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A Roundabout Design That Works

Vertical Visual Cues

 roundabout designOne of the most important reasons to provide landscape plants for roundabouts is to provide vertical visual cues for approaching drivers. Lighting is another essential visual cue for roundabouts as a warning at night. Traffic flow for roundabouts is a new concept for American drivers. Roundabouts are often located at awkward intersections with odd angles of approach. Without a visual warning, someone confused by the new traffic patterns might drive right through the central island. Vertical visual cues are needed for roundabouts, especially for high speed approach settings.

The landscape in the picture has been providing decades of delight for locals, directing traffic with soft vegetation, and preventing accidents by providing a block to errand drivers that might over run the traffic separator. It is fairly self-sustaining in design. There used to be a low, evergreen hedge of Yaupon Hollies hiding a lot of the leaf debris that fell from the small-scale trees, with the leaf litter from the trees providing mulch inside the ribbon of evergreens to suppress weeds. The low hedge was removed during construction and reconfiguration of the approaching roads. Because the small trees, which have been there for over thirty years, were important to the local community, the city government took great care to preserve them during the changes.

These trees are dwarf Acoma Crapemyrtles, with small, multi-stem trunks. The trees in most roundabouts need to be small for a small roundabout island. Trunks that generally stay less than four inches in diameter are more likely to break away if hit by a vehicle. That’s good. You don’t want to place solid structures and fixed objects within the stopping distance path of automobiles that run off the road. Choosing the right tree species and cultivar for roundabouts is an important safety consideration.

Roadside Memorials

Not a Good Place for a Tribute

roadside memorials, ghost bike, roadside shrine

The ad-hoc roadside shrine thing is a fairly new. It’s a public message erected without public sanction as a way for the bereaved to announce their loss to the traveling public. They are a personal visual message. Do they convey the sentiment intended? What do people think when they pass by a home-made memorial?

The people who create roadside memorials are experiencing real grief and sadness. Every roadside death is significant. There is an appropriate time and place for public memorializing, and other ways to commemorate a life than adding objects near the road. If the phenomenon of roadside memorials grows, it can become a significant safety issue. The actual process of placing items in the rights of way is very dangerous. It involves parking a car on the shoulder and walking within the vulnerable clear zone without reflective safety gear and sometimes in the dark of night. Once items are placed, they can be distracting for drivers and potential fixed objects which can be hit by errant vehicles. Family members risk losing more loved ones by their physical presence in a very dangerous zone with a history of lost life.

Public agencies typically have a policy in place for dealing with unsolicited advertising, political signs, and memorial shrines. They will remove the shrines, usually after a few months, because they are both and aesthetic and safety distraction. They need to have restrictions for the use of roadside rights of way for the safety and welfare of the traveling public.

Just as it is inappropriate to build a shrine in a hospital room where someone passes away, it is wrong for the roadside. Rather than allowing people to locate temporary memorials where a loved one died, encourage them to tell the world how their deceased family member lived—by creating a scholarship, planting a tree in a park, or writing a story commemorating them. Include and implement a policy for roadside shrines, to quietly and quickly remove home-made memorials before they cause additional sadness. The roadside continues to be actively used, even after accidents occur.


The Incredible Costs of Trash

litter, typical roadside trash

If trash is worth nothing, why does it cost so much? The expenses are both tangible and indefinable. Each state must spend millions of dollars a year to remove right-of-way litter. The cost in economic development is substantial, too. Businesses avoid investments in areas that are full of litter and graffiti. There is an aesthetic cost to the public. The quality of the scenery is diminished when the view is covered with trash. You might think trash is worth nothing, but when you toss it on the roadsides, it costs an incredible amount of money to remove.

A typical roadside contains a huge amount of litter—glass whiskey bottles, beer cans, strange items of clothing, old tires, and other items you couldn’t imagine. It’s hard to see at 70 MPH, but if you walk any public road corridor, you will find it everywhere. The litter on the roadsides cannot be left in place to decompose, and much of it is not biodegradable. Litter must be picked up prior to mowing. If not, we would be commuting through confetti each day. State department of transportation crews and equipment costs millions of taxpayer dollars annually. They spend millions more to pay contract mowers to remove garbage from the interstates before mowing. County maintenance crews use a significant part of the local budget for litter removal. The huge amounts of money spent cleaning up litter evaporate each year. Once litter is removed, more is tossed on the roadsides to replace it.

A lot of people think the perfect answer to the expense of litter removal is using prison details. It’s an interesting thought, punishing people in jail by having them pick up items we illegally toss out of our cars and trucks! It costs a considerable amount of money and labor to monitor and transport prison crews to roadside cleanup areas, it is hard to find enough benign types of incarcerated people to safely allow them to walk free-range, it costs to transport litter crews to and from dirty roadsides, and it costs money to pay for labor to monitor prison crews. The financial logistics of using transients for litter pickup has many of the same issues. Picking up with crews that need monitoring and who don’t have their own transportation is a less-than-perfect solution.

Scenic Highways

The Road Less Traveled

curvy road in Kentucky, scenic highwayThis was the experience on the scenic roads of the past. The limbs of the trees reached over the road and joined with those on the other side. A rock cliff on one side and an immediate drop of 100 feet on the other helped motivate drivers to stay on the road at all costs! The joy of the incredible scenery was mixed with the dread of motion sickness and the thought of an exciting journey. Can you imagine trying to pass a slower vehicle on this road? It took a good amount of courage and confidence.

Roads like this would never be built today—too much liability. But, what an incredible ride!

Roadside Landscape Design Elements

Visual Effectiveness

roadside beautification, roadside design

Your landscape design will be viewed by people in motion, sometimes going as fast as 70 MPH! A design that flows in a linear pattern will be much more effective than confined geometric shapes like circles and squares. Keep in mind how quickly travelers will pass by your design. Long sweeps and curves read much better than brief, small points. Consolidated beds read much better than numerous, insignificant dots. This is a common mistake made by rookie designers. You can compose a new landscape like a pro by following some basic design guidelines below.

Line, color, shape, texture, and form establish the bones of your landscape. For roadsides, the lines need to be well-defined, with double or triple rows of plant material. A single row might work on a pedestrian scale, but not on an interstate. For trees, it helps to plant a double, staggered row of trees about ten feet apart. For tall shrubs, a triple row will look best. For low shrubs, five or more staggered rows will be needed to make significant delineation.

Invasive Species

Plant Bullies

controlling invasive species, roadside maintenanceA good preliminary practice before you start any landscape design, is to find the latest list of invasive species for the area in which your project is located. Some of the plants catalogued on the lists are favorites that might surprise you. They have spread to the point of being a nuisance to the local native ecosystems. The lists change. Something that may have seemed the hot nursery plant a few years ago, has now lost its popularity and become more of a rude, uninvited visitor. Because you understand how important it is to use vigorous, un-daunted plants for challenging situations like roadsides, you may be considering one of these thugs, without realizing it has turned pushy and ill-mannered. Cogon Grass, also known as Imperial Blood Grass, was considered quite stunning in gardens over a decade ago, but has become a monstrous and scary threat to roadside plantings in the Southeast. It can take out a Pine forest with its Borg-like root system. Avoid using any of these invasive plants (or their close relatives) in your landscape designs, especially on roadsides. Our vehicle corridors act as a catalyst for spreading these plants, and keeping them in check is very costly to taxpayers! You can browse a lot of the lists, both in the United States and internationally, at the United States Department of Agriculture Library and Invasive Species Information Center.

Linear Public Parks

Creating a Beautiful Driving Experience

roadside beautification, right-of-way plantingThe roadsides in your area are seen by thousands of people each day. The infamous Atlanta, Georgia “Downtown Connector” hosts over a quarter of a million vehicles per day! The open, planted sections of the roadsides are, for some people, the only large landscapes they ever see. They don’t spend weekends hiking in a state park or tend a garden in their back yard. Instead, they watch television or cruise the Internet. There is an inherent need to connect with the countryside, at least in small ways. For some of us, the roadsides are our last remaining link with nature, whether we sense it or not. The rights of way have become our largest public parks. There is a stewardship responsibility involved with this which should not be abandoned to our public servants. All of us need to remain involved in maintaining a look and experience while driving our shared roads that soothes the soul and enriches lives.

Why Do We Have to Have Regulations?

Why Do We Have Roadside Landscape Regulations?

landscape regulationsWhy have rules for something as benevolent as a roadside landscape enhancement?

Safety is the first priority, so your plans for any encroachment on a public right of way will need to be checked to make sure the clear zone, or recovery zone for errant drivers, is kept free of fixed objects. You typically have to submit an application and your proposed landscape plan sheets for government review before doing any enhancement project.

It is amazing the variety of proposals and project expectations that people propose for public roadsides! Some local governments simply want to mow the area near their city or county more often. Progressive leadership classes often use beautification projects as their final service venture. Community improvement districts want to transform major entrances to retail and business districts into a look that encourages economic development. A local government may want to establish a welcome sign focal point to draw travelers into their areas. Major government partners may want to build special toll roadways with structural embellishments as part of the new roadside landscape. Vegetative mitigation may be an environmental requirement for a road construction projects.

Any landscape encroachment on public rights of way involves people and equipment adjacent to moving traffic, which can be dangerous and involve liability if someone gets hurt. Regulations are created to provide for accountability and responsible activity. It’s good stewardship for taxpayers like you and me.