Not everyone loves the mini-roundabouts in Detroit Lakes

The mini-roundabouts came under fire from readers of the DL Tribune Facebook page recently, some of whom criticized them as unsafe, confusing, expensive, and a bad idea in general.

The mini-roundabout at Willow and Washington. (Nathan Bowe/Tribune)

For God’s sake, slow down -- and yield to cars coming from the left, even if that means waiting for three or four cars in a row. Do that, and you’ve gone a long way toward conquering the two new mini-roundabouts on Washington Avenue in Detroit Lakes.

“There are really two things I’m seeing that people need to do,” said Detroit Lakes City Engineer Jon Pratt. “Slow down. You should be coming through there somewhere between 5 and 10 miles an hour. You cannot just blow through there. That’s when the accidents will happen.”

The second thing is “probably the biggest point of confusion,” he said. “Yield to traffic approaching from your left.”

In short, he said, “Slow down and look left. Be aware of your right, but yield to your left.”

Don’t let Minnesota Nice take over, Pratt said. Don’t stop and wave other motorists in. Don’t stop and take turns. That just messes up the flow of traffic for everybody. Just slow down and yield to your left. People may have to wait for several cars in a row to go through, but it’s still quicker than waiting for a red light, he said.


And the gap in traffic will come: The volume of traffic on Willow and Washington is very well balanced, he said.

Mini-roundabouts under fire

The mini-roundabouts came under fire from readers of the DL Tribune Facebook page recently, some of whom criticized them as unsafe, confusing, expensive, and a bad idea in general. Some like the two full-size roundabouts on Highway 59, but not the mini-roundabouts in town.

“There are some challenges we are seeing and hearing about with the roundabouts,” Pratt said in an interview. The Detroit Lakes City Council was concerned enough about their performance to put a hold on a new roundabout proposed for McKinley Avenue and Frazee Street -- the city’s busiest intersection by Central Market and the Holiday station. It is now controlled by four-way stop signs, and will stay that way for a while, Pratt said.

LoAnn Thompson of Detroit Lakes, for one, wouldn’t mind seeing better traffic flow at that intersection. She was pumping gas at M&H on Tuesday afternoon. “This one I don’t mind,” she said, nodding towards the Willow Street roundabout. “The one by the park (a three-armed mini-roundabout on Washington Avenue and North Shore Drive) is ridiculous. But I really wouldn’t mind another one at McKinley Avenue and Frazee Street.”

Rachel Hamre was also at M&H on Tuesday. “I don’t mind it (the mini-roundabout) but I notice a lot of people just fly through it -- it’s frustrating,” she said. “If people would just use it right, it would be fine. What bothers me the most is people don’t yield.”

Sam Stone of Detroit Lakes thinks the mini-roundabout “is more trouble than it’s worth, that’s just my opinion,” he said. Too often, other motorists don’t yield when they should. “They’re not used to it,” he said. Stone said he knows people who take alternate routes through town just to avoid the roundabouts. “They say ‘to hell with it. I don’t want to go through it, I’ll go the other way,’” he said.

Mitch Goldstein of Detroit Lakes said he prefers the mini-roundabout to the traffic lights that used to control the Willow Street intersection. “I like it, traffic moves around rather quickly,” he said. “But I wish it was like the other roundabouts (on Highway 59). Higher up.”

Designed to fit the space and work for trucks

The Willow Street roundabout rises 2½ inches above the street, and the North Shore Drive roundabout will likely be 3 inches when the permanent construction work is finished there, Pratt said.


Go much higher than that and trucks will start shifting their loads when they go over them: The mini-roundabouts are designed to have trucks and buses drive over them.

The mini-roundabout was designed to fit in the existing Willow Street intersection. If one is eventually built at McKinley and Frazee, it will be larger, but still not full-sized, Pratt said.

If the city had the space, Pratt said he’d love to install full-sized roundabouts. But the mini-roundabouts serve the same function, just in tighter city neighborhoods, he said.

Vetted by MnDOT, less expensive, and keeping traffic flowing

He wants people to know that the mini-roundabouts were vetted and approved by the Minnesota Department of Transportation, which requires an intersection study prior to construction. They weren’t just installed by the city on whim. “We don’t just pull this out of thin air,” he said.

And he wants people to know roundabouts are generally cheaper than traffic control lights -- about $300,000 less expensive on the Willow Street intersection. “It’s not a waste of money,” he said.

The Willow Street mini-roundabout is handling traffic flow better than four-way stop signs or traffic flights. “We’re avoiding the long queues, especially on Willow after school,” Pratt said. “From that perspective it’s working quite well.”

He is also not concerned about heavy summertime traffic. He says the roundabouts can handle it. “We’re well within what the intersection can handle from a volume perspective,” Pratt said. “But people can’t just fly through. It’s not a green light.”


A bicyclist watches cars navigate the mini-roundabout on Willow Street and Washington Avenue. (Nathan Bowe/Tribune)

A cursory check of crashes at the Willow Street intersection show five accidents reported in the past year, none with serious injuries, said Detroit Lakes Police Chief Steve Todd.

“They’re going fine,” he said of the mini-roundabouts. “People just have to get used to them … the big thing with roundabouts is slow down, look to your left, and yield to your left.”

The city is considering additional steps to improve traffic flow through the roundabouts. Things like dynamic message boards, flashing yield signs, maybe flashing speed signs, Pratt said.

If he could do it over again, he said he would have used four-way stop signs at Willow for six months, prior to opening the roundabout, to get people used to stopping there.

In general, roundabouts are safer than other forms of controlled intersections, because motorists slow down and are going roughly the same direction if they collide. The high-speed T-bone crashes are avoided, said MnDOT District Traffic Engineer Trudy Kordosky in Detroit Lakes.

“I’m in support of roundabouts in general from a safety perspective and traffic flow,” she said. In fact, MnDOT is considering mini-roundabouts at two intersections now controlled by traffic lights on Highway 59 in Pelican Rapids. Nothing has been decided yet, it’s in the intersection study phase now, she said. But it would solve the problem of lack of space for left turn lanes there.

“Mini-roundabouts are supposed to operate the same as the larger ones, just in a smaller footprint,” she said.


Cars going round the mini-roundabout at Willow and Washington. (Nathan Bowe/Tribune)

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