Circular Logic

Seven months pregnant and clutching her belly, Kelly O'Connor is halfway across an intersection at Young Circle when the cars that had been stopped at a red light abruptly start moving. She raises her hand in a plea to stop them and scurries to the sidewalk. "I feel like I'm...
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Seven months pregnant and clutching her belly, Kelly O'Connor is halfway across an intersection at Young Circle when the cars that had been stopped at a red light abruptly start moving. She raises her hand in a plea to stop them and scurries to the sidewalk.

"I feel like I'm taking my life in my hands every time I cross that circle," says O'Connor, who crosses it nearly every day because she lives just a block away. "I can't run now because I'm pregnant. It's crazy."

O'Connor is not the only one who despises the three traffic circles in Hollywood, all of them on Hollywood Boulevard. They were designed in the '20s by city founder Joseph Young, who wanted to slow down traffic and force motorists passing through to take a close look at the brand-new burg. But in the '90s, now that Hollywood has grown into a city of 120,000 residents and even more tourists, the four-lane circles are nightmares for many drivers and pedestrians -- some of whom cut through side streets to avoid them.

Those driving east on Hollywood Boulevard toward Young Circle first pass by rows of quaint shops and restaurants in the city's burgeoning downtown, then suddenly find themselves entering a massive, four-lane circle, straining their necks to look back and see if cars are coming. Newcomers, especially, have only a split second to decide which of the lanes will take them where they want to go -- U.S. 1 north or south, the beach, or westbound Hollywood Boulevard. Buses barrel around the circle to get to a major stop in front of a Publix, and pedestrians frequently cross the four lanes en route to stores and restaurants fronting the circle.

On June 27 a woman was hit by a car and thrown into its windshield while crossing Young Circle. Later that day a car heading east on the circle hit a county bus, sending it careening into ten parked cars, several trees, and some light poles. One bus passenger was injured.

"I'm just waiting for a car to come through the glass," says Dave Butler, a regular at Shuckums, a restaurant-bar on Young Circle. "Why do you think I sit back here by the bar?"

Butler, O'Connor, and other Hollywood residents were flabbergasted to hear that Fort Lauderdale is planning to install two circles of its own on one of its busier roadways, State Road A1A.

"If they're stupid enough to do that, they'll be sorry," says Kim Hellman, a bartender at Shuckums. "I can't imagine who thought up this idea."

Hughes Hall, a transportation-consulting company for the City of Fort Lauderdale, that's who. After conducting two neighborhood studies along A1A, the company proposed the circles as part of a transportation "improvements" package. Last year Fort Lauderdale city commissioners approved the first circle, which will be located at the southern end of the public beach at Harbor Drive. The circle, which Hughes Hall refers to as a "roundabout," has been funded by the Florida Department of Transportation as part of a $16 million traffic package and will soon enter the design phase. (Hughes Hall bid on the design, but city officials are recommending another firm do the work.)

Earlier this month commissioners told city engineers to put together a proposal and an estimate for designing the second roundabout, to be located at the northern end of the beach at NE 21st Street. Each roundabout would cost $1 to $2 million to build. If built, they will be much smaller than Hollywood's -- about 200 feet in diameter compared to Young Circle's 700 feet. However, there would be numerous similarities among the two cities' circles.

For example Molly Hughes, president of Hughes Hall, envisions the NE 21st Street roundabout as a "major bus transit area" with a gazebo, where a proposed beach trolley service would make stops. If approved, the trolley would stop at parking lots, pick up drivers and passengers, and take them to the beach.

As in Hollywood, numerous pedestrians would probably cross at the A1A circles, according to Peter Partington, Fort Lauderdale's engineering design manager. The pedestrians, he says, would include nearby residents walking to the beach and those making use of a new park in the middle of the roundabout, which would feature benches, trees, and walkways, according to Hughes. Because Willingham Park is now located in that area and would be replaced by the circle, Hughes has suggested the circle be named Willingham Park Roundabout.

But there is one big difference between Young Circle and the proposed A1A roundabouts that's especially troubling. Whereas the Hollywood circle features clearly marked crosswalks and traffic lights, Partington says he's not certain that signals or painted walkways will be included in the circle packages. That will be determined during the design phase, he adds.

Vehicular traffic is another concern. On average, 30,000 cars traverse A1A in Fort Lauderdale each day, according to Partington. Many of those drivers are tourists and non-Fort Lauderdale residents heading for the beach and, of course, looking for places to park. The scenarios are easy to imagine, especially on Friday and Saturday nights at the height of the season, when beach traffic is almost at a standstill. On other nights local cruisers speed up and down A1A, some of them at double the speed limit, according to employees who work at stores facing the road, and rounding the circle at a fast clip is a daunting prospect. Most likely each circle will have four entry points, one of which will lead to a parking lot, which tourists may not notice until the last second. Add to this scene residents and visitors trying to get to homes on the beach and trolleys and buses racing to meet schedules.

All of these parties will merge into a small circle, possibly just two lanes wide. (The number of lanes has yet to be determined, but Partington says it would probably match the number of lanes at each entry point feeding into the circle, which is two). Traffic could back up on A1A at peak traffic times as drivers wait for a gap in the circle so they can merge, says Partington. But the delay, he says, should be less than that currently caused by the NE 21st Street traffic light, which would be removed. And if, during the design phase, it is determined that the delays will last too long, "we might have to rethink the circles," he adds.

While traffic circles are common in places like Washington, D.C., states in the Northeast, and countries throughout Europe, they're rare in Florida. Hollywood is the only city in Broward that has them, say traffic experts, although Coral Gables in Miami-Dade County has several. Hughes says she prefers circles to traffic lights because they do not dictate a stop unless traffic is backed up and are more attractive. She acknowledges, however, that drivers who haven't had much experience with circles and older drivers lacking peripheral vision could have trouble navigating them.

Chang-jen Lan, an assistant transportation professor at the University of Miami, says traffic circles were such a failure in his native country, Taiwan, that the government was forced to remove them in the '80s. "They worked for a while, but they later found out that, as the traffic demand grows, it makes traffic conditions very bad," he says. "Who has the right of way is not well-defined. People tend to run into each other. You increase delays as opposed to traffic signals."

"Motorists would need to get used to them, to be educated about them," said Henk Koornstra, assistant director of traffic engineering for Broward County. He says circles work best when there are few pedestrians. "If you have a lot of pedestrians, it can be dangerous," he explains. "Sometimes they put little viaducts under the road for the pedestrians."

That's exactly why Fort Lauderdale resident Harris Swike spoke out against the circle plan at the recent commission meeting. "I am speaking on behalf of pedestrians," he said. "Have you ever tried to cross a circle in Hollywood? You are taking your life in your hands."

The same could be said for drivers, according to Hollywood Vice Mayor Sal Oliveri. He almost lost his life in a head-on collision at Gen. Joseph W. Watson Circle about ten years ago. He was approaching Hollywood City Hall when a driver drove the wrong way on the one-way circle and slammed into him, breaking Oliveri's steering wheel off. To this day his wife refuses to drive around any circle.

"A lot of people just avoid the circles," he says. "They're very dangerous for most people."

Contact Julie Kay at her e-mail address:

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