your vista that you can grab onto and say, 'Wow, that looks cool'," Cover says.

As a pedestrian, Davis Shaw says the new roundabouts on Orange Avenue provide relief during her walks between neighboring downtown government offices.

"I routinely walk from City Hall to the County Building and have to cross the street at Orange, at both Main and Ringling. It used to be intimidating to use the signaled crosswalk because the space was so wide. It's much more comfortable, now," Davis Shaw says.

Interested in the ways other cities across the United States incorporate art in roundabouts? Take a look at Bend OR where a massive grizzly bear towers above a modern roundabout at a busy intersection, commanding motorists to slow down and pay attention to their surroundings. 

Starting in the early 2000s, Bend has led the nation in creating roundabouts, and now offers tours featuring the public art in its roundabouts. Click here to explore the Bend Roundabout Art Route.

Read more articles by Jessi Smith.

 Jessi Smith is a feature writer for 83 Degrees Media in the Tampa Bay region of Florida.
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