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Can eliminating traffic lights and adding a ‘Dutch’ roundabout fix a dangerous Philly intersection?

Just don't call it a traffic circle. The redesign of the intersection of Frankford Avenue, Trenton Avenue and York Street in Kensington is inspired by progressive Dutch engineering.

Pedestrians make their way across the complicated, five-way intersection of Frankford Avenue, Trenton Avenue and York Street after school let out in the East Kensington section of Philadelphia.  The city plans to install a traffic circle at the location.
Pedestrians make their way across the complicated, five-way intersection of Frankford Avenue, Trenton Avenue and York Street after school let out in the East Kensington section of Philadelphia. The city plans to install a traffic circle at the location.Read moreDAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer

For many neighborhoods, signal lights and stop signs are considered the tools of choice for controlling unruly traffic situations. If you force drivers to stop and look, the thinking goes, you’ll make the streets safer for everyone.

Philadelphia’s Streets Department also cares about reducing the risks for people moving around the city, but it’s taking a different approach. To manage a dangerous intersection in Kensington, it’s scrapping the traffic lights entirely.

If this sounds shocking, just idle in neutral for a moment. Yes, this summer the Streets Department will rip out the signals that regulate the intersection where Frankford Avenue, Trenton Avenue, and York Street meet in an enormous, crash-prone field of asphalt. But the city will replace that time-honored — and flawed — system of traffic control with a Dutch-style roundabout. Instead of blinking electric lights, the new design will use concrete medians and visual cues to guide people safely through the space.

Believe it or not, this passive approach can work. In the year since Palm Beach, Fla., installed its first Dutch-style roundabout, average car speeds have dropped from 38 to 25 m.p.h., and there hasn’t been a single crash, the city traffic engineer, Uyen Dang, told me. Gustave Scheerbaum, the Streets Department engineer overseeing Philadelphia’s new roundabout, believes the Kensington project could produce similar results.

Philadelphia already has plenty of traffic circles, with the ones at Logan Square and Eakins Oval being the most notorious. It’s an understatement to say they are not universally loved.

What’s different here is the design. Scheerbaum says the Kensington roundabout is the first time the city has embraced “modern” Dutch techniques for managing the intricate ballet of motorists, cyclists, and pedestrians across a complex intersection.

The department chose the Kensington location for the trial run because of its immense scale and the large number of reported crashes: 10 during a five-year study period. The intersection is also unusually complicated. Three neighborhoods (East Kensington, Olde Richmond, and Fishtown) and three streets meet in the middle. So much is going on that it is not unusual for confused motorists to sail through without noticing the traffic lights.

With new housing and restaurants popping up on nearly every block, pedestrian counts have increased noticeably, making dangerous conflicts more likely. Twice a day, children must cross the 120-foot-long expanse to reach Hackett Elementary School. Residents want “a walkable neighborhood where you can cross the street with a stroller and not fear an unseen car barreling through an unmarked driving lane, Tori Engelstad, the president of the East Kensington Neighbors Association, wrote in an email.

Roundabouts have long been popular in Europe, where pedestrians have traditionally been given priority over cars. But many American cities remain skeptical. Maybe that’s because the word roundabout still evokes visions of car-choked traffic circles, the kind that South Jersey was once famous for, where motorists jockeyed for position as they inched toward an outlet. Sidewalks and crosswalks, if they existed at all, were an afterthought, since pedestrians rarely figured into the equation.

The new Kensington roundabout will be nothing like a Jersey traffic circle, Scheerbaum promises. The old-style traffic circle was invented so cars could flow through intersections without stopping. Because those circles usually linked up several multilane roads, they tended to be much bigger than roundabouts.

But that was also their weakness. Drivers would freeze when they entered the giant ring, unsure which way to go. As traffic circles became notorious for their bottlenecks, many places began dumbing down the engineering by adding traffic lights or turning them into jughandles.

The Kensington roundabout, which is expected to cost in the mid six figures, will be much smaller and less chaotic, Scheerbaum says. Instead of promoting flow, it encourages everyone to go slow. Several sections of the design, including the eye of central circle, are being planted with grass, to help soften the mood.

As cars approach, they will be stopped by an island, called a “splitter.” The angle of that barrier will force drivers to yield before entering the circle. That pause, Scheerbaum says, is designed to give motorists a good view of people in the crosswalks. Yield signs will make it clear they must wait for pedestrians and cyclists.

Will they? Roundabouts have been successful in Europe partly because motorists there are trained to be deferential to pedestrians. What happens when the design is introduced into city where motorists are not, shall we say, so courteous?

“The roundabout is said to have flourished in Britain because it requires the British virtues of compromise and cooperation,” journalist Stephen Beard observed in an article in BBC America, titled “What Americans don’t understand about the Roundabout.”

Philadelphia’s rate of fatal crashes is already higher than many of its peer cities, according to a 2019 Bicycle Coalition report. Nationally, a quarter of all road deaths occur at intersections.

Scheerbaum believes enough splitters and pedestrian islands are built into the Kensington design to compensate for the aggressive habits of Philly drivers. Dutch roundabouts work by providing designated safe zones for cars, buses, bicycles, and pedestrians. They act as a referee, keeping everyone in their place.

One big difference between the Kensington roundabout and the typical Dutch version is that it lacks a dedicated bike lane. Cyclists will have to roll with the cars. Even the Palm Beach roundabout, which is surrounded by gated communities where people have multicar garages, has a cycle track, separated by a curb from the car lane. That project cost $1.5 million and includes a sculpture in the eye of the circle, oriented vertically to help grab drivers’ attention.

Randy LoBasso, policy manager for the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, isn’t worried about the absence of a lane for cyclists. He’s optimistic that the improvement can come later.

We already know that traffic lights are not a perfect solution to the conditions at the Kensington intersection. A change in the scenery can only help everyone watch where they’re going.