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.