Updated: 9:40 a.m.
State transportation officials are moving ahead with a plan to install three roundabouts along a heavily traveled thoroughfare along Lake Superior in Duluth. The stretch serves as the gateway to the North Shore for thousands of drivers every day. The project already faces passionate objections from many local residents who argue that one of those roundabouts is unnecessary.
MnDOT plans to construct the roundabouts along a 3.5-mile stretch of London Road — the first at 26th Avenue East, where I-35 ends; the second at 40th Avenue, and the third at 60th Avenue East, just before the road crosses the Lester River and exits Duluth up the North Shore.
The agency didn’t initially intend to build a roundabout at that last intersection. But a survey revealed more concerns there than any other, including difficulty turning left on to London Road and unsafe pedestrian crossing.
“When we looked at the totality of what was going on, we had pedestrian concerns, we had left turn concerns, we had speed concerns,” said MnDOT district engineer in Duluth Jim Miles. “The whole picture pointed toward a roundabout as a really good solution.”
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To make way for the roundabouts, MnDOT would need to raze five homes — four near the 40th Ave. intersection, and one at 60th Ave. That’s where Elizabeth Johnson has lived for the past six years, across from a rocky beach popular with surfers and dogwalkers.
“It's beautiful,” Johnson says of where she lives. “We get to see the sunrise come up over Lake Superior every morning. And they're gorgeous. We can carry our kayaks across the street and put in the water.”
Johnson said traffic moves too fast past her house. And she acknowledges it can be hard to cross the street sometimes. She just doesn't think a roundabout is necessary.
And a couple hundred of her neighbors have rallied around her, arguing that a roundabout would not only destroy Johnson’s home, but cut into a park across the street, create light pollution and potentially cause backed-up traffic on busy weekends.
They formed a Facebook group called Preserve the Gateway and gathered signatures for a petition encouraging smaller-scale alternatives for the site, such as flashing pedestrian crosswalks and speed radar signs.
“It’s a puzzle to me why they’re so set on this,” said local resident Linden Fraser of the roundabout proposal. “As one of the members of our group said, ‘it's like using a sledgehammer when all you need is a stapler to do something pretty simple.’”
Rise of the roundabout
Minnesota has been at the leading edge of the rise in roundabouts across the country over the past 20 years.
While there is no official count of the circular intersections maintained by the federal government, a Portland-based transportation consultant has maintained a volunteer database of roundabouts since 1999.
At last count, there are now 458 roundabouts in Minnesota. That’s the fourth most per capita in the country.
Rochester installed the state's first roundabouts in the 1990s. MnDOT built its first one around 2005. But the pace has accelerated. More than 150 have been completed in just the past five years.
Engineers like them for several reasons. They improve traffic flow. They slow it down too. They reduce idling, so they cut down on vehicle emissions. But engineers say their biggest benefit is a major drop in serious crashes.
“We're seeing an 80 to 90 percent reduction in those fatal and serious injury crashes, which is really our goal when we're designing these intersections,” said MnDOT state traffic safety engineer Derek Leuer. “Those are the crash types we want to prevent, those are the crashes that we don't want to happen.”
That reduction happens for a couple reasons. Drivers have to slow down to travel through a roundabout. They also can't get into right-angle crashes in a roundabout, which are the most deadly type of accidents.
But while engineers have become big fans, the public has been slower to embrace them.
“I think there was a general reaction of like, ‘oh my God, these engineers have lost their minds. What are you guys doing to us? This is crazy,” said Leuer, when some of the first roundabouts were proposed around the state.
But Leuer said after roundabouts are installed, and drivers get used to them, they tend to like them.
Research has found that before a roundabout is built, only about a third of people tend to support it. But more than a year after its completion, approval soars to more than two-thirds.
Still, Leuer acknowledges that roundabouts are not a one-size-fits-all solution. They’re also expensive, and take up much more land than a traditional intersection.
“The mania for roundabouts is kind of crazy right now,” lamented Ann Klefstad, one of the members of the Preserve the Gateway group in Duluth.
She and others say they are not anti-roundabout. They support the plan to build them at the other intersections on London Road. Just not 60th Ave.
“This is too small a site,” she said. “It's the wrong solution, and they absolutely will not listen."
Klefstad and others say serious crashes are not a concern at the intersection. They say it's an outsized solution for a problem that doesn't exist, and would likely cause major traffic back-ups on busy weekends.
“I drive that route every day and there really doesn't appear to be a legitimate traffic issue there that warrants something as impactful as a roundabout,” said resident Richard Fraser.
Safer for pedestrians?
Nearby residents say they have asked MnDOT for years to create a safer way for pedestrians to cross London Road to access Lake Superior.
“I'm convinced that a roundabout will be a great solution for pedestrians at this location,” said MnDOT traffic engineer Jim Miles.
Roundabouts have multiple benefits for pedestrians, Miles said. First, people only have to cross one lane of traffic at a time, with a refuge island in between.
And traffic moves much slower, giving more time for drivers to see pedestrians and yield to them.
Miles said he's long been a roundabout advocate as an engineer. Over the past few years, he's made a point to walk several of them as a pedestrian.
“And they really work. People acknowledge you as a pedestrian, they stop. They let you cross. I felt very comfortable crossing as a pedestrian.”
Leuer said data consistently shows a roughly 60 percent reduction in pedestrian-related accidents in roundabouts and a 15 percent drop for bicyclists.
But regardless of the statistics, pedestrians' perception of roundabouts is often much different.
“I'd be pretty intimidated,” said Duluth resident Linden Fraser. “I have grandkids, I have dogs. To try to cross a huge, big roundabout to try to get to the lake, it just seems overkill.”
MnDOT recently commissioned a study to better understand pedestrian issues with roundabouts, because cities and counties often “receive public complaints about the difficulty pedestrians have navigating the geometry and crosswalks and managing unpredictable driver behavior,” the agency wrote.
The report, written by Ranjit Godavarthy, a transportation professor at North Dakota State University, found that single lane roundabouts are the safest for pedestrians. It also found that adding flashing pedestrian lights improves safety.
That’s one of the alternatives that Duluth residents have pushed in lieu of a roundabout. They’ve also asked for speed radar signs, pedestrian refuge islands and painted crossings — solutions they argue would be much less obtrusive and more effective.
MnDOT plans to begin work on the $17 million project in 2025, and complete it the following year. But Duluth resident Linden Fraser said she and her neighbors won’t stop fighting the roundabout.
"We're not giving up. We're very invested."
Correction (March 13, 2023): An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported the timeline for the project.