My afternoon as a cycling guinea pig
Early this month, via a source that I thought was the lovely http://danny.oz.au/blog/ (but in researching this article, I find wasn’t) I registered to be a volunteer with the Transport Research Laboratory for its trials of Dutch style roundabouts. I love cycling, although being knocked off a few years ago has rather caused me to cycle a lot less in London. I’m really interested in Dutch-style segregated cycle paths. And I’ve been childishly fascinated with the TRL since I saw them on what was probably Tomorrow’s World in the 70s. So how could I resist?
This prompted a call last Thursday, asking me if I was free on Monday afternoon, which I could just about arrange with work. So I arrived at the oddly-precise requested time of 13:10 at HQ near Bracknell, bike in hand. About half a dozen cyclists were already gathered and more arrived after me. We were signed in, taken through and given an eye test and a briefing. The eye test was what you got before a driving test back in the 80s – read that number plate over there – and the briefing was brief. We’d be split into two out at the test track. Each group would spend about half an hour cycling under instruction on a Dutch style roundabout, then swap, then repeat. No smoking, toilets over there, bring something to read if you like – there will be hanging around.
We were also told, firmly, that there should be no photos. This is because we are part of an experiment and if future participants know what to expect before they arrive, it could skew the results. (On the other hand, you can see a photo of our roundabout on the TRL website http://www.trl.co.uk/transport_research_development/sustainability/sustainable_transport/cycling_facility_trials/dutch_roundabouts.htm). In keeping with the spirit of this, I won’t go into detail about the elements that were clearly being tested, or the trial itself.
My group was going out second, so there was plenty of nervous bike banter beforehand. Everyone had a story about being knocked off. Almost all were new to TRL testing, although one had been there in the winter to take part in the snow trials – a phrase that makes me almost insanely jealous. All the cyclists in the trial were volunteers, whereas the drivers were TRL staff or regular volunteers.
Eventually, out we went, in coloured and numbered bibs. Both bikes and helmets could be borrowed on the day, but almost everyone had their own. We ran the full range from shopper bikes to speed kings, with MTBs, hybrids, folding bikes and most points in between. The only types missing were recumbents and cargo bikes.
The trial was simple. Start from a designated point, and use the cycle lane on the roundabout to make the turning you’re told to make – left, straight, right. A single bike starts off from each limb of the roundabout at the same time, each followed by a car that starts about 10m behind. The cars are also following instructions, but don’t necessarily follow your turn.
What’s being tested are the entry and exit arrangements for each lane, as well as the general experience of the Dutch-style roundabout. Again, I won’t go into details about how each differed, but to me its interesting how even a small change in road markings or layout can affect how a junction feels.
Even when I was a younger and much more reckless cyclist, I avoided roundabouts as much as possible, and these days you couldn’t pay me to go around a real one. The basic problem with roundabouts is that you need to look in all directions at once. Obviously, you need to watch your front, but you also need to worry about what’s behind you, and what’s coming from your left and right. You can be swiped by vehicles joining or leaving, and apart from the relatively simple case of turning left, there’s no optimally safe place to be. Cling to the outside and you risk being hit from either side. Move to the middle and you’re crossing lanes of traffic.
So the biggest different in my experience of riding this Dutch roundabout is how much it reduces this problem. Instead of having to look everywhere at once, you still need to pay attention, but serially.
So you look right when entering the bike lane, to give way to any cyclists already in it. Then you’re in the protected section. Then at the next limb, you look right to check that cars leaving have seen you and are giving way. Then left to check for cars entering. Then back in the protected lane, and so on. You don’t have to worry about your front and rear because the only vehicles in your lane are other bikes, and your speeds will be similar. (On the TRL test roundabout, the cycle path width and curvature would prevent any Cavendish sprint finishes.) And although you do need to check to your left and right, you do this in turn to make sure your right of way is being respected, followed by a stint back in the protected path. You don’t need to look in two different directions at once, let alone four.
And if a car does shoot across the front of you and you brake hard, the worst that will happen is a bike going into the back of you. Bruises and a bent wheel are possible, but being hit by a lorry is worse. You could still be side swiped by a car at the entry or exit point, but the speeds are relatively low. My instinct is that the greatest threat comes from the right, as cars aren’t used to givng way to exit a roundabout, and are accelerating. Those entering from your left are already slowing and looking in your direction to give way to cars on the roundabout. The pedestrian crossings do double duty as both helping pedestrians, but also flaggint to motorings and cyclists entering and exiting to slow down.
For someone who’s never ridden a roundabout like this before, it was a revelation just how good it feels to be separated from other traffic by raised kerbs.
Of course, this test roundabout is pretty much the platonic ideal. Four straight limbs meeting at right angles. Only four bikes and four cars at a time. No pedestrians on the crossings. Flat. Dry. Daytime. No litter. And plenty of room for the layout. The real world will be messier, and some people will be arseholes, but even so a roundabout layout like this is so much better. I assume the Dutch experience shows it to reduce accidents, but whilst I love actual data, I can’t get away from how safe I felt on it. And that feels good.
If this sounds interesting to you, I urge you to register at http://www.trl.co.uk/transport_research_development/sustainability/sustainable_transport/cycling_facility_trials/participants.htm for any future trials.
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