Tuesday, September 19, 2017

New Traffic Circle - Lovin' It

About a year-and-a-half ago, I had an article about navigating roundabouts. My observation was (and is) that on the whole, the benefits of roundabouts seem to be more geared for drivers (typical of most road projects, cyclists are kind of an afterthought, or even an "after-afterthought"), and they can sometimes cause some consternation for cyclists, but with a bit of knowledge they can often be a pretty good thing. My general advice for cyclists in the roundabouts can be summarized briefly: Be Assertive. Take the Lane. Signal Your Intent.

We just got a new roundabout in my area that I have to say as a cyclist is truly a welcome improvement. In the last mile of my morning commute, and the first mile of my afternoon commute, I end up riding on a fairly busy 2-lane state highway (the school where I teach is located on this route, and there's really no alternative). In the morning, I usually hit that last mile early enough that I can just beat the swell of traffic that comes soon after. But in the afternoon, the road is often busier and can be a challenge.

Heading home at the end of the day, I would ride this fairly busy state road for about a mile (as already mentioned), then I'd need to make a left turn onto a less-busy rural route. Cars and trucks on the main road are often traveling near 50 mph, and making a left turn there could be really stressful sometimes. I'd look back to check traffic approaching from behind, make my signal, and move out into the lane - at the same time I'd be watching forward for oncoming traffic. If there were cars coming towards me, I'd have to slow or even stop -- which then would have me really worried about cars coming from behind. Would they slow or stop for me? Would they even see me?

On more than one occasion, when the road ahead was clear, I'd look back, make my signal and move into the lane - then just before initiating the actual turn I would take one more look back only to find the car behind me crossing the centerline of the road, trying to PASS ME ON THE LEFT! It happened several times, and each time I could see that the driver was a teenager, and I strongly suspect that they have no clue what a standard "left turn" hand signal means. Do they even teach hand signals in drivers' education classes anymore? They clearly saw me but were clueless as to why I'd have my left arm out, and why I'd be in the left half of the lane. I learned quickly to never start my turn without one last look back.

Before the roundabout - it could be a hair-raiser.
The final straw for me was the day I got to the intersection and went through the usual preparations for the left turn. The oncoming lane was clear, and I had no traffic behind, so it should have been no problem. The only driver to contend with was the guy to my left on the rural route that I was preparing to turn onto. He was stopped at the stop sign and waiting to turn left onto the main road. I put my arm out to signal my turn, moved into the left side of the lane, and just as I was initiating the turn, the driver hit the gas and pulled out right in front of me, crossing my path, cutting me off, and it was only through my grabbing the brakes and making a mid-turn swerve that I didn't end up hitting (or being hit by) him. And just to make it obvious that it was no mistake -- no case of "I didn't see him" or "the biker came out of nowhere" -- this guy was giving me "the finger" as he was cutting me off. The whole thing was blatant and deliberate.

"MOTHERF***ER!" I yelled, mid-swerve.

The bastard heard me. He suddenly skidded to a stop (in the intersection!) and jumped out of his car. Standing there in the road, he was screaming at me a stream of profanity that went something like "WHO THE F**K ARE YOU CALLING A MOTHERF***ER, YOU GODD***ED A**HOLE. I SHOULD'VE F**ING KILLED YOU!"

I was fuming angry, but wholly intact and hoping to keep it that way, so I didn't engage him or his rant. I didn't respond except to continue on my way, somewhat shaken.

After that incident, I decided I had to find a different way to get home. As I mentioned, I really have no choice but to take this busy state route at least for a certain distance - but I had to find a way to avoid making that left turn. My alternative was to leave work going the opposite direction and head to a different rural route where I could make a right turn instead of left, then follow some of those backroads around to my intended route home. It added to the distance of my afternoon commute, but it was slightly less fraught with peril. I say "slightly less fraught" because I now had to make a left turn out of the parking lot at work onto the same busy road, but that generally wasn't quite as nerve-wracking. That's where things have been for the past couple of years.

I've never been more pleased with a road project.
Throughout the past summer, that intersection was closed and traffic re-routed while crews constructed the new traffic roundabout. The new intersection opened about a month ago - and what a difference it makes.

I now feel much more confident and much less vulnerable since the regular left turn has been eliminated. On the approach to the circle, there are long "splitter islands" to separate the traffic entering and exiting the roundabout, but also the road has been widened quite a bit from its previous dimensions. As it was before, the lanes were fairly narrow (for a major state route, anyhow) with no paved shoulder whatsoever. Now there is a reasonably wide paved shoulder on the stretch that leads up to the splitter islands. When riding, as I start getting closer to the roundabout, I can look back and check for traffic coming up behind. If need be, or just as a courtesy, I can move to the shoulder to give drivers one last chance to pass safely before we get to the divider islands (Hey - I'm a firm believer in "taking the lane" - but when traffic is closing in behind you going 45 mph, sometimes it's easier just to move over and let them pass) -- but once I get into that divided stretch (which I call "the chute"), it's really a no-passing zone, and I treat it as such. I'll take one more look back as I get into that final stretch, make sure I have an opening, then move in to take the lane around the circle.

There are still dangers from cars when circling any roundabout - mainly one has to watch cars entering the circle and make sure they will yield as they're supposed to (I suggest being alert to "escape routes" and ready for "evasive maneuvers" if need be). But the main thing is that it forces traffic to slow in the intersection - and the speed difference between cyclists and cars is reduced significantly. On this particular roundabout, that alone makes a huge difference.


  1. While I find roundabouts a great solution to intersections, in our area they really are confusing to many drivers. Of course, if my current state of residence actually mandated a formal drivers education class to be licensed (like the state I was born and raised in required 35 years ago), maybe drivers would be able to negotiate them. Then again, maybe they would also be able to give signals and drive more courteously. Digression, but glad you have a safer way to commute.

    1. That is still one of the downsides on roundabouts here - that many drivers are still clueless about how to negotiate them. But more roundabouts keep getting built, so hopefully people are starting to learn. Driver education is still woeful in many areas.

  2. People using the road make mistakes, always have and always will. Crashes will always be with us, but they need not result in fatalities or serious injury. Modern roundabouts are the safest form of intersection in the world - the intersection type with the lowest risk of fatal or serious injury crashes - (much more so than comparable signals). Modern roundabouts change the speed and geometry of one of the most dangerous parts of the system - intersections. The reduction in speed and sideswipe geometry mean that, more often than not, when a crash does happen at a modern roundabout, you usually need a tow truck, not an ambulance. Roundabouts are one of nine proven road safety features (FHWA).
    The life saved may be your own.

  3. If you ever find yourself driving in Europe, there is an interesting rule to follow on roundabouts. As you are approaching the roundabout (say 6 o'clock), if you plan on exiting at either 9 o'clock or 3 o'clock, you signal for a left or right turn as you approach. If you are exiting at 12 o'clock, you don't signal as you approach. Once you enter the roundabout, you cancel the signal, only reactivating it to signal that you are leaving the roundabout at either 3, 9, or 12 o'clock. It sounds complicated but quickly becomes second nature and the clear signalling helps to keep traffic flowing.

    1. Come bike in Paris and watch these roundabout "rules" get "followed" as you circle the Arch de Triomphe praying for your life! Parisian cobbled rontpoints are a cycling thrill or nightmare depending on your disposition.

  4. This is all so familiar. The incident you describe with the driver is something I'm sure many of us have been through. When the very same situation happened to me, I did end up in the hospital, and haven't been the same since. Do you remember 2015? I don't.

    My favorite part of your post is that you move right to let approaching traffic pass before entering the traffic circle. I always do this if the road is narrowing, when it's an option. It's just being a courteous road user. As I approach a bit of road where I will be taking the lane to protect my own safety, I understand I will also be slowing down traffic. If someone is approaching from behind and I have the opportunity to let them pass first, it's the considerate thing to do. And I'm safer with them in front of me anyway!
    Of course we have the right to take that lane, and are under no requirement to let a driver go first. We also have a right to be considerate, and are under no requirement to be territorial. I'm not pulling over and waiting all day, but when I can conveniently let the faster road user go first, why wouldn't I? I see many cyclists who won't do that, because its their right not to. I hope they will all remember 2017.