To the uninitiated, it looks like just another traffic circle: a round, rotary intersection that whizzes motorists through a kind of automotive revolving door.
But to the state Department of Transportation, it is a modern, British-style roundabout: a subtly, but significantly, improved version of the circular intersection that the agency hopes will revolutionize the way Californians drive.
On Tuesday, Caltrans unveiled its first conceptual drawings of the roundabout to a sometimes skeptical crowd in Ojai, where the device has been proposed for the Y-intersection of California 33 and California 150.
If constructed, the British invention--which differs from American versions primarily in that it assigns the right of way to cars already traveling within the circle--would be the first of its kind in the state and perhaps the country.
"There's sort of a revolution going on within our profession, and Americans are ignoring the whole thing," said Leif Ourston, Caltrans' consultant on the project and a former transportation engineer for the city of Santa Barbara. "We're trying to bring the revolution that is going on overseas to our shores."
Although Caltrans, which has budgeted $250,000 for the project, is not required to obtain permission from Ojai officials, the agency has said it will not proceed without local support.
In a letter sent last month to Caltrans, Ojai Mayor Frank McDevitt admitted that "something as new and different as a roundabout naturally, and justifiably, creates some apprehension" but nonetheless he expressed "cautious interest" in the plan.
"I think any city would be dumb not to take it--if it works," McDevitt said in an interview. "Who am I to say it won't work?"
Some feelings of skepticism are shared even by members of the transportation profession, who have found that American-style rotaries, at least, tend to collapse into horrible gridlocks during peak hours.
"It's going to be foreign to our California drivers," said George Gerth, Santa Barbara's transportation engineer. "Will Californians accept and understand and make the kinds of predictable moves that you would expect? That's the thing we're not sure about."
Widely Used Overseas
But, Ourston said, the British-style intersection, which is being used in countries from England to Norway to Iraq, offers a simple solution to many of California's seemingly insurmountable traffic problems.
The Ojai proposal--which features a 56-foot-wide island in the center of the intersection with a clearance of about 40 feet between the island and the outside of the circle--would increase traffic flow, reduce congestion and lessen the pollution created by stop-and-go driving, Ourston said.
Moreover, by eliminating overhead signals and the hazard of head-on traffic, roundabouts have typically reduced all accidents by about 40% to 60%, and fatal or serious-injury accidents by 80% to 90%, he said.
"They could and should be used in thousands of places throughout the state," Ourston said. "And I think they will."
Three key factors distinguish the British-style roundabout from the oft-disparaged American variety, such as those found in Long Beach, Bakersfield and numerous East Coast cities.
By far the most significant, Ourston said, is the British right-of-way rule. Unlike most American rotaries, which permit entering cars to merge directly into the flow of traffic, approaching motorists will be alerted to yield by warning signs and a broken white line.
"Under capacity, the old-style traffic circles just lock up," Ourston said. "In the British style, the entering traffic must yield. That keeps the middle part moving, so that you're always getting maximum performance."
Secondly, in the roundabout, traffic is forced to slow down by entering at a nearly perpendicular angle, cutting sharply into the circle only at the last minute. In most American versions, cars often enter at a gentler angle, allowing motorists to maintain their speed and seize the right of way from the circulating traffic, Ourston said.
Finally, the lanes feeding to a British roundabout flare out three to four times wider just before they merge into the circle, thus increasing capacity by permitting several cars to enter simultaneously at peak traffic hours.
"If it is installed in the right place and designed and controlled the right way, a British-style roundabout will do everything we want an intersection to do," Ourston said. "It is the key to unlocking our streets."
The 50 Ojai residents who gathered at Jack Boyd Community Center for three hours Tuesday night were not all convinced.
Most had concerns about specific issues, such as the impact on bicyclists, pedestrians and nearby intersections. Others expressed uneasiness about being used as the American testing ground for the invention.
"I just feel like we're being made guinea pigs," said Dennis Bisek, whose wife owns Ojai Woman, a clothing shop at the intersection. "And I don't think there's that much to gain from it."