Zachary Branigan

Zachary Branigan
urban planner, Habitat for Humanity volunteer
Ann Arbor, Michigan

Tottered on: 14 February 2009
Temperature: 29 F
Ceiling: gray spitting snow
Ground: snow-covered knoll
Wind: NE at 2 mph

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TT with HD: Zachary Branigan

Zachary Branigan

Zachary Branigan
Totter 2.0 on location:
North Maple Roundabout

[On North Maple Road near Ann Arbor, there are now three roundabouts, one on either side of the M-14 bridge, and a third one in front of the newly constructed Skyline High School. This totter ride took place in the middle of the southern-most roundabout.]

HD: Let's not make a marathon out of this!

ZB: No, I don't think that's a good idea. [laugh]

HD: Welcome to the teeter totter!

ZB: Thanks!

HD: Okay, now that guy right there, he was in the roundabout, so he had the right of way.

ZB: Right.

HD: So the guy who was approaching there from the south on Maple Road, he stopped to yield, that was perfectly executed?

ZB: That was kosher roundabout execution right there. Yep. Absolutely. [honking from automobile]

HD: I wonder if they're honking at us? Oh yeah! It's the Mighty Good Coffee guy!

ZB: Hey, I know him!

HD: Yeah??

ZB: Yeah well because of Jeremy [Lopatin], I know the whole Ann Arbor specialty beverage cognoscenti!

HD: [laugh] [laugh]

ZB: All the local roasters and tea mongers.

HD: So you studied roundabouts in school, right?

ZB: Yes.

HD: You don't just have a passing acquaintance with them where you have done some Internet quote-unquote research, you actually have a degree in that?

ZB: I have a degree in urban planning and specifically in urban design.

HD: And you focused on transportation as one of your areas?

ZB: Exactly. The first time that I really had to think about roundabouts, I did my masters thesis project in Toledo, and there was a neighborhood called the Westgate Neighborhood. And we did a long-range plan for that area. We wanted to see if a roundabout would work there. I had gone to school in Ireland for a semester as an undergraduate ...

HD: ... Ireland as in the country of Ireland?

ZB: The country of Ireland, yep. I thought roundabouts were a good idea, and so we introduced them in this Toledo project. So I really had to learn a lot about the geometry of roundabouts, and how they work. And this is a perfect spot here. Honestly, I had no idea these were going to go in here! I live in the neighborhood right over there. I was pretty jazzed when I heard that they were putting in roundabouts!

HD: Oh really?! [laugh]

ZB: I mean it's pretty geeky, but I was telling all my friends ...

HD: ... we're getting roundabouts, man!

ZB: There's a lot of urban planning cachet to being close to things like roundabouts.

HD: But you know, I was just talking to Danny, the guy who lives in that house there, and he said that you know from where he sits--and he sits in a very good vantage point--that for every one person who does the roundabout right, there's another person who executes the roundabout wrong. He said people don't understand who's got the right of way, and where. And he cautioned me, actually, to be very careful ...

ZB: ... [laugh]...

HD: ... he was not totally sure that we would be completely safe up here.

ZB: He might be right. For the home audience, there are tire tracks that extend a little bit into the roundabout. I think we are high enough that we will be okay.

HD: Yeah, I'm counting on the altitude.

ZB: Oh! There's a spin out! She's okay, though.

HD: So she was approaching from ...

ZB: ... from the south. Heading north, and she did exactly what you said ...

HD: ... she's waving at us, that's a good sign she's okay.

ZB: Here's another one. See, people are just not being careful. Now there's a city truck, he will probably come and tell us to get off of here. But maybe not.

HD: Is that a city truck? I don't think it's a city truck ...

ZB: ... no, it's not. Washtenaw County. He doesn't care. He's calling it in though on the radio!

HD: You think so?

ZB: Well, he was on the radio. Could be.

HD: Well, we won't be here long enough that it should become an issue.

So roundabouts. Can you think of any other locations where you would like to see roundabouts at least considered around here? I mean, they're put them in at Nixon and Plymouth, right?

ZB: They are talking about putting them in at Nixon and Plymouth. They are actually going to put them in at the Geddes Road interchange off of US-23. Basically in the exact same configuration that they're in here. Which is particularly interesting for me, because I am a planning consultant for Ann Arbor Township. We are really getting into the idea that they're going to improve that intersection. One of the things that a roundabout theoretically does is push a lot more volume through in a shorter amount of time. And, theoretically, in a safer configuration.

HD: Well, safer for cars.

ZB: Safer for cars but not for the rest of us.

HD: Right, so not for pedestrians.

ZB: Not for pedestrians.

HD: Basically, if everybody does everything perfectly, ...

ZB: ... there is never a break. You're exactly right. The place where you're actually theoretically supposed to cross a roundabout, you will see the stripes way back there.

HD: So way before the round part starts. So you don't want to be messing with the round part of a roundabout if you are pedestrian?

ZB: No. You are supposed to walk all the way around it. Now the problem is that people don't like to walk extra far, so they just cut across it anyway. And that is obviously a problem. So if you look over here, right where these cars keep sliding from this downhill straight into the roundabout, that's where you would supposedly walk across it. And you walk across there, well that's on the on-ramp to the freeway. You know, pedestrians are not used to walking across the on-ramp to a freeway. It's a goofy place to walk.

Or over here, this side is not so bad, because there is an island, so you can walk to the island, and then you can walk over there. When we design roundabouts or big boulevards, it's nice to have pedestrian respite islands in the middle of a wide road, so you don't have such a big expanse to cross.

HD: You mentioned that this is a particular configuration. So it's not like any roundabout is exactly like any other--there's various kinds of configurations?

ZB: There's millions different kinds. They're all quite a bit different from each other.

HD: So have you seen the one over on Easy Street?

ZB: Easy Street--yes!

HD: It's like a roundabout-lite.

ZB: Yeah, in fact, they do those everywhere in Europe. In Britain and in Ireland they do those little tiny--it's basically just a hump in the road and you can drive right across it. It's just like a traffic mound in the middle with a little sign. And those actually seem to work pretty well in neighborhood situations. It can be used as a traffic calming device, if for no other reason than that. And you don't need stop signs if you have them. So those work out pretty well.

But you know, it's funny because in Ireland they have roundabouts for what would be the equivalent of the interstate highway. Unlike us where you get off the freeway and you have two little roundabouts, in Ireland there's a big giant roundabout that goes over the top of the freeway. So you get up on it and you are still traveling at highway speeds on the roundabout. Which there is a little bit slower than us supposedly. But it's unbelievable--it will be three lanes wide and it will go from here to all the way where the high school is. I mean they are huge. They are huge, huge, huge. So there's a million different ways to do it.

A bad example locally, in my opinion--I don't know if that's a fan or if they're honking at the car in front of them--a difficult example for people to swallow is at Lee Road up in Brighton. There is a double roundabout on one side there and it's like a figure-8 and it's pretty tricky. The only example in North America that I'm aware of where they did it that way.

HD: So is it possible to contemplate roundabouts in a downtown setting? So imagine North University Avenue and State Street, that intersection. It's a T-intersection, that would be roughly the same sort of configuration as Easy Street, because that one is also a T-intersection, as I recall. Is that even worth studying?

ZB: Well, I don't know. In my opinion that's a little bit tight there, because the buildings crowd the street. Even though in a freeway overall you use less space with a roundabout because you don't need the real big clover leafs, in a downtown situation you need more space. So sometimes if there are buildings there, it can be really tricky to fit roundabouts in there.

For instance, in the city of Howell, which is a client community that we work with once in a while, they just had a downtown plan done by another company, and that company came up with the idea right on the main drag in the middle of downtown Howell, to put a roundabout. Now in their design, they literally had to cut off the corners of the sidewalks to fit it in there. And in the middle of it, they had a big fountain.

HD: [laugh]

ZB: Now this one is nice because we are the only things in the middle of it, and we are not normally here.

HD: Right, we are not obstructing the view.

ZB: We're not obstructing the view. The big national example of a roundabout going in and causing a ton of problems was in Clearwater, Florida. And actually one of my old bosses was involved in designing that. And they put in a big giant fountain, and they had a lot of volume going through there, and it was way too small. And there were just tons of accidents. So now if you go there ...

HD: ... now that guy is going too fast!

ZB: That guy is going to fast for any road. That's the other thing, the people who are sporty drivers love roundabouts, because it's like, "I don't have to stop!" But you can't have anything in the middle. They can't be too small for the amount of volume that they have. That's why they do multiple ones here.

HD: Rather than having one big one.

ZB: Right. Because they get really complicated. For instance on the Champs Champs-Elysees that's a big giant roundabout ...

HD: ... that's the one that people think of.

ZB: Yep. And I don't know what it is but it's like 8 or 12 lanes wide, it's ridiculous. And it's really really small actually around there. So given the amount of volume to go through there, it's just not very safe. And for pedestrians it's a good thing they have a tunnel.

HD: So I notice that you're wearing a Habitat for Humanity hat. Do you work with them?

ZB: Yep! I do. I volunteer for the local chapter here just on Saturdays. But I've been getting involved a little bit deeper because I'm LEED-accredited professional and they are interested in trying to green-up their operation.

HD: So as far as I understand it they are working on actually rehabbing some dwellings now, as opposed to--you think of Habitat for Humanity, what I think of is Jimmy Carter building a new house.

ZB: Exactly, right.

HD: So they're moving into the realm, to some extent, of rehabbing?

ZB: Right. Almost exclusively right now. This year they are doing a bunch of rehabs. One locally is actually an old Habitat house that was abandoned by the previous owner, and they have taken repossession of it and they are rehabbing it. And in Ypsilanti right around Depot town in that neighborhood there, there's a bunch on a couple of different streets.

HD: So do you actually go out there and wield a hammer?

ZB: Yep. Absolutely.

HD: So you're not just providing consulting and planning advice.

ZB: Oh no, no, no. I actually went into it from that direction first. I volunteered for Habitat and for other similar organizations in my hometown of Bay City. Paint and Pride, which is an organization there, it's kind of the same idea. They would fix up people's houses who couldn't afford to fix them up themselves. And so we did that. My dad was a carpenter and we owned a lumber yard, so I sort of grew up with it.

HD: So you know something about lumber then from a hands-on point of view, too?

ZB: Yeah. [laugh]

HD: Can you identify this wood that we are riding right now?

ZB: Oh, I think this is just pine.

HD: [?]

ZB: Right?

HD: Well, ...

ZB: ... it looks like we're riding on basically a reinforced 2 x 10 or 2 x 12. Is that right, or no?

HD: Well, I don't know, Hemlock-Fir, is that in the Pine family?

ZB: You know, I don't know that much about it! [laugh] [laugh] But no I don't think fir and pine are the same thing.

HD: At Fingerle they call it Hem-Fir. I think that's Hemlock-Fir. So I think this is better than your average pine board.

ZB: Well, this looks like it's holding up to the weather pretty well.

HD: Yeah, and it's totally untreated.

ZB: Yeah, well, there you go.