Dude, where's my roundabout?

Why is a new street that could launch an aging shopping center into the 21st Century getting such 20th Century intersections?

Early plans for the Hillsdale Drive Extension, the nearly mile-long road that would cut through Seminole Square, showed two or three of its busier points as roundabouts, the signal-free intersections popular in Europe. Final plans for Hillsdale, however, show three conventional traffic-lighted intersections and just a single roundabout. What happened?

We tried asking Satyendra Huja, who has long advocated for roundabouts, which are also called traffic circles. "I don't know," answered the Charlottesville mayor, "but I do support traffic circles."

There are reasons that traffic circles are the rage in planning circles. They reduce congestion and accidents– while looking sorta cool. And for a while it seemed like they might freshen Hillsdale.

Planned as a 25mph road, a slow but steady way to shop and avoid U.S. 29., the Hillsdale that planners originally designed comes off as something of a monster in hand-written comments submitted at a 2007 public information meeting.

"Roundabouts would create chaos and confusion– bad idea," writes one person. "I like lights," writes another. "Roundabouts are always scary," says another anonymous somebody. And then there's this gem: "They were taken out in Rochester NY because of accidents and confusion to drivers."

In fact, however, roundabouts are on the rise– even in Rochester, if last year's expenditure of $5.5 million to install one in that upstate city serves as any indicator.

If roundabouts provoke disdain, Virginia Department of Transportation data indicate that satisfaction soars once drivers, bikers, and pedestrians actually try them. And after a summer with microbursts and a grid-challenging derecho, independence from electricity provides another plus.

Yet it's safety where roundabouts really shine. A study cited by VDOT found that at 15 single-lane roundabouts in Maryland, property damage from crashes fell 27 percent while the injury crash rate fell 82 percent and the fatal crash rate fell 100 percent. Key reasons are that hazardous side-impact, "t-bone," wrecks are practically impossible, and what crashes do occur are typically glancing blows. And as drivers get accustomed, crash rates fall.

"The roundabout requires everyone to bring their brains," says Charlottesville-based transportation researcher (and occasional Hook essayist) Randy Salzman, who explains that roundabouts provide visual cues that force drivers to slow down and pay attention.

"It's one of the unusual aspects of American traffic," notes a rueful Salzman, "that when you come to a traffic light at 2am you might have to stop for a light and wait."

As it turns out, key early opponents to the 4,500-foot extension of Hillsdale were users of the Senior Center, a non-profit that provides space and programs and which might find itself– if it doesn't move before the road gets built– looking out on a much busier Hillsdale.

The attacks on roundabouts got fierce at times. "The only person who wants this," one person commented, "is Kevin Lynch."

If the fear-mongering feels reminiscent of Saturday Night Live's spoof about insuring against robot attacks, the spike to traffic will be real. Current counts on the now stubby Hillsdale measure 7,400 vehicles per day. By 2031, the engineering team projects daily traffic will climb to 13,000. And opposition to roundabouts didn't come just from nervous seniors.

An unsigned letter from someone representing Sperry Marine Federal Credit Union said the financial institution "continues to support the Hillsdale Extension so long as the project stays within the existing right of way."

According to early plans, a roundabout planned beside the Credit Union– which owns its own property– would have gobbled some parking spaces and landscaping. And that, says Tolbert, might help explain why only one roundabout, at the mere three-way Zan Road intersection, survived the debate.

"They just take so much land," says Tolbert, adding that VDOT budgeted no money to buy Hillsdale right-of-way, depending instead on the various owners to donate land and spur their own shopping makeover.

Currently, the only major Central Virginia roundabouts are a long-running one in Gordonsville and the pair installed about a decade ago on two sides of the Charlottesville-Albemarle Regional Airport.

"I'm just not sure this area," says Tolbert, "is 100 percent ready for traffic circles."

Note: After this story appeared in print, we realized that the SNL robot spoof came out 16 years ago, not in 2011, and so the inaccurate words "last year" have been removed from this archived online version.


celphone+roundabout = pain in recked em

Maybe there could be a training video for the elderly and texting communities. They could show it at commercial breaks during "the new normal" show, and the soap "Days of our Wives"

I love roundabouts! Despite their apparent usage of more land, they are clearly more functional and efficient. It's such a shame that we'll instead have to wait through endless traffic signals that clog the road and impede easy driving.

By the way, the Forest Lakes/Hollymead subdivisions also have roundabouts (albeit mini-size) and they seem to work perfectly well...

We need about 20 roundabouts in Cville. This would help congestion tremendously.

There are traffic circles at Old Trails as well. There is even one in downtown Charlottesville.

Roundabouts seem to make a lot of sense, according to this article.

You people don't know what you're saying. First we get roundabouts; next thing you know it's socialized medicine and shirts that are a half-size too small.

On the other hand, if you can't figure out a roundabout, perhaps it's time to turn in the old drivers license.

A roundabout was recently put in place near Fredericksburg where the Rt 3 traffic enters the Costco/Spotsylvania Mall area and it has really improved access and traffic flow at that bad intersection

There's a roundabout at PVCC too.

The roundabouts behind Target are terrible. People approaching them will dart right out in front of people that are already traveling in the roundabout that have the right of way.

"There is even one in downtown Charlottesville."

Drawing a blank here. Where?

"People approaching them will dart right out in front of people that are already traveling in the roundabout that have the right of way."

I'm guessing that those are the same people who run red lights.

Actually, they are building one in Fluvanna near Lake Monticello, at Rt. 53 and South Boston Road. Once completed, it should be a good study in roundabouts' efficacy and safety. You have high speed traffic on Rt. 53, a new high school right down the road, the blue-haired set from Lake Monticello, and a shopping center about one mile away. We should see some interesting vehicular intercourse at that circle.

R.I.P.: Dan Duryea

If they put in Roundabouts to replace stoplights, what ever will Charlottesville drivers do when they can't stop at a green light? How will they have enough time to text while driving?

Thanks to those who pointed out some minor roundabouts in the area: Old Trail, PVCC, etc. I've just added the word "major" in my sentence about Central Virginia's existing roundabouts to help clarify.--hawes spencer, editor and author of this story

I encounter the roundabouts at Old Trail on a daily basis. They serve to slow down speeders AND keep traffic flowing. Now that I am familiar with them, I would advocate using roundabouts wherever possible.

The one in Downtown might be better described as North Downtown at Parkway Street. https://maps.google.com/maps?q=Charlottesville,+VA&hl=en&ll=38.035214,-7...

Love the roundabouts. the one near the airport rocks.

I find it interesting that the planners think that businesses should give them property to develop into roundabouts-Charlottesville is reconfiguring the intersection at JPA & Emmett (again!) so they can give/trade the leftover land to the party developing at the corner of JPA & Oakhurst!

'Love the roundabouts. the one near the airport rocks.'

The sign for it, however, leaves something to be desired.

I think a roundabout would be a great idea, especially since there would be mostly local traffic on Hillsdale.

I can maybe agree that roundabouts are confusing and lead to accidents, I used to live next to one and heard screeching tires fairly often. However, we have plenty of accidents at traffic lights too, and as the article says I would think traffic light intersection accidents would be higher-speed and more dangerous.

Modern roundabouts are the safest form of intersection in the world. Search IIHS for FAQs and safety facts.
If you want to see the difference between a traffic circle, a rotary (UK roundabout) and a modern roundabout, search www.k-state.edu to see pictures. The FHWA has a video about modern roundabouts that is mostly accurate (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uhHzly_6lWM ).

Wanted to add, the worst way IMO to make a roundabout is with multiple lanes. I rode through the one at DuPont circle and it just seemed like you dove in and crossed your fingers that you'd be able to come out where you wanted to. Keep it simple, one lane wide.

As a former City Planning Commissioner I find this issue very frustrating. We are spending 100's of thousands of dollars on Comp Plans and now even joint City/County planning . As a community we need to plan wholistically and not be swayed by individual opinions not supported by data. If roundabouts are the best traffic solution that needs to be the criteria for decision making.

@dan1101. Perhaps you need to stick to the bus system. Rounds are not that hard and needs to be able to handle higher levels of traffic when dictated. could you imagine the traffic backups in that area if you had 75% of it stopped at all times?

I find it very troubling that the vdot and other planers are so against the use of roundabouts.
I grew up is Sweden and it is hard to find stop ligths, every intersection that can have one will be reworked to a roundabout. It not only save on accidence but cost to build and maintain

Dupont Circle is not a modern roundabout.

Great song.Yes!!

There's a major new roundabout -- actually, set of roundabouts -- in NoVa at the intersection of US 15 and US 50 (Gilbert's Corner). The lights that were formerly there backed up traffic, particularly during rush hours. It took a couple of weeks for everyone to get used to the new system, but it definitely keeps things moving.

Roundabouts are also quite useful when more than two roads intersect. It's an alternative to rerouting one of the roads.

In the UK, roundabouts are a way of life, but they do have a limit: When traffic gets too heavy, it can lead to gridlock. At that point, the Brits add traffic lights to the mix, and it's back to square one until a cloverleaf interchange can be built.

I grew up near Gordonsville, and still drive through there several times a month. That intersection (Rt. 33, Rt.15, Rt.231) has always been a roundabout and works wonderfully. Many years ago the town fathers were approached by VDOT with an idea to change it to a signalled intersection. The fathers came back with a resounding "NO!" I can't imagine that town without their "circle."

Hope they think to put "yield" signs at each roundabout entrance. In NJ, where they call them "circles", there is a tendency for drivers on the heavier traveled road to run roughshod over those coming around the circle.

In London it was "fun" trying to figure them out going clockwise. Learned quickly that drivers on the roundabout there do not tolerate non-yielders coming onto the circle.

"...the fatal crash rate fell 100%"
Very disappointing that VDOT has removed all but one roundabout as these ARE the key to the project!!