It’s 4:45 on a Friday afternoon. I’m about to leave Nova’s Coffee Shop and head south down 51 to the Target in Matthews. As I turn right out of Hoods Crossing and ease through the new roundabout, I notice something: there’s not a line of cars backed up on the other side of the road.
The stretch of Highway 51 between Matthews and Idlewild road is notoriously busy at “rush hour” as commuters head home from work. In fact, I’ve specifically avoided traveling this route in the past so I don’t get stuck in the long line of cars backed up at the Idlewild Road stoplight texting my babysitter that I really and truly promise that I’m on my way home. But today is different. Heading back up 51 at 5:45, I don’t hit any traffic at all. I wait perhaps 30 seconds to enter the roundabout and glide through on my traffic-free rout back home to Mint Hill.
Again and again during the construction process, I heard the same thing from Mint Hill residents: “That intersection is a big problem. But I just don’t trust that the roundabout will fix it. I’ll have to see it to believe it.” Well, call me a believer.
Although it’s too early to gather statistical data on the roundabout’s impact on traffic, preliminary reactions are very positive. “By my observations, the project has been a success” says Mint Hill Town Engineer and Public Works Director Steve Frey, giving credit to NCDOT and their engineering consultant, “dare I say a ‘huge success.’ I have to tout my profession when I can, and this is a great example of engineers using decades’ worth of roundabout experience in North Carolina to design a custom-fit solution that solved the problem of long delays at that intersection.”
“Roundabout” became almost a dirty word in Mint Hill this summer as construction inconvenienced motorists who travel through the intersection of Idlewild Road and 51 daily and burdened business owners, some of whom claimed to experience a 30% drop in business during construction due to reduced traffic and access. “But what most of us failed to realize,” says Frey, “was the relatively fast-paced progress that completely reshaped an intersection in just eleven weeks, all while keeping cost under control and while dealing with a private utility company who forgot to move their line out of the way!”
With the hassles of construction behind us, public opinion on the roundabout has shifted dramatically. “The vast majority of people who’ve experienced the intersection since the opening have been pleasantly surprised by not only the greatly reduced wait time, but also the relative ease of use (as compared to the navigational nightmare that some people were worried it was going to be),” says Frey. “Some folks have been humble enough to openly admit that they were a bit overly critical of the project, only to have changed their opinion to the positive after experiencing the roundabout.”
“I was very skeptical,” says Lori Kluth. “However, I love it! It’s not only efficient, but fun. I used to avoid that intersection and go ‘the back way,’ but not anymore.” Former roundabout skeptic Jennifer Starnes claims the roundabout has cut her previously 30-minute commute from Mint Hill to Matthews in half at rush hour.
“I am one of the ones who thought it was a big mistake,” says Mary Iglesias Andollina. “I thought that I would hate it! But I love it! It is so much better than waiting for all the lights to cycle. I drive it to and from the gym Monday through Friday and smile each time. It is fantastic.”
“I think roundabouts are great, but I was highly skeptical of this particular one given that there are so few in our area, and none at such busy intersections,” says Matt Rich. “I’ve been surprised at how well most people have adapted, and frustrated that people can’t seem to grasp the simple concept that ‘them that’re in’ have the right of way.”
In fact, residual complaints seem to center less on the roundabout and more on uninformed motorists. “It’s not perfect by any means,” says Janet Rice, who saw a motorist back up in the roundabout to turn right onto Idlewild Road after circling around to continue on Highway 51. “If only people didn’t stop to let others in!” says Andollina, who also feels many motorists don’t understand the roundabout is meant to be traversed at 25 mph since the the speed limit signs shortly before it read 45 mph.
“I have observed the traffic movement for several mornings and afternoons and the biggest issue I see is drivers who are already in the roundabout are stopping to allow other drivers to merge into the roundabout,” says Mint Hill Police Chief Ledford. “This creates a hazardous situation in that the drivers behind the polite drivers letting their neighbors into the circle have to brake suddenly to avoid a rear end collision. Please remember, the yield signs approaching the roundabout mean just that. Drivers entering the roundabout are the ones that must yield, not drivers already in the circle.”
“I know we all want to do the neighborly thing at times and let other vehicles into traffic,” says Frey, “but a roundabout is not the place to do it! Once inside the roundabout, don’t stop and don’t slow down to let others in! This creates a dangerous situation for other drivers around and behind you. Keep moving—the vehicle you wanted to let in will eventually get into the roundabout, I promise!”
Despite some mistakes and near-misses as motorists adjust to the new traffic pattern, the majority of public response is positive. “Even if there are a few people not yielding or changing lanes incorrectly, it is still so much more efficient than traffic lights or stop signs!” says Laurie Wojtoxicz. The success of the roundabout even has some people calling for more. “Now they need one at Phillips!” says Joanna Dehart, referring to the oft-backed-up intersection of Phillips Road and Highway 51 slightly south of the roundabout.
According to Chief Ledford, there has been only one crash in the roundabout to date. “Some people will talk of close calls on the same level as actual crashes which is not an apples-to-apples comparison,” says Frey. “If anything, it shows that the roundabout is working by reducing speeds and creating the ability for drivers to avoid crashes. As drivers become more familiar with the roundabout, I expect the frequency of close calls to reduce to the level of a typical intersection or better.”
For Frey, the construction of the roundabout was also a welcome reminder about the importance of feedback and public dialogue. “I spoke to many people personally before and during the project and gave them some insight into the project that helped them understand it better, which ultimately helped stimulate productive conversations and feedback,” said Frey, who encourages concerned residents to contact him regarding any public project in Mint Hill. “I wish more had sought information from the sources (such as the Town or NCDOT) so that the level of anxiety may have been reduced in our community. Don’t ever be afraid to communicate directly with those involved in a project!”