"If you can navigate through Dubuque, you can navigate anywhere," said Kent Paca, co-owner of A-Tri State Driving School.
Paca has run the Dubuque school for 13 years, and says the city is the perfect place to teach students how to handle difficult driving situations.
Iowa's oldest city, built on a river and featuring a large bluff, Dubuque doesn't have the luxury of having traditional flat north, south, east, west street layout of most of today's modern American cities, Paca said.
"The city had to build roads that contoured to the landscape," the driving instructor said.
Following the flow of the terrain led to the creation of several unique intersection designs, but, as Paca says, "It's all part of Dubuque's beauty and uniqueness."
The Five Points
Intersection of Grandview Avenue, Delhi Street and Grace Street
The dreaded five-way intersection. Five cars enter, one car leaves. They are a rarity on modern roadways, but Dubuque has a few of them hanging around.
Named after the infamous historical intersection on Manhattan Island, New York, that was known for crime and violence, Dubuque's Five Points has seen its share of danger as well.
"It can be extremely difficult to tell where people are going," Paca said. "That can cause a lot of problems."
This intersection of three roads is controlled by stop signs, something that Jon Dienst, civil engineer II for the city of Dubuque, admits can be a little confusing.
The first motorist who arrives at a five-way intersection is supposed to have the right of way, followed by the driver to his right. The problem is that at this particular intersection, drivers are so far apart that communicating whose turn it is to proceed can become a battle.
"When you have a four- way intersection, people assume you are going straight or in the direction of your turn signal. It's not that simple at a five-way stop," Paca said. "Five-way intersections, such as this one, often have veers. You might have a left turn, and a slight left turn, so a left turn signal really doesn't tell you much."
To solve this, the city is looking to make some changes.
"That intersection has been thrown around as a potential spot for a roundabout," Dienst said.
Dienst said other states, including Wisconsin, are beginning to use roundabouts in urban areas more and more frequently because of their many positive qualities.
"You never have a head-on collision, you don't have to stop, air quality is improved and congestion along with the amount and severity of injuries is reduced."
A study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety show that roundabouts provide a 90 percent reduction in fatal crashes, a 76 percent reduction in injury crashes, a 30 to 40 percent reduction in pedestrian crashes and a 10 percent reduction in bicycle crashes.
Dubuque's other five-way stop, at the intersection of Rhomberg Avenue and Elm Street, also might see changes to reduce confusion.
"There will likely be a signalization project in the next couple years to upgrade and change traffic signals there," Dienst said. He noted there has been talk of closing Garfield Avenue and forming a cul-de-sac to quiet traffic. A cul-de-sac is a dead-end street, with a circle at its end. It has only one inlet/outlet.
The Mix Master
Intersection of University Ave., Eighth, Ninth and Hill streets
If you have ever traveled down the bluff on University Avenue, you know about the Mix Master. Here, concrete medians guide motorists from five intersecting streets along desired paths they may want to travel. Dienst said the idea is breaking up the traditional intersection by giving people options and fewer stop signs. But, as some point out, the mix may cause more harm than good.
"It can be a dangerous spot," Paca said. "There is a sign that says yield to oncoming traffic, but people don't always understand what they are supposed to be yielding to and that can cause some problems."
Dienst said the intersection, created during the 1960s -- using 3D models, pins and string to show traffic flow -- is fairly effective for its design.
"It's a little goofy, but it works pretty well," Dienst said.
He said the intersection was resurfaced recently to prolong its life another decade or so. But after that, one of the city's strangest intersections might be lost to the History books.
"The city is looking to reconstruct the intersection in the next 10 years as part of the reconstruction on Ninth Street from Bluff Street to that intersection," Dienst said.
Traffic circles on Washington Street
Driving toward U.S. 151 on Washington Street will be a more roundabout route than some motorists are used to. The twin traffic circles on the street, one as it crosses 15th Street and another as it crosses 16th Street, might confuse motorists unfamiliar with them. Often mistaken for the more modern roundabout, traffic circles are simply intersections with a circular median in the middle. This median is intended to prevent head-on collisions and, as Dienst says, manage what types of traffic drive through the area.
"Those were put in over 20 years ago to deter larger trucks from driving through the residential neighborhoods that are not meant to handle that kind of traffic," he said.
Dienst said keeping the trucks steered toward the larger highways helps reduce stress on residential roads and keeps the neighborhoods safer and calmer.
Paca said the circles are very effective at doing what the city intends them to do.
"Beyond restricting what vehicles travel through them, they also reduce the speed of people traveling through them," Paca said. "No one can go around that thing at 30 miles per hour."
Intersection of Kennedy Road and Wacker Drive
When Kennedy Mall opened in the 1970s, city engineers needed a way to improve and regulate traffic flow between the mall and the two main streets that approach it. Enter what many describe as the Mini Mess. Motorists exiting the mall have a lot of options for one light. They can make a quick right on Wacker Drive, go through one light and make a right or left on Kennedy Road or go straight across to another retail outlet.
"Those lights are set up pretty well so that if one turns green, so does the next and you are not stuck in the middle," Paca said. "The really important thing is that with so many options in such a small area the driver needs to be aware of where he is going and get into the appropriate lane as soon as possible."
Paca said the city could work to ensure that street markings that often become warn there are repainted often to avoid confusion on which lanes lead where.
"It is an intersection the city is looking at," Dienst said. "We are working with mall officials to improve sequence (of lights) and make the intersection less confusing. We are analyzing information, giving it a lot of thought and looking at alternatives."
Locust Street Connector
A series of intersections connecting U.S. 20 and U.S. 151 and U.S. 61.
This series of intersections is possibly one of the most confusing and nerve-racking sections of roads in the entire tri-state area. According to the Department of Transportation, U.S. 52/U.S. 61/U.S. 151 originally followed Locust Street and intersected with U.S. 20. In the 1990s, construction of a freeway made a direct intersection with U.S. 20 unfeasible.
The problem comes when motorists need to do more than make consecutive left or right turns. There are several lanes of traffic along one of the busiest sections of roads in Dubuque, and making several quick lane changes can be difficult. And, as Paca explains, you can end up traveling to the wrong street, or state, if you don't act fast.
"That's the intersection that led my friend from Wisconsin to ask me how can I drive in Dubuque," Paca said. "The only way to successfully navigate that is to pay close attention to traffic signs and road markings. Remember to look through your turn, make sure you know where the lane leads, and get in your appropriate lane as quickly and safely as possible."
Dienst said physical improvements to these intersections are not handled by the city, as they fall under the jurisdiction of the Iowa Department of Transportation, but the city is working to improve their safety and decrease congestion.
"We installed new cameras at these intersections that are beamed back to City Hall," Dienst said. "From there we can monitor and watch those intersections, and software in place that allows us to change the timing of traffic signals depending on times of day or traffic."
Dienst said while they can make some minor changes that give flexibility in extreme situations, engineers do not want to change them too much.
"We don't want to make so many adjustments that it changes what people are used to," Dienst said. "We don't want to surprise people."
Paca added that while there improvements are needed, the city is taking a lot of good steps in making Dubuque's unique intersections safer, and easier to navigate. Dienst admits there will always be some people who need a little guidance. He has one piece of advice for those who wonder what to do at an unfamiliar intersection.
"Look at your Iowa drivers handbook."
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