Gear Prudence: There’s one part of my bike commute that I just can’t seem to figure out: those damn downtown traffic circles. It seems like every time I ride through one I’m nearly hit, and the times I’m not almost hit, drivers honk at me. It’s so annoying and, frankly, dangerous. How can I master riding through circles? —Cycling In Roundabouts Confuses, Leaves Exasperation
Dear CIRCLE: Circles befuddle and enrage. Just ask the guy who killed Archimedes. They’re also among the road designs that have the rare ability to flummox cyclists and drivers alike. In short, everyone hates them (especially the kinds of modified roundabouts with interior and exterior lanes, multiple slip lanes, and stoplights such as those found downtown). Except for L’Enfant, of course, who blessed our fair city with them without first consulting Henry Ford. And so here we are. But if Dante can get through his circles, so can you, and GP is here to help.
Each of the big circles downtown has a different setup for cyclists, so there’s no one right way to manage all of them. The best general principle, though, is to have a good idea before entering the circle where you plan to exit, lest you wind up in an infinite loop. You will be tempted to stick to as close to the outside of the circle as possible, but this isn’t the best idea. Clinging to the outer lane will put you in the path of those exiting the circle before you and set up needless conflict. Likewise, don’t put yourself too close to the interior of the circle either—some of the statues inside have pointy swords and you risk a tire puncture. Don’t be afraid to take a whole lane (as a driver does): This will clarify your intentions and broadcast your future movements, which is crucial in navigating tricky situations on your bicycle. You could even use hand gestures to signal where you plan to turn. These, however, are no guarantee that your desire will be respected, so keep your head on a swivel. Assume nothing. Predict unpredictability.
The chaos of a circle, especially at rush hour when all traffic rules and decorum are abandoned, might suggest an opportunity to jettison caution and weave haphazardly through various obstructions. When things are really hairy, this might be your only choice, but generally, it’s best to remain prudent and aware that frustration, confusion, giant metal boxes, and any deviation from going in a straight line result in situations that can be quite dangerous for cyclists. One idea is to opt out entirely and take a different route, but here’s another: Use the center of the circle, like a pedestrian. It’s legal and it might be faster, not to mention safer. —GP
Gear Prudence is Brian McEntee, who tweets @sharrowsDC. Got a question about bicycling? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.