RALEIGH — Driving the new Hillsborough Street is pretty sweet, and walking it is sweeter still.
To appreciate the transformation of eight blocks that border N.C. State University, it helps to recall how dangerous, chaotic and ugly this strip used to be.
It was four lanes of stop-and-honk.
The right lanes would back up for cars dropping off students and campus workers - and for buses at the CAT, Triangle Transit and Wolfline stops. The left lanes clogged as drivers waited to make left turns.
Dreary and noisy, often with nowhere to park, Hillsborough was not a place you drove to. It was a place you tried to hurry through.
Now, as the city wraps up the $9.9 million transformation in time for NCSU's fall semester, Hillsborough has undergone sweeping changes.
It's still a busy street. Some of the changes will take getting used to. The jury is still out on that quirky, twin-ring roundabout at the Bell Tower.
And some people will argue that shifting from four to two lanes of traffic is the opposite of progress.
But mostly, it's much nicer now.
"Psychologically, it feels safer and much more walkable," said Michael Harwood, NCSU's former university architect, who worked with merchants and city officials during a decade of planning for the makeover. "And it's much more friendly to be on the street."
A new red-brick median runs down the center of Hillsborough, and the sidewalks are brick, too. Parking spaces line both sides of the street, with coin-or-credit-card pay stations to be activated in the next week or so.
Cars and bicycles now share a single lane, 16 feet wide, in each direction. Later this fall, the city will add stripes and signs to mark the outside 5 feet for bikes.
Watauga Club Drive, a campus street that entered Hillsborough opposite Maiden Lane, has been closed. Brick masons are finishing a handsome entrance there for an NCSU pedestrian gateway that will embellish Hillsborough near the Bell Tower.
With fewer red lights now - and with left turns eliminated at Maiden, Oberlin Road, and Chamberlain Street - there's less stop and more go. The overall flow is a bit slower but much smoother, thanks to the calming effect of the Bell Tower roundabout.
Pullen, a major campus road that carries cut-through traffic north from Western Boulevard, has been extended to Oberlin, where it ends in a little roundabout. Now Pullen is a string of three roundabouts, starting with one built on campus at Stinson Street in 2003.
The big circle in the middle, where Pullen meets Hillsborough, is only the fourth multi-lane roundabout in North Carolina.
About that roundabout
City officials worried that drivers would find the Bell Tower roundabout a bit tricky, so they printed an illustrated navigation guide.
But it's really not so daunting, after all. You might goof up the first couple of times you drive through the roundabout, but after that you'll get it right.
Stand near the Bell Tower for 10 minutes, and you'll see drivers make similar mistakes as they negotiate the roundabout.
They forget to yield before they enter the circle. So a driver already in the roundabout, who has the right of way, brakes to avert a sideswipe.
They choose the wrong lane - and here's the tricky part:
As you enter the roundabout on westbound Hillsborough, for example, a sign with a squiggly hieroglyph tells you to pick the outer [right] lane if you plan to turn right on Pullen or continue straight through on Hillsborough.
Some drivers enter in the inner [left] lane, reserved for cars that will exit to the left on Pullen. But if they try instead to go straight on Hillsborough, there might be a little screech of the brakes when they cut in front of drivers who correctly chose the outer lane.
"Oops!" said Eric Lamb, the city's transportation services manager, as he witnessed one such episode. "But you know, if he did that in a conventional intersection, it would be a big problem."
Traffic studies show that serious right-angle crashes and injuries drop sharply after a traffic signal is replaced with a roundabout. Sideswipe accidents are more likely - but with less damage and little or no injury.
"The fact is that roundabouts are very forgiving," Lamb said. "Because people are forced to slow down. And the fantastic tradeoff is that traffic keeps moving."
Officials say the main reason they tackled Hillsborough Street was to make it safer for walking. For years, it was one of North Carolina's nastiest spots for pedestrian crashes. NCSU students were among the frequent jaywalkers on Hillsborough, and not always nimble in the dash across four lanes of traffic.
"Our students didn't always use the crosswalks when they ran back and forth to the businesses on the other side of the street," said Marilyn Stieneke, the planning and communication director in NCSU's finance and business office.
Now - even if they ignore the new crosswalks, with push-button signals gently beeping - pedestrians will have an easier time crossing safely. The brick medians are pedestrian islands in the traffic stream.
Instead of negotiating four lanes of cars at once, you'll worry about one lane at a time: Look to the left, cross to the median, then wait while you look to the right for cars coming in the opposite direction.
"The new median, the safety zone in the middle of the street, I think that's going to be huge for the safety of kids walking across Hillsborough," Stieneke said. "It's already been of benefit to me, as a staff member, to feel a little more safe crossing the street."
The chief shortcoming in the Hillsborough Street improvements is that they extend only eight blocks, from Oberlin Road to Gardner Street. As you walk farther west on Hillsborough, you're back in hectic four-lane traffic, separated from the roaring buses by a six-inch curb.
"I see this as sort of a Phase One," said Harwood, the former university architect, who now runs NCSU's Centennial Campus Development Office.
"We ended the project in front of the library, but some of the roughest stretches of the road are farther west than that, between Dan Allen and Gorman. I hope this will whet the appetite to go all the way to Gorman Street."