Wednesday, August 21, 2013

You Can’t Go Home Again – Part 4, Roundabouts and an Urbanism Success

In my last three posts, I wrote of recent travels in the Pacific Northwest.  I lived in the region from 1982 until 2000.  During my journey, I was able to observe how urbanism has progressed in several communities that I once knew well.  In the first three posts, with links here, here, and here, I wrote about stroads, induced traffic, long-term impacts of land-use missteps, and missed opportunities for urbanism.

In this post, I’ll look at an unexpected urbanism success and the effective use of roundabouts.

Observation #6: Good urbanism can arise unexpectedly - Even while urbanism concepts were being denied or subverted elsewhere in Bend, another project was arising that would be recognized nationally for its urbanism.
That changed when the school district took at rigorous long-term look at optimal school locations and identified a need to serve the property.  (I had a small role in getting the school district study underway.)  The district approached the land-owner about a site for a future school, which was the final shove he needed to initiate a development plan.

Northwest Crossing is a neighborhood of small-lot and shared-wall single family homes, serviced by a street-oriented retail core.  The neighborhood is walkable and bikeable, with all ages able to easily access the retail area.
in the retail area were jammed with people celebrating a Friday evening.  The next, the retail street was closed for a fair.  The last, the sidewalks had a smattering of folks enjoying a quiet Sunday afternoon.  It is a retail area that works for the neighborhood.

As befits its beginnings, Northwest Crossing has good non-vehicular access to public schools.  Also, in a feature lacking in most American cities, it has a senior living complex in the retail area from where active seniors can remain involved in their community.

Bend, more than many communities, suffered during the recent economic turmoil.  A former co-worker who remains employed in the land-use arena advised me that Northwest Crossing was only Bend neighborhood for which home construction never slowed during the hard times.  It’s more proof of something I’ve often written, that there is unmet need for urbanist living.

To my eye, Northwest Crossing isn’t quite the perfect urbanist community.  I’d prefer pockets of higher density and a broader scattering of small storefronts, but Northwest Crossing is accurately identified among the best urbanist places in the country.

Observation #7: Roundabouts work – For reasons that now escape me, Bend was among the first communities in the west to adopt roundabouts as a primary tool of traffic management.  By the mid 1990s, the city was promoting roundabouts as solutions for troublesome intersections.

Despite heated public meetings on the subject, by the late 1990s the city was moving ahead with several roundabouts.  During my time in Bend, I was involved in the design of several intersections that were to serve as interim solutions, with roundabouts intended as replacements as traffic increased.  Most of those replacements have now been implemented.

I don’t have an exact count, but Bend may have more than thirty roundabouts.  And they work well.  As I worked my way around a town that had changed dramatically since my time there, I found the roundabouts convenient and logical.  Driving through the roundabouts felt safe and courteous.  It was a very different feeling than waiting in a queue at a traffic signal.

And when I occasionally struggled with navigation, I enjoyed using the roundabouts to make safe and legal U-turns.

Roundabouts aren’t going to work in all traffic situations.  But for communities with moderate traffic levels on a diverse collection of arterials and collectors, Bend proves that roundabouts are a fine solution.

Observation #8: Roundabouts need differentiation - When I moved away from Bend, the move to roundabouts had barely begun.  But by the time I returned in 2004 for an arbitration hearing related to a former project, roundabouts had proliferated.  As I drove to the location of the hearing, I traversed a number of roundabouts, several of which had replaced what I remembered as conventional intersections.

Perhaps because my route was familiar but greatly changed, I found the roundabouts confusing.  Most looked similar.  As I entered a roundabout, I was suddenly uncertain where I was.

I successfully found my destination, but came away with the thought that roundabouts, perhaps more than regular intersections, need strong signage and differentiation so that all roundabouts don’t look alike.

It was as if my thoughts were channeled directly into the benevolent segment of the Bend community.  Through charitable contributions, sculptures have been installed at many of the roundabouts.  Even better, every sculpture is unique, giving each roundabout a sense of place.

One sculpture in particular has captured the attention of the town.  It is an orange and red bird intended by the artist as a phoenix.  The community has instead dubbed it the “flaming chicken” and often gives directions relative to it.

Bend may have done some things wrong.  But any community where directions can be given as “Go a half-mile past the flaming chicken” rather than “Go a half-mile past the Target” is doing something right.

In my next post, I’ll cross over the Cascades to offer thoughts on Portland.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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