First 'Dutch Roundabout' in Cambridge, England, Cyclists Blamed

Chester A. Kojro
Chester A. Kojro

If my headline is confusing, I’ve got a tale for you. Just like here in the US, England has lots of advocates for “bicycling infrastructure,” especially in the form of bicycle lanes, not just painted but physically separated from motor vehicle traffic. These advocates appear to ignore the resultant traffic congestion or claim that it’s a worthwhile tradeoff for cyclist and pedestrian safety when in fact, “gridlock” is the real goal. For political and religious reasons, they want to reduce and eliminate motor vehicle use. 

Love them or hate them, traffic roundabouts are well known to Rolla area drivers. Rolla has four of them.  Two form a “dog bone” at both ends of the I-44 overpass bridge at exit 184.  There’s another at the north side of I-44 exit 185, and the fourth is the T-intersection of Forum Drive and 18th Street. 

Roundabouts can work when everyone follows the rules. Approaching vehicles slow down and yield or stop for traffic already within the roundabout. Once entered into the roundabout, a vehicle has right-of-way as it circles single-file until it exits and leaves. If the exit is missed, the driver simply goes around and tries again. 

A problem can occur when lots of cars approach together along one entry. Once the first vehicle enters, the others follow closely like a train.  Approaching vehicles must yield and stop until the way is clear and depending on traffic, this can cause extensive backups. Eventually there is a gap and the other vehicles begin to move, possibly even creating another train, creating a backup on another entrance. 

What about bicycles? I contend that bicycles should be driven in traffic while obeying the rules of the road. Staying centered in the lane behind the car ahead, a bicycle should have no difficulty safely negotiating a roundabout. 

But pedestrians do not have that option. They need to somehow walk across the traffic lanes.  Usually they depend on some sort of traffic signal but that defeats the concept behind roundabouts.  Ideally there should be marked crosswalks but the circuitous route around a roundabout is much longer and inconvenient compared to walking straight across a roadway intersection.  Worse, since pedestrians within a crosswalk always have priority, they now block all vehicles, both entering and exiting.  A few ill-timed (or deliberately planned) individuals can completely shut down a roundabout.  That’s why roundabouts are usually separated from pedestrian crossing sites.  They simply do not go together. 

In Holland, bicycle infrastructure is taken to extremes and often touted as inspirational by those so-called cycling advocates who want to eliminate driving. The “Dutch Roundabout” is a perfect example.  Looking from above, it resembles a large bullseye target.  The large center ring is the decorative raised island. The next ring is the paved curbed apron that keeps vehicles away from the island. The third ring is the single one-way traffic lane. The fourth is a raised barrier, possibly grass-covered.  The fifth is the single-direction painted bicycle lane. Of course, where the roadway enters and exits, it is flush and cuts through the raised barriers, making them into so many separate islands.  Finally, the sixth ring is the pedestrian perimeter walkway with zebra-striped crosswalks and raised safety islands across each roadway and separated bicycle lane.  Aesthetically beautiful but insanely extravagant in construction cost and land use, it resembles a city park rather than a traffic way. 

Right-of-way is determined by vulnerability. Pedestrians come first, then bicyclists, and only then roadway motor vehicles. This is commonly established road use law but in a roundabout it means that vehicles must not only yield when entering but also when attempting to exit, yielding at both the bike lane and the pedestrian crosswalk.  Can you say, “Gridlock”?  And as with all such separated pathways and islands, I see no practical way of conventional snow plowing, but that’s a minor point. 

What happens in Holland does not really concern me as its history and culture concerning traffic and commuting are very unlike our own. But once this monstrosity appeared in England to rave reviews by the British mainstream press, well, this is an idea that will soon be suggested here across the Atlantic. 

Worse yet, while the gridlock will be caused by the ill-conceived pedestrian traffic patterns, the entire mess is labeled by advocates as “bicycle infrastructure” and so all of those frustrated drivers will once again blame cyclists for their woes instead of the politicians and traffic planners who approved and built it. 

In past columns I have contended that bicycles are safest and most useful when driven in traffic while obeying the rules of the road. Although bicycles cannot keep up with the speed of motor traffic, they are small enough to be easily passed in most situations.  With very few exceptions, there is no need for bike lanes or similar infrastructure along city streets and rural roads. In fact, typical bike lanes create added hazards because the “safely separated” all come back together at every intersection. 

It seems to me that the city of Rolla has its act together. Adding roundabouts on Bishop Avenue was considered but then eliminated in the latest Transportation Development District plans presented to the public. I hope it stays firm. 

What remains an issue is pedestrian accessibility. It’s a huge problem everywhere and that’s where efforts need to be focused. But bicyclists are not part of the problem and should not be blamed for the solution. 

I hope that I’ve dispelled some concerns and encouraged others to give bicycle riding a try. Perhaps we’ll meet soon. I’ll ring my bell!