When I first moved to Washington, D.C. I steered clear of them at all costs. I’d abandon the most direct route to avoid them. Even when I was in a rush, I’d go several blocks out of my way.
In my mind, the roundabouts or traffic circles scattered around the nation’s capital were a merry-go-round of automotive chaos.
My fears weren’t entirely irrational. Turns out, roundabouts aren’t exactly smooth sailing for cyclists. A 2009 study 1 of more than 90 roundabouts found the presence of a traffic circle increased the number of bicyclist injury crashes by 27 percent—and that was in Belgium, a country with a far superior cycling safety record than the States.
Here in the U.S. roundabouts are on the rise. Why? Because, while they may complicate things for cyclists, they dramatically reduce crashes, injuries and fatalities for motorists. Viewed as a safety solution, the Federal Highway Administration wants to spur the increase of roundabouts from 150-250 new ones per year to 1,000 annually.
So what’s a hesitant cyclist to do? Learn the ins and outs—quite literally and roundabouts quickly lose their intimidation factor.
Of course, not all roundabouts are equal. In fact, traffic circles are more like snowflakes—unique in size, scope and design. But they generally fall into one of two broad categories.
No-sweat, Single-Lane Circles
In Bend, Oregon, roundabouts are all the rage. With more than two dozen circles in the city of 78,000 people, the local advocates and educators at Commute Options have created brochures, and even videos, to show cyclists the right way to ride the roundabout.
The good news: a single-lane circle can be a breeze for bikes, often quicker and safer for the savvy rider than waiting for lights at a four-way intersection. Because the typical car travels between 10 to 15 miles per hour in a traffic circle, the drivers are already cruising at a pace closer to those of us on two wheels. That makes it easier to master the most important maneuver for this type of intersection: merge to the middle.
“Take the lane well in advance of the roundabout and stay in the center,”advises Jeff Monson, Commute Options’ executive director.
If you’re approaching from a street with bike lanes, watch for the and of the white line: that’s your cue to merge with traffic. Even if the bike lane continues in the outer edge of the circle, don’t let the paint lull you into a false sense of security. If you keep to the margins you’re putting yourself in the direct line of traffic entering and exiting the circle. So, while it might seem counter-intuitive, trust the research, ditch the bike lane and move to the middle.
As you approach a traffic circle, be sure to yield to traffic already making the rounds. “And be careful of entering at a high speed,” Monson adds. “Drivers don’t expect that.” Once you’re in the flow, be vigilant of other vehicles entering the intersection whose drivers forget who’s got the right of way (you!).
As you approach your exit, signal with your outstretched right hand or upturned left arm to announce your intent. Then continue on your merry way.
More Complex, Multi-lane Roundabouts
In contrast to Bend, our roundabouts in D.C. tend to be…a bit more complicated.
As Lesly Jones, a League Cycling Instructor and ride leader for Black Women Bike DC, says: “The statement that ‘Cyclists fare best when they act and are treated as drivers of vehicles’ is never more true than when entering or exiting a traffic circle.” In the District, two- and three-lane circles aren’t uncommonMany have multiple lights and as many as six or eight junctions.
Getting through safely requires not just taking the lane, but knowing which lane to take.
“The layout of the circle, and how quickly you plan to exit the circle, will determine your best lane position: the inside lane or the outside lane,” Jones explains. “Very often the outside lane has right-turn-only markings, so pay close att ention. You don’t want to end up on the right side of turning vehicles if you plan to travel further around the circle.”
For example, my local YMCA is right next to Scott Circle — a nexus of 10 different entry and exit points with three lanes of traffi c and half-adozen stop lights. Most often I’m traveling on Rhode Island Avenue. To make it from one side of the circle to the other, I have to stay in the middle lane, which allows for both straight and left -turning traffic. If I stay on the right, I’ll be spit onto Massachusett s; if I get in the left , my fi rst available exit will be 16th.
Also critically important: obey the lights. Don’t make a turn on red. Don’t watch the opposite light and start to creep forward when it turns yellow. There are so many moving pieces in a roundabout—and you never know what’s coming around the bend.
Before you Pedal, Be A Pedestrian
Like I said at the start, I used to be intimidated by what seemed like a spaghetti bowl of hazards that could squash me like a ripe tomato if I made the wrong move. So, to get comfortable, I stepped back and surveyed the situation.
That’s exactly what Commute Options’ Brian Potwin advises for inexperienced riders. “Slowly ride up the curb ramp and dismount,” he says. “Take the crosswalks as a pedestrian, looking first left then right.” That’s what I did: hopped onto the sidewalk and, as I walked, I paid careful attention to motorists’ movements and the markings on the pavement. Once I wrapped my head around the flow of the circle, I started riding through on a regular basis. When you know the way and own the lane, a roundabout can be a quick carousel to your destination, not, as I originally feared, a merry-go-round of chaos.
1.) Daniels S, et al. Injury crashes with bicyclists at roundabouts:
Infl uence of some locations characteristics and design of cycle facilities,
Journal of Safety Research, 2009
2.) National Cooperative Highway Research Program, Roundabouts in
the United States, 2007.
4.) American Association of State Highway and Transportation Offi
cials, Guide to Bicycle Facilities, 4th Edition, 2012