Traffic moves around one of Lake Stevens new roundabouts at the intersection of SR-204 and Highway 9 on Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2023 in Lake Stevens, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Traffic moves around one of Lake Stevens new roundabouts at the intersection of SR-204 and Highway 9 on Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2023 in Lake Stevens, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Blessing or baffling? Lake Stevens’ new roundabout maze divides drivers

Last year, a Highway 9 intersection saw 43 crashes — fewer than a complex of roundabouts has seen in two months since opening.

LAKE STEVENS — As of this summer, the traffic in Lake Stevens moves like clockwork.

As in, the roadmap along Highway 9 literally looks like the gears of a clock.

Four new roundabouts — one shaped like a peanut, two paired in the shape of a pulley, plus a labyrinth of side roads through Frontier Village — have transformed two of Lake Stevens’ busiest intersections.

The $69.5 million project took over a decade to complete, with new asphalt, sidewalks and landscaping spanning about 5 acres along the city’s biggest shopping corridor.

Drivers are slowly learning the ins and outs.

And depending on who you ask, the roundabouts are either a blessing or a quagmire.

“I don’t know how they came up with that,” Rod Hayter, the owner of Hayter Trucking, said of the roundabouts’ design. “It looks like a figure-eight demolition derby to me.”

So far, there’s some truth to that.

This year, Lake Stevens police have responded to 68 crashes in the two intersections on the arterial route at Highway 204 and Vernon Road. Nearly half of those crashes happened in July, when the roundabouts fully opened. The number dipped to 16 in August.

Last year, the Highway 204 intersection saw 43 crashes — fewer than the roundabouts have seen in just the past two months. In 2021, there were 42 crashes at the intersection, and 29 in 2020.

(Source: WSDOT)

(Source: WSDOT)

Advocates for roundabouts point to a reduction in serious crashes, though a statistical breakdown wasn’t available to account for each crash’s severity. Even some of the harshest critics concede traffic generally flows smoother than it did when stoplights clogged cars.

Justin Garcia, 34, has lived in the city for 15 years and drives the roundabouts daily on his commute. He started the “Lake Stevens roundabout group” on Facebook, which has since grown to 145 members who debate the merits of the new gateway into the city.

Garcia loves the traffic circles — “one of the best things that’s happened to us in this particular area.” He also remembers, vividly, what it was like before.

“It has proven that it has alleviated traffic in the area,” Garcia said.

‘If it was more user-friendly … ’

One thing both sides can agree on?

Many drivers don’t know how to safely navigate a roundabout — much less a two-lane roundabout like the two biggest ones that opened at Frontier Village. Traffic is always moving in the circle, a concept that’s as hard for some to grasp as quantum physics.

“The biggest problem,” Garcia said, “is that people don’t continue to go in and merge with traffic. They stop, then they wait for the next available slot and then either try and go across into the center-most lane. That’s where I see the accidents happen, is when people try to go across multiple lanes.”

Hayter sees another problem. Highway 9 has four lanes that squeeze into the two-lane roundabouts. The double lanes provide an extra challenge for trucks that need to squeeze through the roundabout, a white-knuckle ride he colorfully described as “puckering.”

Drivers navigate traffic at the intersection of Highway 9 and SR-204 in Lake Stevens, Washington before the state built four roundabouts near Frontier Village. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Drivers navigate traffic at the intersection of Highway 9 and SR-204 in Lake Stevens, Washington before the state built four roundabouts near Frontier Village. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Cars sometimes cut around the trucks, creating extra danger for all vehicles. Each year, around 4,600 people die in crashes involving semi trucks. Semis, like anything hauling a trailer, need to make wide turns.

“It’s always a real challenge for any truck pulling a trailer to go through because trailers cut the corner,” Hayter said. “It’s just more for the (truck) driver to deal with. There’s been several accidents where people ran into the trailer or the trailer ran into a car because they don’t share the road with trucks. Trucks don’t have a choice.”

Hayter said his company has not had any crashes in the new Lake Stevens roundabouts since they opened, but have had incidents at other roundabouts in the area.

Others are worried about elderly drivers.

“The frustration I get over it is my mom using it, older people using it,” said Lisa Jones, a longtime Lake Stevens resident. “Arrows. They need the arrows. If it was more user-friendly, they would be fine.”

The “peanut” roundabout on Vernon Road connects with 91st Avenue NE, roughly in the shape of a bowtie, sandwiched between auto shops and a Wendy’s drive-thru. It was designed this way to avoid needing a new right-of-way agreement from adjacent properties, state officials said last year.

Another small new traffic circle — with a 64-foot diameter, about one-third the size of the big ones — sits just east of Highway 9, linking North Davies Road, Frontage Road and Vernon Road, essentially bringing together six different streams of traffic, aptly next door to a driving school.

Hayter said he knows people who now avoid the roundabout maze altogether. He’s one of them.

‘Creatures of habit’

Over the past two decades, roundabouts have become a gold standard for civil engineers trying to reduce deadly crashes while also keeping traffic flowing.

There are now about 9,000 roundabouts in the United States, up from around 100 in 2000. At least 10 of those are in Lake Stevens. The neighboring cities of Arlington, Granite Falls and Snohomish have also adopted roundabouts to calm traffic in recent years, mostly through Department of Transportation projects on state highways.

“The No. 1 reason was to help improve safety at these intersections,” said David Rasbach, a Department of Transportation spokesperson. “We want to get everyone where they’re going, safe.”

It is a lofty goal. According to the National Safety Council, as of 2021, people in the United States had a 1 in 93 chance of dying in a car crash in their lifetime.

Statistics from the Federal Highway Administration show roundabouts decrease injury collisions by 75%. They also offer a 90% reduction in fatal collisions and 40% fewer pedestrian collisions.

But it doesn’t happen overnight, Rasbach said.

“There’s an adjustment period,” he said. “It takes time to feel comfortable and everything like that and we understand that, which is the same with any traffic change we make. You have to warn people when you put a new stop sign in. We’re creatures of habit … it’s the same thing with (the roundabouts).”

To help educate the public, the DOT has hosted a booth at the Lake Stevens farmers market, as well as events at local stores like the Safeway in Frontier Village. A full-sized map of the roundabout and toy cars demonstrated how to get through the traffic revision. A 90-second YouTube video highlights the changes, hosted by a friendly traffic cone wearing a construction hat, who explains where to go as red-and-orange arrows unfurl along the route like a “Snake” arcade game.

For drivers, entering a two-lane roundabout requires focus and timing. Signs are everywhere. If turning off at one of the roundabouts, it’s critical to be in an outside lane — cutting into another lane in the middle of the roundabout is dangerous and a common cause of crashes.

‘Some people love them’

Feedback has been mixed, Rasbach said.

“Roundabouts,” he said, “a lot of people have different opinions. Some people love them, some people severely dislike them, and for some people, it’s just another way to get to where they’re going. The response we’ve gotten has been mixed, as you might expect.”

Some residents made their complaints known on a Facebook post from the official Lake Stevens account, which also announced the DOT would be at the farmers market. It was shared hundreds of times before the city shut down comments, effectively deleting dash cam footage and a lively debate.

City officials had little to say about the traffic redesign.

“Those are a WSDOT project so it’s probably best you speak with them,” city administrator Gene Brazel wrote in an email. “The city of Lake Stevens participated in the meetings as a stakeholder but it’s their project.”

He added: “The City of Lake Stevens website is set up to push out information, not receive comments and has been this way for sometime.”

About a dozen lanes converge at the intersection of highways 9 and 204 in front of the Frontier Village Shopping Center on Feb. 25, 2019 in Lake Stevens, Washington. (Lizz Giordano / The Herald)

About a dozen lanes converge at the intersection of highways 9 and 204 in front of the Frontier Village Shopping Center on Feb. 25, 2019 in Lake Stevens, Washington. (Lizz Giordano / The Herald)

None of the seven Lake Stevens City Council members responded to a request for comment on the project. Lake Stevens Mayor Brett Gailey did not directly respond, either.

Lake Stevens has been part of the planning process since least 2011, when the city and state teamed up to workshop plans. The Department of Transportation held six open houses and public comment periods between 2016 and 2022, as well as four more meetings for businesses, Rasbach said.

Funding for the project came from a fund built out of a statewide 11.9-cent gas tax increase.

‘We’re stuck’

Those who have not experienced roundabouts before are learning the hard way, Garcia said.

“The people that are getting into accidents now, I’m assuming, are not accustomed to roundabouts and how to use them,” Garcia said. “And those people, unfortunately, are getting weeded out because they’re getting into accidents, and that’s why I also expect incidents to go down.”

Roundabouts are older than the automobile, if you count, for example, the point where 12 avenues come together at the Arc de Triomphe. Cities like Paris, London and Rome outgrew their historic boundaries and roads replaced walls. City gates often became circles or squares. As the automobile rose to prominence, traffic circles were a solution in cities that weren’t built on a grid.

Roads in Lake Stevens are irregular largely due to the shape of its namesake lake.

Roundabouts came to the Americas around the turn of the century. While the first American “traffic circle” was built in Indianapolis in the 1820s, the first major thoroughfare was Columbus Circle in New York City in 1904. By 1929, Columbus Circle had 58,000 vehicles per day.

Almost a century later in Lake Stevens, about 33,000 vehicles per day pass through the intersection of Highway 9 and Highway 204.

To get to the downtown Lake Stevens farmers market from U.S. 2, the fastest route advised by Google Maps would send a visitor through four roundabouts. And once you get through those, Highway 9 has three more traffic circles for drivers headed north to Arlington.

Another roundabout was recently added on Highway 530 into Arlington. To get to Mountain Loop Highway along Highway 92, a traveler could expect to go through five roundabouts — and that’s after visitors from Everett or Seattle brave the new roundabouts in Lake Stevens.

“I’d like to rant and rave and complain about it,” Hayter said. “But we’re stuck with it.”

Jordan Hansen: 425-339-3046;; Twitter: @jordyhansen.

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