According to a March 2015 survey by the Breakaway Research Group, 100 million Americans bike each year, with 14 million of those biking at least twice per week. Yet, over half of those surveyed also said that they would bike more if not for the fear of being hit in traffic. And this is a very legitimate reason; in 2015 alone, there were 818 bicyclists killed in traffic related collisions in the United States with 45,000 more injured.
Moreover, when it comes to creating bike friendly routes for cyclists, the United States is far behind many other countries. Take the Netherlands for example. The Dutch have more bicycles than residents and in cities like Amsterdam, over 70% of all journeys are made by bike. Additionally, there are over 32,000 km of bike paths throughout the country with a full range of protected lanes and various other safety measures that have been designed specifically for bikers. The United States, on the other hand, didn’t develop its first protected intersection until 2015 and as of 2013, there were only 142 miles of protected bike lines in the entire country.
However, thanks to the combination of the Boston Cyclists Union, City of Cambridge, and a researcher at Harvard named Anne Lusk, there may be hope for the United States as an innovator of safe biking infrastructure on crowded city streets across the country.
At the intersection of Cambridge Street and Hampshire Street in Cambridge, Massachusetts, there is a busy, diagonal intersection at Inman Square which spans some 250 feet and creates a confusing environment for all those passing through. So unclear in fact, that between 2008 and 2012 there were 69 crashes at the intersection, 15 of which involved bikes. And just last June, 27 year old Amanda Phillips was killed while riding through the intersection, prompting the city to seek a fix to this complex intersection.
Shortly thereafter, in July 2016, Anne Lusk, an avid bike enthusiast and researcher at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, approached the Boston Cyclist Union about the possibility of creating a roundabout as the solution the city had been seeking since 2015. The group came up with what is now being is called the ‘peanutabout’ which, as the name implies, is a modified version of a roundabout in the shape of a peanut or a figure eight with bike lanes surrounding the perimeter of the intersection.
According to the Boston Cyclists Union and engineer consultants tasked with creating the design, the advantages of the peanutabout include:
- Steady traffic flow at lower speeds
- A new crossing point for pedestrians at the center of the square
- Minimal stopping for cyclists and more visible bike lanes
- Allowing left hand turns which was eliminated on November 3, 2016
Are Roundabouts Indeed Safer?
One of the driving forces behind this change, other than the fact that it may be the first roundabout with protected bike lanes ever made in the United States, is the idea that roundabouts are safer than the more traditional model of a four way stop. But are they really?
According to a number of studies, it appears as if they can have quite the impact. The Washington State Department of Transportation found that roundabouts can reduce overall collisions by 37%, injury collisions by 75%, and fatal collisions by 90%. Another study done by the Federal Highway Administration found that roundabouts can reduce crashes that involve serious injury or death by up to 82% and Mythbusters ran a controlled experiment, finding that during two, fifteen minute driving tests, the roundabout increased the flow of traffic by 20% as compared to the classic four way intersection with stop lights.
However, according to Peter Merrigan, a personal injury attorney in Boston who has been litigating bike and pedestrian accident claims for years, roundabouts are not necessarily ideal for every intersection. “There are certain places where traffic is imbalanced and does not allow drivers from multiple roadways to enter the circle safely and efficiently. Couple this with drivers who are unfamiliar with how roundabouts work or are tentative behind the wheel and all of the potential benefits can be undone.”
An Example for Other Cities
While it’s true that there is always risk associated with roadway travel, especially at intersections, the ‘peanutabout’ does offer an innovative solution to a complex and dangerous problem. There’s no doubt that the United States is way behind in terms of protecting cyclists and making room for them on the road, but this could be the first step to making certain intersections in large cities safer for everyone. Cambridge hopes to begin construction on this project by fall of this year and we will be following developments to see if it will catch on and be used at multiple locations across the country.