Raleigh Fails to Implement Roundabout

super_roundaboutToday officials with the City of Raleigh will close the 2-lane roundabout at Hillsborough and Pullen Road and convert the circle into a 1-lane roundabout. The change is being made to the two-year old redesigned intersection due to a unacceptably high accident rate. In fact 132 crashes in the intersection’s 24-month life (1 crash every 5.5 days), and anyone who has been through there was nearly #133 at one point.

The problem

The roundabout was to be the first step in a 9-roundabout plan that would eliminate traffic signals between Morgan Street and Meredith College on Raleigh’s Hillsborough Street. Along with the installation of the roundabouts, several streets entering Hillsborough Street would be converted to right-in/right-out access. The result would be a reduction in traffic speeds (improving pedestrian safety) while paradoxically decreasing travel times across the span.

roundaboutI completely disagree with the notion that this intersection worked fine before”. Movement from Oberlin to Pullen and vice versa was unacceptably crooked, and had queues that spilled into adjacent intersections. I was never against the concept of a Hillsborough Street roundabout; only the small roundabout on Oberlin. I especially liked that the Hillsborough Street roundabout tied in a rerouted Oberlin Road. The execution of the roundabout, however, was a failure from day one. I sarcastically posted about the City’s 2-page instruction manual regarding how to traverse the intersection safely. Any intersection that needs more than a quick diagram displayed to oncoming traffic is destined to fail. Go ahead and throw this intersection into the large bin of Cool Designs the American Public Didn’t Understand (filed between the Metric System and Windows Media Center).

Where did designers go wrong? They completely ignored intuition and strictly addressed meeting the demands of the intersection. It’s the exact opposite of what made the iPhone successful.

  • Improper warning – The Hillsborough Street corridor is a tight, urban canyon for many blocks. In the blocks west of the intersection cars are exiting a stressful zone where parallel parking, a bike lane, and high density pedestrians challenge drivers. As drivers exit the tight, eastbound corridor and reach the NCSU Bell Tower on their approach toward the circle, the road widens and there is a feeling  of ease as drivers naturally increase speed. The road gently glides into the intersection with only a couple of Yield signs to warn drivers they are about to lose Right of Way.
    Drivers from the east are coming from a 4-lane situation at a high speed, and also are gently guided into a dangerous situation with only a couple of  posted Yield signs to warn of the oncoming danger. From both directions, there is no visually indication that the road breaks ahead. The center of the circle has no monument and there is no vegetation to clue drivers of the upcoming discruption.
  • Functional Inconsistency – The reason that a manual had to be published was because the functions the lanes from street to street were not consistent. From some directions the left lane allowed drivers to pass straight thru while other streets only had the right lane allowing straight traffic. From one direction both lanes actually passed thru. Diagrams of the traffic flow were posted on the right shoulder of each approach, but they were not visible enough and needed too much examination to be understood by drivers passing through on their fist trip.

The City of Raleigh Quit

There were undercurrents of a change four months ago, and from that point forward the City’s only improvement to the intersection was to stick small pink flags on top of the Yield signs. The City of Raleigh didn’t even come close to doing what they could have to make this intersection work. Such options include:

  • Placing rumble strips on lanes approaching the intersection
  • Adding Yield signs
  • Painting Yield signs on the pavement approaching the intersection
  • Replacing the Yield signs with electric Yield signs or posting a flashing yellow light above the Yield signs.
  • Replacing the Yield signs with STOP signs
  • Adding vegetation to the roundabout to visually break the corridor for drivers.

Most of these options would have been cheap; really cheap. However it is clear that for some reason someone in the 2012 regime of power in city government is not enamored with the 2-lane design of this roundabout. Otherwise the city would have at least added rumble strips to gain the attention of Hillsborough St. drivers.

Destroying an Artery

Hillsborough Street for many years was a four-lane artery with one lane of parallel parking in West Raleigh. While traffic has always flowed better on Wade Avenue and Western Boulevard, Hillsborough Street has always been the artery that had to support an urban retail strip as well as much pedestrian traffic. For those reasons Hillsborough Street should be a calm city thoroughfare; not a state highway.

Unfortunately the Hillsborough Street strip of businesses has been dying over the past couple of decades. Not only did vagrants begin populating the strip, N.C. State completely lost interest in their north campus properties, favoring the sprawl development of Centennial Campus. The business environment has been dying a slow death when the Hillsborough Street plan was created, and it was hurting the adjacent neighborhoods. Neighbors petitioned the City for a revitalization project, and it worked.

The city’s answer was to completely reconstruct the streetscape for the entire length adjacent to campus. The design removed a lane of traffic in both directions and added a hard median and bike lanes. Now if one car wants to correctly parallel park, they must pray that the car behind them doesn’t close the gap, and must act quickly because a parking or exiting car stalls all traffic in one direction. For that reason, Hillsborough Street now flows more poorly than a mall parking lot for several blocks.

Traffic flow is slower and counts are down in the Hillsborough Street area. In the long term, though, the result is a disaster. After more than a year of Hillsborough Street being a construction zone and two years of a design that hostile to thru traffic, Hillsborough Street is a faint speck in the mindshare of Raleigh citizens. The number of cars in West Raleigh has risen in the last 10 years, and if Hillsborough Street has been shut down as a flow option, that means that far more pressure is being put on Western Boulevard, the septum in the heart of the current NCSU campus. With N.C. State students darting through traffic and signal queues getting much deeper, the pedestrian experience on Western Boulevard has never been more dangerous thanks to the elimination of half of Hillsborough Street’s lanes.

The choking is a cancer spreading down the street, too. Now that Hillsborough Street near NCSU is a choke point, there is no functional need for four lanes in the area near the Velvet Cloak. What was the City’s response to this atrophy? Repaint the street to being a 3-lane road and add bike lanes on the shoulders. The choking concept is spreading west, too, as Dan Allen Drive will be closed to thru traffic during the midday beginning this fall.

While some welcome this aggressive attitude toward pedestrian safety, the overall effect is a Scorched Earth policy toward cars. In the short run pedestrian safety will improve. However the long run effect will follow exactly as Raleigh previous Scorched Earth pedestrian redesign, the Fayetteville Street Mall.

Risky Pedestrians Given a Pass

Unfortunately the City has done nothing to discourage the risky behavior of pedestrians and cyclists. No gates limiting pedestrian movement across divided highways have been discussed; no signage reminding cyclists that being treated “like a car” is a 2-way relationship (yes, you HAVE to wait for green lights); no marketing campaign to dangerously confident college students reminding them to look before crossing streets; no suggestion to pedestrians to act courteously, making eye contact with oncoming drivers and changing their pace, as cars do, to accommodate a successful road-sharing relationship; no attempt to make pedestrians exclusively use crosswalks to safely cross busy streets. It is sad to see city designers ignoring the pedestrian’s role in ensuring their own safety.

* * *

Most disappointing is the failure of the city to make the 2-lane roundabout work, and its short-sighted solution for the intersection. The new design takes out the circle’s center lane and puts all traffic in one rotating lane.  It also squares approaching lanes somewhat, forcing Hillsborough Street drivers to make more of a turn to enter the circle.

Still, this new design fails to address the problem: getting the attention of Hillsborough Street drivers (especially the eastbound traffic). Yesterday I entered the circle with the intention of exiting onto Pullen Road. Thankfully I noticed the eastbound NCSU student who never looked left as he barreled into the roundabout. The driver never realized he had lost right-of-way and barely missed being another statistic of the 2-lane roundabout. With the new design, there seems no apparent plan to improve drivers’ awareness.

Hopefully the city has done a better job with their redesign than they appear to have. If this accident rate continues, then the roundabout will be completely removed and replaced with traditional signalized intersection. Wouldn’t a few rumble strips, some paint, and some signs be a lot cheaper and easier?

Note: I added that first photo as a joke. It is a super roundabout (reversed for American driving). There are 5 mini-circles to handle each connection to the 5 spokes. Cold…day….in…Hell..when this works in Raleigh.


Make A Comment
  • Dwight Otwell Said:

    You cite the decline of cars on Hillsborough st as evidence that the strip is dying – from what I can tell, business has picked up since the redesign. There’s thick foot traffic, and many of the vacant fronts appear to have been occupied. Is there evidence that retail has suffered in that area more than in any other area? Homeless don’t show up there because it’s a quiet place to sleep – they go where people are walking around with spare change.

    Agree that pedestrian safety needs to be addressed in a big way on Western. Pedestrians will act as they act everywhere – design in the problem, not behavior. Cars and people are pitted against each other between Dan Allen and Avent Ferry.

    Agree that the design of the roundabout was bad. Roundabouts will continue to be filled with the ignorant until and if they become numerous enough to be familiar.

  • JeffS Said:

    Clearly you started with an agenda and made up the facts in an attempt to support it.

    But hey, good luck with your defense of motorist entitlement and incompetence. That you feel challenged by a low-speed drive down Hillsborough says a lot.

  • mike Said:

    I don’t know how much clearer the roundabout can be. They have diagrams painted on the road in every single lane approaching the intersection. Each diagram has an arrow indicating the possible routes that lane can travel. Very simple, just get in the lane that matches the direction you want to go and yield to anyone in the circle.

    Also, your suggestion of adding stop signs to a roundabout… really? That idea can go in the bin with the Windows Media Center.

    The vegetation in the middle of the roundabout is a worthwhile suggestion. However, they probably never got around to it because they had to deal with complaining people who need tons of flashing lights to tell them how to follow road instructions. An even cheaper solution to the roundabout is for drivers to pay attention to the road and hang up the cell phone.

  • Anonymous Said:

    The first photo is not a modern roundabout. It is a UK roundabout, what we might refer to as a rotary, but specifically what they call a ring junction using mini-roundabouts. There are several in the UK, but the most famous is in Swindon, called the Swindon Magic Roundabout.
    Many people confuse older styles of circular intersections with modern roundabouts. East coast rotaries are not modern roundabouts. Large multi-lane traffic circles (Arc D’Triumph) are not modern roundabouts. European Vacation was not a modern roundabout. New Jersey/Europe are not removing modern roundabouts. Visit http://www.k-state.edu to see the differences. http://www.fhwa.dot.gov has a video about modern roundabouts that is mostly accurate (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uhHzly_6lWM ).

  • Anonymous Said:

    I don’t see the same confusion at signal intersections where one road has a left turn pocket and the other doesn’t. All the signing and striping used in modern roundabouts is the same as that used everywhere else. The likely problem is the motorists entering from the southwest at too high a speed to stop in time for both lanes heading south. Most of the crashes involve motorist not stopping for the second southbound lane.
    Raised crosswalks at all the entries might have slowed motorists down enough to increase the time to react. I agree that a common mistake is making the central island inside the truck apron just as flat. Conspicuity of the central island does a lot to slow motorist down.

  • Carnell Brame Jr. Said:

    I think the demise of this roundabout is unfortunate. Roundabouts are an effective yet underutilized traffic management tool. It’s a shame that other implementations in Raleigh and elsewhere might not happen because of this surrender. Driver error is more believable to me.

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