Sarasota creates roundabouts to improve safety, enhance traffic flow in urban neighborhoods

It’s that time of year when daytime temperatures linger around a perfect 83 degrees on the Gulf coast and faint, crisp breezes accompany the sunshine. The humidity is dropping by the day; the nights are growing longer and cooler … and traffic is slowing to a crawl as record numbers of commuters and visitors flock to Florida roads. 

Ahh, yes: Season has arrived. And traffic solutions, like the fall breeze, are a welcome relief in Florida's rapidly growing cities, especially in Sarasota, where more than 8,000 building permits were issued in the last fiscal year, heralding the arrival of a record-breaking era of growth. 

As hotels, mixed-use developments, housing and job opportunities crop up at a record pace, the historic city looks toward modern best practices in transportation innovation as solutions to create livable, walkable spaces for the urban downtown dweller as well as for visitors.

The future of transportation in downtown Sarasota

Sarasota and cities across America are taking a fresh look at the modern roundabout, a circular, non-signalized intersection that facilitates continuous traffic flow in one direction around a center island. 

There are currently more than 2,334 roundabouts in the United States, including almost 30 in Tampa -- and Sarasota is slated to add 16 more over the next decade, including nine in the city’s downtown core by 2023.

Sarasota city Planner Steve Stancel says the cost amounts to approximately $25 million, featuring strong funding from impact fees as well as funding through the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT). 

“We’re looking to change the character of the roadway in a way that makes it more attractive to walk into the area. U.S. 41 essentially bifurcates downtown and the majority of the city from the water, but it’s not appealing to cross on foot. The whole idea is to slow down traffic, but continue to make it more efficient in terms of level of service at peak hours,” Stancel says.

Ken Sides, Project Manager and Senior Engineer at Sam Schwartz Engineering in Tampa, is engaged in a project to reconfigure traffic along Sarasota’s downtown corridor of Fruitville Road between U.S. 41 and U.S. 301. 

Stancel and Sides recognize that while roundabouts may appear intimidating and are sometimes met with reluctance by the uninitiated, they are emerging in cities across the nation as a better alternative to stop signs and signalized intersections in high traffic areas -- but why?

The simple answer is safety and efficiency: roundabouts feature yielded entry and a geometry that forces slower speeds, reducing the likelihood and severity of collisions.

“Most lethal crashes at conventional intersections are near head-on, where the most kinetic energy is being dissipated, and the second-most lethal crashes are T-Bone accidents. Both are eliminated by roundabouts because they slow down traffic,” Sides says. 

Sides notes that roundabouts also contribute to more efficient traffic flow by creating better “gap acceptance” at intersections -- an essential roadway navigation skill for motorists, bikers and pedestrians alike.

“The slower the traffic movement is, the smaller the gaps that drivers are able to enter safely. That slower movement through roundabouts is not only safer, but it actually allows for greater vehicle capacity in the circle -- gap acceptance,” Sides adds.

Familiarity transforms popularity

Although statistically safer, Stancel notes that roundabouts are not always an easy sell to the public. Sarasota installed its first roundabout in the comparably low-traffic Hillview shopping district in 2008, and its second roundabout at the high-traffic Five Points Park intersection in downtown Sarasota in 2012. 

Public experience at Hillview and Five Points has bolstered community support. 

“When we started with the concept of roundabouts in Sarasota, it was a very new idea and there was a lot of apprehension. … People are seeing now, though, that roundabouts work,’’ Stancel says. “They provide safer customer access for businesses, which are generally more noticeable because traffic is moving slower through the roundabout. 

“They create shorter, safer crossing distances for the walker and the biker. They provide customer comfort with landscaping centers. They promote slower traffic and create less noise. They reduce fuel emissions and save electricity. They’re greener.” 

Stancel notes that among the greatest bonuses to roundabouts are their ecologically sustainable features -- including their ability to maintain functionality during power outages by eliminating the need for signalized intersections.

“A traditional signalized intersection is a massive amount of pavement, but in a roundabout, you can reduce pavement to one lane because you can get rid of turn lanes -- and now, suddenly you have a green space in the center that can be landscaped. If power is lost or signals are blown away in a hurricane, all of the sudden an intersection becomes snarled -- a roundabout, though, will continue to function without electricity,” Stancel says.

Clearwater’s roundabouts set precedent

Sarasota’s roundabout revolution may be traced back Clearwater Beach, where Sides helped install the first high-profile roundabout in the United States over a decade ago. When the project began in 1999, the city of Clearwater’s primary goals were to make downtown intersections more efficient for the 33,000-58,000 vehicles traveling to and from the beach each day, and to make its roadways safer and more accessible for the estimated 6,000-8,000 daily pedestrians and bikers who navigate the area on foot. 

Sides, a graduate of USF and then employed as an engineer for the city of Clearwater, worked closely with local business owners and residents who were most affected by Clearwater Beach traffic woes to enact “Citizen Design Charrettes.” These community think tanks provided the public with educational tools in traffic design and gave them the opportunity to collaborate with their neighbors to draft solutions. With the help of Sides and his colleagues, residents of Clearwater Beach designed the Clearwater Beach entryway roundabout, completed in 2002.

Residents were persuaded by federal data showing roundabouts are safer for everyone. 

The U.S. Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) Department of Transportation reports that approximately 40 percent of all reported crashes in the United States occur at intersections. These accidents are responsible for more than one-fifth of traffic fatalities in the nation, according to the FHWA.

Modern roundabouts contribute to a 35 percent reduction in all crashes, a 76 percent reduction in injury, and a 90 percent reduction in fatalities compared to other types of intersections, FHWA data shows. 

Slower, more efficient motorist flow and safer, denser sidewalk traffic through Clearwater Beach provide the opportunity for shops and restaurants to thrive, resulting in a small business renaissance that continues to flourish today, Sides says. He predicts similar results will emerge in Sarasota.

Finding success in a multimodal approach

Sarasota city officials believe that traffic calming projects can help reduce rush hour gridlock woes, and may also help to direct foot traffic into emerging mixed-use neighborhoods on the outskirts of downtown, including the historic Gillespie Park Historical Village just south of Fruitville Road.

In recent years, cities like Cleveland OH have been leaders in promoting multimodal transportation options to activate dead spaces and to promote “complete neighborhoods,” where everything urban dwellers need is accessible within a 20-minute walk. 

Transportation options that allow pedestrians to get outside their cars promote a healthier lifestyle, better interaction with the neighborhood, and a reduction in over-packed public parking. To date, Cleveland has invested more than $235 million to develop multimodal transportation options in its anchor district, University Circle, where a concentration of universities, research institutions and cultural attractions contribute to high traffic frustrations.

Beyond the roundabout approach, Stancel says the city of Sarasota’s goal is to prioritize pedestrian usage along areas marked as primary streets. city projects include several “road diets,” which narrow roadways and widen sidewalks to create airy outdoor cafe spaces and storefronts. Installation of below-ground utilities. Greener landscaping and hardscaping practices are also in the city’s plans. 

Stancel says the city is also beginning to look into downtown circulators such as trolleys, rail transits and water taxis that would ferry people to and from Siesta Key and Longboat Key.

Among the more unusual multimodal transportation proposals in Sarasota are the implementation of “duck boats” -- amphibious vehicles that can travel on both land and water. Citing the success of cities like Boston and Philadelphia in implementing duck boat tours, Stancel suggests that amphibious vehicles could be used to efficiently move commuters to, from and through downtown Sarasota on a daily basis.

“All you need is a boat launch area, but you don’t need a place to dock them because you can drive and park them on land. Because of that, you could very easily be into a duck boat system without spending a lot of time and money,” Stancel says.

Top priorities include sustainability, quality of life

Sarasota City Engineer Alex DavisShaw says that many pedestrian-usage projects are made possible by the Multimodal Roadway Impact Fee, adopted by the city in 2014. The Multimodal Roadway Impact Fee operates independently from federal roadway improvement funds, allowing the city to focus on pedestrian transit projects, including sidewalk widening, bike lanes and recreational trails.

“We’ve been looking from a grassroots level at how we can reflect both the downtown community’s and the Commission’s desires in our capital improvement program. The common denominator is a desire to improve sustainability and quality of life,” DavisShaw says.

She says the city’s greatest challenge will be to look effectively into the long-term future.

“It takes about 10 years for a project to be requested on the federal system and built, and what I think we have to start really talking about is the fact that people are not going to behave the same way in 10 years as they do now. … What are the changes in trends we should recognize now, so that we’ll be ready to make appropriate adaptations 10 years down the line?” DavisShaw muses.

Engineering the future of a rapidly growing urban center is, in some ways, not unlike navigating a modern roundabout, says DavisShaw. 

“A really good understanding of how to move through the roundabout is key: you need to know where you want to go, and how, so that you can make the appropriate decision,” DavisShaw says. 

“It’s like steering a big ship instead of of a small boat. We just need to be more nimble.”
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Read more articles by Jessi Smith.

Jessi Smith (she/they) is a freelance writer who is passionate about sustainability, community building, and the power of the arts and transformative storytelling. A fourth-generation Floridian, Jessi received her B.A. in Art History and English from Florida International University and began reporting for 83 Degrees in 2009. When she isn't writing, Jessi enjoys taking her deaf rescue dog on outdoors adventures, unearthing treasures in backroads antiques and thrift shops, D.I.Y. upcycling projects, and Florida-friendly gardening.