Monday, December 2, 2013

Frustrations With Cycling the Roundabout

A draft of a "cyclists and roundabouts" post was in progress about mid-summer, but I let it go because I thought perhaps I was in the wrong frame of mind to write anything intelligible (e.g. I was extremely upset from a near-death incident). Soon thereafter, I saw this post from Lovely Bicycle! in which Velouria discusses her evolving relationship with the roundabout as a cyclist. It was an interesting read to me, especially coming down from several summer roundabout incidents. The one note that caught my eye was her discovery that while cycling in Ireland there didn't appear to be the confusion that frequently takes place in roundabouts here in the U.S. I suppose it made me wish that everyone was more aware, and that roundabouts here were less stressful. Since then, I have spotted a few different articles or posts regarding the roundabout and cyclists, including a recent Bicycle Times cover.
*Image from Bicycle Times
For me personally, there are two roundabouts with which I have frequent interaction because of their proximity to home and the places I travel. One is a two-lane roundabout (a more standard marker of a roundabout in the area as it has an inner circle for continuing traffic and an outer lane for those who will be exiting) that I've not directly discussed, but have written about in some manner here.
Flow of a roundabout in the U.S.
*Image found here
The other is in a residential neighborhood, a couple of blocks from home and is a near-daily, disaster-in-the-making, single-lane roundabout. I have had incidents transpire in both locations, but oddly the single-lane roundabout seems to create the largest number of run-ins and near death experiences for me... and when I say near death, I truly mean it.
The red arrows indicate all the things that cause me to believe people will be paying attention and yielding as appropriate: the actual roundabout itself, the "yield" signs placed at each of the four intersections of the roundabout, the elementary school that is a block away, and the fact that there is a designated bike lane on both streets that intersect at the roundabout.
The latest incident took place not very long ago as I was biking to a kickboxing class. I am using it only as an example because I could highlight similar incidents that take place weekly, if not daily. I was approaching the roundabout and slowing (as the yield signs - to me - indicate that I should slow to be able to stop if need be), looking to my left and ahead of me, as well as glancing to my right to be sure there was no traffic coming into the roundabout. As I was part way into the roundabout, I looked to my right and saw a car approaching hastily. Thinking that the driver must see me as I was in the roundabout, I didn't think much of it, but quickly realized she was not slowing down. Had I not immediately applied my brakes, there is no doubt in my mind I would've been drug by this woman and her vehicle down the street - as she not only didn't slow down, but didn't bother to look (either direction) as she went tearing through the circle. While I don't normally try to start altercations with automobile drivers (or anyone really), I have grown weary of these incidents taking place nearly every day. So, as I looked after her, I couldn't help but throw up my arms and say, "Really?!" out loud, at which point she proceeded to honk at me as she sped off. Shaking my head, I continued on, wondering how long it will be before one of these cars actually does hit me and I'm blamed for being the "irresponsible cyclist."
The red arrow is used to illustrate that there is in fact a yield sign for all directions of traffic.
This roundabout is a constant matter of discussion (discussion being the nice word as it's generally more of a tirade with me venting about the multitude of close encounters that take place) in our household because I cannot seem to come to terms with the absolute confusion that exists here. The individuals who are traveling north and southbound (as the woman was on the day described above) seem to think, at least on the whole, that they do not have to slow or yield to any traffic, but that instead the east/westbound traffic must always yield to them. I am witness daily to drivers who have absolutely no intention of stopping, nor would they be able to stop if need-be as they are traveling at or above the posted 30 mph speed limit and paying no mind to the yield sign right in front of them. Even police officers seem to have no understanding of the roundabout as I've approached the circle as they were heading through and they either screech on their brakes believing they need to yield to me (even though s/he was there first), or they don't yield when they should as I'm already in the roundabout traffic.

It all seems simple enough to me. In the U.S. the traffic is coming in a counter-clockwise manner, therefore, looking to ones right is not going to help. We are taught that we yield to traffic in the roundabout, and therefore logically one would think that s/he would look to his/her left when approaching one of these circles (of course this would be opposite in many European countries). Instead, there seems to be mass confusion on the part of drivers who either yield to everyone because they have no idea who should be permitted to go first, or they do not bother to look or yield at all and simply roar through the roundabout.

Part of the roundabouts purpose is to allow better traffic flow and decrease major accidents, but I'm not certain that this is always the case. One site suggests, roundabouts "can greatly increase motorist safety... since traffic is forced to slow down and the possibility for head-on collisions is eliminated..." but the same article goes on to suggest that cycling through roundabouts could be safer for cyclists, depending on how they are designed. If all involved are not paying attention, however, this all seems like a great recipe for disaster. As a cyclist, if an automobile hits me, it's not going to be a minor accident. In addition, with an elementary school very close to the intersection above, there could easily be children running across the street, not to mention the multitude of pedestrians frequently in the area due to the adjacent park.

The conclusion I have reached is that trying to have a conversation with motorists doesn't seem to work (even when I'm not upset), and because I have no desire to die at the hands of an automobile driver, I must always be aware of everything taking place and know that even if I have the right-of-way, the driver may not stop - which means that I have to be ready to apply the brakes, regardless of the situation or whose turn it may be to proceed. Perhaps you've found better ways to deal with the roundabout or other tricky situations with shared roads? Your thoughts are certainly welcome.


  1. I think your conclusions are pretty much spot on G.E. My experience has been that most motorists don't know how to handle roundabouts or believe that no one else knows how to handle roundabouts. SO what you get are two situations: 1) drive as fast as possible through the obstacle and pretend it doesn't exist; or 2) treat it as a four way stop. Ironically it seems that a lot of four way stops function this way as well.

    It amazes me that as advertised (and for motorists) roundabouts do seem to reduce the number of serious crashes, but for me as a cyclist riding through them I just see the potential for disaster.

    What a roundabout does for motorists is eliminate the possibility of a T-bone collision which is the type most likely to result in serious injury. It doesn't really reduce the likelihood of collisions in general (at least in my mind) but it softens the blow so to speak.

    1. I think roundabouts definitely assist with head-on collision prevention for cars (although, the roundabout in our 'hood has been repaired due to someone running straight into it, so I suppose one has to see the giant, brick/cement mass in front of him/her in order to avoid the head-on accidents). There was a video that shared recently at an intersection in northern California. The red light was treated more as a "tap-the-brakes-but-keep-moving" type of signal. It was fascinating to see how we all (even cyclists) become such creatures of habit - especially the bad habits.

  2. I agree that the normal, larger roundabouts pictured in your figure and in your photos are a disaster for cyclists. The main purpose of the roundabout originally, was to prevent cars from T-boning one another from the side - which is usually a pretty severe accident. I do think they work for that purpose. But bicycles seem to disappear from the driver's view in the larger roundabouts.

    Smaller scale roundabouts, we call them traffic circles here in Seattle, are a different story. We have the large roundabouts and the small traffic circles in the city. The traffic circle is just a small island in the center of a normal residential intersection. Usually the adjoining neighbors take over responsibility for the island and plant it with low growing plants.

    Everyone is to stay to the right when they approach a traffic circle. Normal rules of traffic apply, you yield to the person in the interaction ahead of you, or on your right. I cycle through a residential neighborhood daily that is littered with traffic circles. Visibility at intersections in this neighborhood is abysmal - between trees and vegetation in people's yards and driver's that park right up next to the intersection, I have to slow way down at every regular intersection. Without the traffic circle, I am virtually out in the intersection before I can see if a car is coming. My only comment about the woman that almost ran you over G.E., is the drivers I encounter are usually texting and don't bother to even look up.

    I find that the traffic circles do slow cars down as they approach the intersection. For the cyclists, with the traffic circle, it is divide and conquer. Compared to an open intersection, I find that the island is good "protection". First check left and then if that's a go, roll in and check right, you are behind the shadow of the island now.

    My conclusion is there can be a place for small scale roundabouts in low traffic residential neighborhoods. But for higher traffic roads, the larger roundabouts are just like G.E. described. An accident waiting to happen - for cyclists, at least.

    My words of advice, practice safe cycling and use a traffic circle!

    1. You are right... I suppose technically the single lane "roundabouts" should be called traffic circles than true roundabouts.

      As for texting drivers, {sigh} that could be an entire rant of its own. Although I'm grateful for the technology in this day, it's not only made motorists less aware, but I think it's made humans in general less apt to speak to each other in public. The constant nose(or finger)-to-cell phone is growing old, and even pedestrians and cyclists have become less focused on what they are doing in the moment. It scares me even more when I see a texting ped who has earphones in and is completely unaware of my presence.

      You make an excellent point about the intersections with stop signs, rather than the yield signs at a roundabout or traffic circle. I always have to get out in front of the limit line in order to see if traffic is coming. With cars parked on the sides of the road and huge trees and other vegetation, it's nearly impossible to see anything from where I should be stopped. There's often so much hoopla made about cyclists who don't follow traffic rules (and they do exist, just like the motorists who sometimes don't follow the law), but many times I find it's more out of safety that I don't necessarily do exactly what I should be doing if I'm following the letter of the law in regard to "riding as a vehicle." There are simply times when it is safer for me to do something other than what is technically right. For example, I always think that the bike lanes should come out farther into the intersection so we can actually see what is coming, rather than stopping them at the same spot as cars. I also hope for the day when there's enough infrastructure for cyclists and we become so common that every city will have bicycle signals that change before the automotive traffic goes.

      For now, I remain hyper aware of my surroundings and almost always on the defense it seems.

  3. G.E., thanks for bringing these issues up. Every major city in the US has some form of a "bicycle program manager" these days, and hopefully it is their job to take note of these discussions within the cyclist community.

    I'm not sure which is worse, the texting motorist, or the belligerent woman you encountered. I actually had a woman physically bump her large SUV into me today on a narrow residential street. Low speed thankfully. She smiled and waved to let me know her vehicle was unharmed. Jeesh!! I'm sure she figured I should have dismounted and moved off the road when she came by.

    Most of our residential streets here in Seattle are uncontrolled, with no stop sign or yield sign. Only busier intersections merit a sign. My comparison above was for the uncontrolled intersections vs. the traffic circle. All-way stops give me a fighting chance, since the car has to stop too.

    Here is a related peeve. Drivers on a main road that stop to let me cross the road when I'm at a stop sign. I'm mounted on my bike with a foot down. They have the right of way, but stop anyway. It sounds courteous, does't it? Not to me. It scares the bejesus out of me to cross when the motorists that have the right of way stop - especially on a high speed road, and this time of year, it may be dark or twilight. I don't trust the people behind them or coming the other way to stop. All I need is for someone to decide to pass the motorist stopped for no apparent reason. Getting hit broadside by a car travelling at 30 mph or more would be a lethal mistake. Sometimes I waive the stopped car on, but this can infuriate a driver sitting behind me waiting for me to cross so they can too.

    Thanks so much G.E.!

    1. Wow! I can't believe you were hit and the woman was worried about her car. People are incredible. As you said, thankfully it was at a slow speed, but it seems that so many motorists don't realize the damage their two-ton automobiles will do to someone on a bicycle.

      I can relate to your peeve with drivers who stop when they have the right-of-way and I'm already stopped as I should be. I never know quite what to do with these folks because I know they believe they are doing something nice, but really they should just continue to do what they're doing and I will go (as a motorist would) when the traffic is clear. I'm conflicted because I don't want to create more issues for cyclists by seeming ungrateful for their seemingly nice gesture, but at the same time, it's really not safe for them to be doing what they are doing and I don't want to encourage it in the future. In the past, I've tried just waving them on, but it seems to needlessly infuriate some folks. Sometimes, I try the "looking in the other direction (or down at my handlebars as if I'm fixing something) and pretend I don't see them stopped" method to see if that will encourage them to move forward, but once in a long while, they are quite stubborn and insist that I go anyway. In those instances, I just give in and wave to them as I pedal through, because I know they think they're doing something helpful. In some ways, I am fortunate because there aren't a ton of city-busy intersections in this area (though there are some).

      I have started to smile and wave at motorists more frequently who do seemingly small gestures (like backing up when they are waiting to pull out into traffic and the nose of their vehicle is sticking out where I am riding). While I could easily go around in most instances, on a busy road, it could really make a huge difference, so I want to encourage them to continue to be aware of cyclists as well as encourage those small gestures that often really matter to someone on a bike. It's sometimes difficult to find a happy place on the roads when dealing with motorists, but I do hope that as there are more bicycles on the roads, behaviors and attitudes will change.


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