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'Michigan left' promises learning curve, less congestion

July 14, 2012

Just as Carmel popularized roundabouts locally, aspiring neighbor Fishers could be lauded as the pioneer of another form of traffic control here.

Fishers’ adaptation of the “Michigan left turn” intersection—believed to be the first in the state—could also become Fishers’ folly if drivers don’t accept it.

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For a closer look at the Michigan left, click here.

But the Hamilton County town is so confident in the strategy that it already has dubbed the feature being built at East 96th Street and Allisonville Road the “Fishers U-Turn.” No blaming Michigan now.

Rather than waiting for a left-turn arrow at the traffic signal to make a left, drivers approaching the intersection will first turn right and proceed a few hundred feet, then hang a left U-turn at the median.

A traffic signal will be added to all four of these U-turns to encourage orderly merging and civilized behavior.

The downside is that drivers could be sitting at as many as three lights rather than the one that’s there now. And turning left will be far more complicated than waiting for an arrow.

The upside is that the cumulative time waiting at signals should be less than at the existing single bank of lights at the intersection. Traffic proceeding straight through the intersection could benefit the most—spending less time waiting because left-turn arrows will be

eliminated. Those left-turn arrows cause lengthy traffic signal cycles.

The hope is that all the lights will be timed so that nobody has to sit at three signals, said Jeff Hill, Fishers’ director of engineering.

“The overall travel time will be less,” he said.

But even if overall wait times can be scientifically documented to have decreased, Fishers traffic engineers and town leaders are taking a professional and political risk.

Drivers might count the number of lights where they stopped and additional distance they traveled and perceive no time savings.

Moreover, this is no rural road. It’s a major intersection, handling 65,000 vehicles a day. To harried motorists, turning right and driving hundreds of feet in the opposite direction to turn left on a surface street is counterintuitive.

Michiganders grew up with the intersections and give the design nary a second thought.

But this isn’t Michigan. And to the extent Hoosiers are more like residents of the Dallas suburb of Plano, they could be jabbing pitchforks in the door of Fishers Town Hall come November when the U-turn intersection enters service.

Since a Michigan U-turn configuration was installed at a major Plano intersection two years ago, drivers have been making periodic appearances at the city council to demand it be replaced with a conventional signal.

Ironically, this first appearance of the Michigan left in Texas achieved its performance objectives. It cut delays per vehicle 35 seconds, and overall traffic backups fell 60 percent, the city says.

“Overall, we’re very pleased operationally. We’re very pleased with the design. It met all the expectations,” said Lloyd Neal, Plano’s transportation engineering manager.

Yet, even a year after the intersection debuted, many drivers hadn’t warmed to it. Local TV station KDAF stuck a microphone in car windows and got an earful.

“Everybody hates it. We want to go straight and we want to turn [left]. This is ridiculous,” said one woman.

“It’s silly. I don’t understand why you can’t just put a green arrow there and turn left, just like all the other roads,” said another.

And one man said clueless motorists were cutting over at the last minute, creating a safety hazard.

Neal has heard the complaints and said city officials responded by improving signage and signal timing and stepping up a public awareness campaign.

Local police also stepped up—with citations to educate the most clueless. Cops issued 487 citations in the year after the installation, compared with 121 citations for the year before.

Still, Plano’s city council this month is scheduled to hear the latest request from a small-but-vocal group of residents to restore a traditional design.

“Our challenge really has been to demonstrate continued public acceptance,” Neal said.

Learning curve ahead

“We understand there could be a level of discomfort or a learning curve,” Fishers’ Hill concedes.

Translation: Wait till cell-phone-impaired drivers who already blow through red lights encounter the more complicated Fishers U-turn.

Actually, “commuter traffic should get the hang of it fairly quickly,” said Erika Miller, an engineer for the Indianapolis office of New York-based Parsons-Brinckerhoff Corp. and traffic safety consultant to Indianapolis Metropolitan Planning Organization.

As for other drivers, maybe it’s best not to think about it.

If there’s any consolation, “through-traffic should experience a much longer green phase,” Miller said.

Also, the total duration of waiting times at the intersection “will be much less,” said Dave Henkel, an engineer at R.W. Armstrong, which was hired by Fishers for the project.

That will require drivers to momentarily suspend their Dale Earnhardt persona—to slow down and think through how the new feature works. Engineers must accommodate the slow-witted and distracted driver to prevent the intersection from becoming a Formula One road course gone wrong. Clear signage is a must, Miller said.

Hill said Fishers is making a “very heavy investment” in four overhead signs to tell motorists exactly which lanes they need to be in to go in each direction. That’s a step beyond smaller signs placed along roads in Michigan-left intersections in other states.

Mercifully, the left-turn procedure was designed to be consistent no matter which of four directions drivers approach the intersection. Those wanting to turn left will always turn right at the intersection and make a left U-turn a little farther down the road.

Fishers is also conducting public information meetings and placing information on its website on how to navigate the intersection. A more detailed animation is being prepared for posting on the Web as well.

“It helped a lot in other communities, such as Carmel, with its roundabouts,” said Fishers spokeswoman Maura Leon-Barber.

Cheap(er) and it fits

All of which raises the question asked in Texas: Why go through all the trouble when a more conventional design could have been used?

Fishers leaders concluded the traditional left-arrow signal approach and the lengthy cycles the route entails could no longer handle burgeoning traffic at the intersection. Traffic is expected to grow even more when Centre Properties opens its River Place mixed-use development to the northwest.

Planners considered building a massive roundabout and an interchange, but dismissed the idea in part due to cost and property right-of-way restrictions.

The Fishers U-turn will cost $9 million, while an interchange would run tens of millions of dollars.

Moreover, parts of the intersection are surrounded by high-density residential development that could be problematic to demolish. The U-turn design was head and shoulders above the other options in minimizing right-of-way impact, Henkel said.

The only additional land needed is for carving bump-outs into shoulders of roads where the U-turns will take place. Parts of Allisonville Road and 96th Street also are undergoing slight widenings.

Fishers engineers insist there’s enough room for semi-trailers to make U-turns, including the car transporters headed to car dealers lining 96th Street.

Replication potential

Fishers’ novel intersection—at least for Indiana—will have implications elsewhere in the state.

“There are some other locales studying it,” Henkel said. “I think a lot of folks may be watching this one.”

One reason is the relative cost advantage, something that appeals to municipalities struggling with tight budgets.

INDOT even had looked at the Michigan-left concept during planning in the early 2000s for overhauling U.S. 31 between 96th Street and Westfield.

An old environmental impact study shows a Michigan left was contemplated for 96th Street. It would have required all southbound U.S. 31 left-turn traffic to first turn right on 96th, then hang a U-turn to travel east on 96th.

With more cash, INDOT was able to plan the U.S. 31 corridor with more expensive, interstate-like interchanges.•
 

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