Unfiltered critical feedback about your project can be tough for any transportation engineer to hear. I found myself in this situation when I asked a resident of Glen Ellyn, Illinois, for his opinion on the roundabout on Crescent Boulevard, now in its second year of operation. As the lead designer on the project, I struck up a conversation with the resident, and his response was not what I was hoping for:
“The dumbest idea anyone’s ever come up with.”
He soon realized that I might have a vested interest in the question, at which point I explained my role. To his credit, he barely paused before saying “Why did you build one of those turnaround things in my town?” I told him about crash history, the poor geometry of the old intersection, and how U-turns would have otherwise shifted to side streets and residential driveways. He listened politely, paused and said, “I didn’t think of it that way.” We went our separate ways, the resident better informed on roundabout intersection design. This was yet another fortunate encounter in a design process that seemed to be characterized by such events.
The Crescent Boulevard project, designed by Burns & McDonnell, was one in which assertive and deliberate action resulted in new information and an unexpected outcome. The site and concept were truly unique in municipal street design.
Crescent Boulevard is subject to a wide variety of demands, from commuters using the nearby Metra station, parents taking their kids to and from Glenbard West High School in the middle of the corridor, the thousand-plus pedestrians crossing the street every school day, and the residents traveling to and from Glen Ellyn’s active central business district.
Before construction, these competing demands were served by a deteriorating pavement, 50 feet in width. Sidewalks were lacking, and there was no physical means of separating the various modes of use from each other. A plethora of signs failed to prevent dangerous U-turns, illegal parking maneuvers and jaywalking.
The effort to provide a meaningful improvement required assessment of the many uses of the corridor, utilization of every available foot of right-of-way toward project objectives, and coordination with a wide variety of stakeholders whose interests did not always coincide.
The structure of our team allowed the use of creative design approaches for streets and arterials, which overcame these issues:
- We divided the project into four segments and came up with several design approaches for each, which allowed stakeholders and the public to see the ideas for each section.
- The development of these “puzzle pieces” made the coordination process more efficient. Contributors and critics alike could see how alternate design approaches fit (or didn’t) with the other components and the overall scheme of the work. A concise photo album of the design process was available for consideration as the project advanced.
- Detailed analysis and coordination often provided unexpected and revelatory information. For example, a Glen Ellyn Police Department crash report illustrated several of the hazardous aspects of the existing street — no channelization, a need for separation between users, and a demand for U-turns that would not be deterred by signage alone.
In addition to a unique design process, a few geometric features were used in unique ways on Crescent Boulevard:
- The roundabout at the east end of the project was created in part to allow legal execution of the U-turns we knew were occurring.
- The median design was the result of extended negotiating between the high school, the village and the design team. It provided a planter, a pedestrian barrier and pedestrian crossings in an attractive manner, while avoiding a forbidding or restricting look.
Some elements of the work paid off in unexpected ways. The retaining wall on the north side of the road turned out to be the perfect height for students to sit on. A split profile driven by the need to meet elevations on both right-of-way lines added depth to the planter median and contributed to the way the street fits into the corridor.
Since opening on the first day of school in fall 2015, the project has exceeded expectations. The landscaping is thriving, traffic flow is improved, crash frequencies and travel speeds are lower, and commuters have quickly adapted to the roundabout. The project was recognized at high levels by the American Public Works Association and the American Council of Engineering Companies (ACEC), becoming one of the smallest highway construction projects ever to win an Honor Award from ACEC-Illinois.
I’ve heard it said, “I’d rather be lucky than good,” but I think that it’s more appropriate to say that the more good you put into your effort the more luck you'll get out of it. To put it more professionally: A high-quality process, executed diligently, can open the door to a wider variety of positive outcomes.
This was the case on the Crescent Boulevard project, where an open-minded approach led to good foresight, great collective input and a project that succeeded in serving the widely divergent needs of its constituency. Read more about how the municipal street design project came together.