Traffic circle touted as way around gridlock at Towson intersection


June 27, 1994

Robert Humphreys finds the idea of a Towson roundabout downright loopy.

In case you haven't heard, the State Highway Administration has proposed creating a traffic circle in one of Baltimore County's most crowded intersections.

It's the confluence of York, Joppa and Dulaney Valley roads and Allegheny Avenue in Towson just a stone's throw from Towson Town Center. Drivers measure their time there by the inch -- cars creep like tranquilized turtles.

Traffic studies rate the intersection as an "E," the lowest of the letter grades for congestion. That means an intersection is saturated with traffic.

Last month, the SHA offered a solution -- a roundabout, a slow-speed traffic circle without traffic signals. They are common in Europe and are being promoted in this country as an efficient and safe means of traffic control.

But Mr. Humphreys is unimpressed. He says the idea "borders on the absurd," a neighborhood Intrepid Commuter happens to visit in our spare time.

"If traffic lights are used, it will merely be the same situation with different street patterns," he writes. "If traffic lights are not used, vehicles will most assuredly be backed up to the Mason-Dixon line."

bTC "Please, please, please," Mr. Humphreys concludes in his letter, "use all your powers to discourage a Towson roundabout, and recommend other alternatives."

While we are reluctant to use our full powers on any goal lower than world peace, a cure for cancer or to impress women in singles' bars, we forwarded Mr. Humphreys' concerns to the SHA for comment.

Charles "Dick" Harrison, the SHA's district engineer for Baltimore and Harford counties, says he believes Mr. Humphreys is mistaken. Roundabouts aren't controlled by traffic signals. And, he says, signals near the proposed Towson roundabout would be timed to break up traffic sufficiently for the circle to work.

"One of the reasons a roundabout is more efficient is because you don't have delays waiting for signals to change," he says. "There are just so many seconds in a minute and dividing it up takes time."

Tom Hicks, the agency's head of traffic and safety, is similarly high on the concept of the roundabout. "There is no other solution," he says.

A study by a Cockeysville engineering company predicts that the $1 million, two-lane, oval roundabout would markedly improve traffic flow and increase safety. It could raise the intersection's failing grade to an A, decreasing the average afternoon rush hour wait from 16 seconds to 5 seconds or less.

The consultant found that more conventional approaches could help things a little bit, but ultimately raise the grade no higher than a C.

Unfortunately, Maryland has no roundabouts of similar complexity and traffic volume to the one proposed for Towson. The biggest weakness of the plan may be that motorists wouldn't know how to negotiate the roundabout -- not realizing, for instance, that the inner lane yields to the outer or that traffic needn't stop to enter the circle.

The SHA insists the roundabout is no fait accompli. The state is looking for opinions from the community, particularly from local residents and business owners.

In fact, we encourage people to write Mr. Harrison directly to express their thoughts about the plan. Letters should be addressed to: Charles Harrison, SHA District 4 Engineer, 2323 W. Joppa Road, Brooklandville 21022.

Beltway exit forms early on the right

Robert Dorsch has uncovered a case of premature exiting.

He found it during a recent afternoon rush on southbound Baltimore-Washington Parkway (Route 295) at the exit to the eastbound (outer loop) Beltway.

The exit works like this: Motorists bear to the right to enter a circular ramp leading to Interstate 695. But the entrance to the loop is shared. It's also the merge area for westbound Beltway traffic entering southbound Route 295.

Follow that? Congratulations, you've passed Traffic Engineering 101.

Much to his dismay, Mr. Dorsch has discovered that rush-hour traffic pulls over to the shoulder before the exit. Essentially, motorists create a waiting line along the side of the road.

"There appears to be some confusion at these junctures," Mr. Dorsch writes. "The backups on Friday and holidays are tremendous."

Intrepid Commuter has experienced this curiosity firsthand. It is clearly illegal, but not necessarily wrong.

We know that sounds like a contradiction. But hey, that's the nature of commuting.

Let's review some history. The interchange was built in the 1950s. It was one of the first created along the Beltway. As a result, this shared acceleration and deceleration area is shorter than what is standard today.

In 1985, SHA tried to relieve congestion by widening Route 295 from two to three lanes (it drops back to two about one-half mile south of I-695).

The result was that traffic speed increased in the left lanes. But the right lane often ground to a halt in heavy traffic.

This made motorists uncomfortable, state officials speculate. So they started exiting earlier to get out of the way.

"It's not a desirable movement or something we would promote but under the circumstances, it's probably beneficial for their own safety and for traffic flow on southbound Route 295," says Chuck Brown, an SHA spokesman.

From this we postulate a theory: How traffic laws are written is not nearly as important as how the majority of people interpret them.

In other words, go with the flow.

"Our advice is to follow the crowd," Mr. Brown says. "We don't advise changing the situation."


Write to the Intrepid Commuter, c/o The Baltimore Sun, P.O. Box 1377, Baltimore 21278. Please include your name and telephone number so we can reach you if we have any questions.

Or use your Touch-Tone phone to call Sundial, The Baltimore Sun's telephone information service, at 783-1800, and enter Ext. 4305. Call 268-7736 in Anne Arundel County.

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