My faith in people’s ability to navigate roundabouts was nearly restored.
For an hour last week, I watched cars stream through the Hamburg circle at Clark and Buffalo streets almost effortlessly. Cars yielded to pedestrians. Two bicyclists, signaling their turns by hand, looped through. A Silver Pathfinder towing a motorboat breezed by.
It was practically a driver’s utopia.
There were a few honks, but mostly the tap-your-horn-politely variety. The most disturbing thing that happened was discovering I’d stepped in a pool of melted pink ice cream.
Then came Friday afternoon rush hour, and people’s patience evaporated.
A red convertible honked at a hesitant Taurus. Traffic briefly backed up on South Park Avenue when a car failed to turn. The driver of a green pickup stuck a choice finger out his window. I couldn’t quite hear what he yelled, but I’m sure it was pleasant.
That was just in seven minutes.
All that excitement got me back to the reason I was there: To figure out what it is about a roundabout that makes people crazy.
Don’t get me wrong. There’s plenty of good that can come from “modern roundabouts,” which, I learned from the state’s handy “Citizen’s Guide to Roundabouts,” are designed differently from the type of large traffic circles that trapped Chevy Chase’s character on his European vacation. Studies have shown fewer accidents, slower traffic and reduced emissions in roundabouts than at intersections with stop lights.
And they can dramatically change a neighborhood. The Village of Hamburg is a prime example. Four new roundabouts were the centerpiece of a road reconstruction project in the village that has earned national attention, won planning awards and led to new investment in 33 buildings.
“People generally love them, and they’ve seen how the road project was the catalyst to transform everything,” said Laura Palisano Hackathorn, a village trustee and the owner of a local boutique who volunteered for the town’s Route 62 committee a decade ago.
It took awhile for the roundabouts to catch on. Some people felt so strongly about the proposal they put up lawn signs opposing their construction. And two fatal accidents at another roundabout in town have raised concerns from nearby residents.
Back when Route 62 was under construction, the roadwork committee did the heavy lifting of making sure people knew the roundabout rules. Volunteers met with civic organizations and dropped instructions for parents into the backpacks of school children.
At Clark and Buffalo last week, that work was visible. Drivers generally yielded to the vehicles in the circle.
But when rush hour came, annoyance rose. Horns honked. A few drivers plowed through without yielding.
A puzzling number of people seem to have made it through their driving careers without learning the cardinal rules for circular intersections – drivers in the roundabout have the right of way, as do pedestrians in the crosswalk.
Armed with my roundabout notes, I headed back to the office. I was zipping along the Skyway when brake lights flared in front of me. The driver a few cars ahead had dropped his speed dramatically as he drove by the downtown waterfront construction.
That’s when it hit me. Maybe it’s not the roundabouts that make traffic crazy. Perhaps it’s just the people.