For most of my forty years as cyclist, riding both in the city and on the open road, I have held mixed views concerning safety provisions that traffic engineers provide for cyclists. Initially, my views were largely negative because of my experience with bicycle lanes. This experience was confirmed in caustic writings by engineer and cyclist John Forester.
Having studied the data concerning bike-motor vehicle accidents, Forester contended that they were age-related in where they took place and why they occurred. The statistics showed that intersections were the places where danger was the greatest. He urged traffic engineers and rule writers to develop roadways and rules that would reduce danger everywhere and especially at these danger points.
Forester also believed that cyclists were safest and drivers best able to share the road with them when people on bikes followed the same rules of the road that drivers obeyed. When making a left turn, for example, cyclists should not try to do it from a bike lane on the right edge of the road but should do what cars do, which is to get into the left lane and turn from the same position that drivers used.
Since 1999, most of my city cycling has been done in and around Portland, Oregon. Early in that period, I came to a largely positive view of the bike lanes and other provisions that traffic engineers in that city had established for cyclists. They helped me negotiate difficult intersections, and also helped drivers figure out where they should be as they were maneuvering their way in these same places.
Recently, however, my confidence in what the engineers are doing has been wavering. Their fixation upon creating separations between cyclists and motorists, as I have experienced them in several parts of Portland and in downtown Seattle, provide the veneer of safety while increasing the likelihood of bicycle-motor vehicle interaction. As much as possible—in order to protect myself from increased danger—I avoid these newly devised bicycle-specific streets and intersections.
My antipathies toward bike lanes comes to mind when both as motorist and cyclist I have to contend with roundabouts, which are being touted as the preferred form of intersections in many urban and open country areas. I know how to navigate in a world of four-way intersections controlled by stop signs or traffic lights. I can keep track of the direction I am going, and there is time, as I wait for the lights to change, to be sure of what I should do. I can usually find my way even in places that are unfamiliar to me.
Having returned to Indianapolis after living in the West for twenty years, I find that my former certainties no longer are certain. Recently driving in the city of Carmel on the north side of Indianapolis, I found myself in a surreal world that requires a total reorientation of my motorist’s mind. Carmel’s public officials and citizens are so excited by roundabouts that approximately one hundred of them are filling up the maps in this spread out community.
Before the roundabout era, I could find my way in Carmel and vicinity because it was still a four-square world. At most intersections I could turn left or right, or go straight ahead, and usually end up where I wanted to be even if I didn’t know the names of all of the streets.
No more. Admittedly, I have reached an age when it takes longer to figure out signage than used to be the case. The roundabouts I encountered on my recent travels in Carmel compounded the problem. Every roundabout seemed different and the challenges of figuring out where I should be driving and which spoke on the wheel was the one I should use to exit were greater than I could grasp in the moments that were available as I rotated around the circle.
Maybe the sweet voice on Google Maps would have told me when to veer off the circle—that is if I had her turned on and had learned to trust her instructions.
I’m reading about Carmel’s history with roundabouts and am learning how much they appear to reduce accidents and delays. My commitment to a fact-based approach to these matters should persuade me to embrace roundabouts.
To do so, however, requires that I (and everyone else) study the facts and learn new rules of the road just as Carmel’s official documents say we should. And I need to get a paper map and study the realignment of this part of Indianapolis and then spend time in Carmel going round and round until I I know what I’m doing. Until then, I’m going to do must of my driving and cycling in Indy’s four-square world south of 86th Street.