Roundabout in Towson is like a one-ring circus

May 24, 2007|By Kevin Cowherd | Kevin Cowherd,Sun Columnist

It's rush hour on a weekday evening and I'm sitting in the warm sunshine outside Souris' Saloon in Towson watching the great spectacle that is the Towson roundabout.

Right now it has all the calm of an evacuation route after a nuclear attack.

Brakes squeal, horns blare, middle fingers jut into the air.

A white Jeep cuts off a green Mazda, and the driver of the Mazda swerves like he's Dale Earnhardt about to run into the wall at Talladega and yells, "I'll kill you, you [bleep]!"

Ah, the happy sounds of spring.

"That's why I sit out here," says Brent Wilcoite, 29, of Towson, who is having a beer at the next table with his girlfriend, Alysse Mantel, 23, a student at Towson University. "I like watching accidents."

Me, I'm just hoping a truck doesn't scream around the circle, hop the curb and take us all out. There's a concrete pylon that might protect us, but still.

I'm here because I read a story by Laura Barnhardt in Sunday's Sun that said downtown Towson is being transformed, and that dozens of projects involving luxury apartments, restaurants and new stores are in the works.

But this will mean even more people living and working in Towson, which means even more people being exposed to the full howling chaos that is the roundabout.

And this will be something to see.

Here is the problem with the roundabout: Only about six people in the whole area know how to drive the thing.

It opened in 1998, connecting York, Joppa and Dulaney Valley roads and Allegheny Avenue, and motorists took to it like a demolition derby.

State highway officials said: Don't worry, drivers will get used to it. They'll figure it out.

Well, guess what? Here we are nine years later. They haven't figured it out.

Look, I drive through it at least six times a week on my way back and forth to a nearby gym, where I go to sculpt the chiseled physique that is only hinted at in the accompanying photo. And at least three times a week, I see someone come barreling into the roundabout without looking and cut another car off.

Or I see a car trying to exit the roundabout, only to be prevented from doing that by the traffic flow, so the car keeps going around and around in Roundabout Hell, desperately looking for a way to get out.

There are signs at the entrance to the roundabout that say "Yield to traffic in circle." But they might as well be written in Portuguese, because no one pays attention to them.

The prevailing philosophy for entering the roundabout is this: If you see an opening in the traffic, stomp on the accelerator.

Don't be a wuss. Get out there and mix it up.

And once you're in the circle, it's every motorist for himself.

Anyway, after talking with Wilcoite and Mandel, I wandered down to the Ridgely & Ferrens Marketplace, a little farther down Allegheny. I wanted to see if there had been any instances of cars flying around the roundabout and, propelled by centrifugal force, sailing through the air and crashing through its plate glass window.

There hadn't been any. But the owner, Hafey Hyle, came outside with me and stared at the roundabout and shook his head as brakes continued to squeal and horns continued to blare.

"The circle works," he said. "Traffic moves through it. But drivers and pedestrians do not know how to use it."

Amen, I said.

Plus, he said, the seniors who live in the area won't cross it. They're too terrified.

I don't blame them, I said. I barely made it across myself and I'm like a gazelle compared to an 85-year-old grandma. Well, a gazelle with a knee and hip replacement, anyway.

"I proposed that they cobblestone the circle to slow traffic down," Hyle said. "I think they're considering it."

Cobblestone! That's not a bad idea. If you try to drive too fast over cobblestone, what happens is you shake your car up pretty good and maybe even bang your head on the roof and loosen your dental fillings.

I left Hyle and went back to Souris' Saloon. It was 5 o'clock, prime time for all sorts of mayhem in the Towson roundabout. A few more beer drinkers were sitting at the outdoor tables, because watching cars nearly sideswipe and rear-end each other in the circle is like a reality TV show for the customers at Souris'.

"A woman coming up York Road had an accident and went airborne and ended up in the plants in the roundabout," said Cathy Farrell, the owner of Souris'. "I've seen people go the wrong way in the roundabout. I've seen people come to a complete stop in the roundabout."

Not long ago, she saw a fender-bender. One of the drivers got out of his car wearing a "Got Beer?" T-shirt. The police came. And the whole time he was talking to them, Mr. Got Beer? kept his arms crossed in front of him so the heat couldn't see his shirt.

Oh, you can't make this stuff up. And the way people drive the Towson roundabout, you never have to.

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