Problem-solving a massive, high-speed, car-centric interchange
A week after taking the November 12-13 CyclingSavvy Weekend course, John Alexander sent me an email asking what was the best way to ride over the Lake Mary Blvd/I-4 interchange. Most people (including experienced road cyclists) regard that interchange as impossible for a cyclist. But John didn’t. He wrote, “I ‘analyzed’ the drive up Lake Mary Blvd. across I-4 and said to myself, ‘I could ride that!'”
It’s true! John learned and experienced all the basic components for driving his bike across this interchange in CyclingSavvy.
I have ridden across the Lake Mary interchange a few times. It’s an interesting challenge, especially westbound. Rather than just explain it to him, I decided to show him on the bike. I’d been meaning to go up there and shoot some video, this was the perfect opportunity. We rode it together yesterday. The video is near the end of this post.
Choosing a route
View larger map
The orange-highlighted route is essentially an all-trail route. Taking the Cross Seminole North, the trail is on a utility easement until just before Lake Mary Blvd. After that, it becomes a sidepath along Rinehart Rd. Crossing Lake Mary Blvd, there is a bike/ped bridge. Signs advise that cyclists must dismount and walk over the bridge. The sidepath doesn’t have too many intersections, but where it does cross roads, the gutter-crossings are bone-jarring. A mile and a half north of Lake Mary Blvd., the trail turns West and leads to a bike/ped bridge over I-4. It’s a spectacle of a bridge, but also has some challenging sharp turns on the ramp. On the West side of I-4, the path intersects with the Seminole Wekiva Trail which is a more buffered side path along International Parkway Blvd. It has the same problem with bone-jarring gutters at the intersections. Currently the crossing of Lake Mary Blvd requires use of crosswalks (which can be seen in the illustrations below). It’s a mess. Construction has begun on a tunnel there. This route is more than twice as far as the route we planned.
The pink highlighted route shows the way to intersect the Seminole Wekiva Trail at EE Williamson Rd. That section of trail is beautiful. It is tree-lined and on its own right-of-way. But as pleasant as that part of the trail is, the roads to get there are not. They are 2-lane roads inhabited by people who spend hours in their cars sitting in traffic jams and then come unglued if they have to wait 10 seconds to pass a bicyclist. (The South end of Lake Emma might be 4-lane now, it was under construction last time I was there.) But no matter, that route is even farther than the orange route.
First, let’s look at the big picture. John lives near the intersection of Green Way Blvd and the Cross Seminole Trail (Point A). He wants to go to the Seminole Wekiva Trail at Lake Mary Blvd and International Parkway Blvd (Point B).
If you peruse the Google Map on the right, you can see there is no connectivity of quiet streets. All the subdivisions are closed circuits. In addition to the massive arterials, there are a number of 2-lane roads in the area which carry enough traffic volume to make them unpleasant places to ride. There are a lot of miles of multi-use path (mostly side-paths) running parallel to I-4.
Before we rode, we sat down at the computer and looked at all the options. There are 3 potential routes to get from Point A to Point B. The 2 alternatives are described in the sidebar below the map. We determined Lake Mary Blvd. really was the best, most direct route. Then we needed to determine the best approach.
One option was to ride the Cross Seminole Trail all the way to Sun Drive, then turn out onto Lake Mary Blvd from there. But due to the odd lane configurations, it would be more complicated to set up for the interchange, requiring a lane change and dealing with the likely confusion of motorists jockeying for the correct lanes as well.
We decided it was best to take the Cross Seminole Trail to Greenwood Blvd., and take that to Lake Emma Rd. It would be easier to set up in the correct lane on Lake Emma Rd. and we’d have the advantage of entering the interchange with a smaller platoon.
The Cross Seminole Trail actually crosses under Greenwood blvd. with a tunnel, but there is one awkward little sidewalk leading up to a subdivision entrance. Greenwood Blvd is an excellent road for cycling. It’s a tree-lined, 4-lane collector with relatively low traffic speeds, narrow lanes and smooth pavement.
Lake Emma Rd. has a bike lane when you first turn onto it. We used it for a block and almost got right-hooked at the shopping center entrance (where we were turning right to get lunch before our adventure). John noted that it sure felt cramped after having so much space on Greenwood.
After lunch we turned on the video cameras and headed for the dreaded Lake Mary Interchange. You can click on the illustration below to enlarge it. There are segments in the sidebar below as well.
Heading North on Lake Emma Rd. toward the intersection, there are helpful overhead signs showing that three lanes turn left. Less helpful is the fact that the sign doesn’t tell you what happens to those lanes after you turn left. A bicyclist approaching this intersection might naturally choose the right-most left turn lane, thinking it would put him/her into the appropriate lane after the turn. Having looked at the satellite image before our journey, we knew that we wanted the #2 lane (the middle left-turn lane). There are 3 lanes on the bridge, but only 2 on the approach. The right-most left turn lane, dumps you into the I-4 on-ramps. A hapless cyclist choosing the wrong lane would have to contend with I-4-bound traffic passing on the left as s/he tried to change lanes.
Lake Emma Rd. intersection
Bridge approach — new westbound lane forms on the right after the I-4 lanes split away
Westbound decision point and Eastbound exclusion zone
Plan B (yellow track)
Everything went perfectly when we turned out onto Lake Mary Blvd. The traffic flowed around us and went on their way. The platoon passed quickly and painlessly and we enjoyed 30 seconds of silence on an empty 3-lane road as we climbed the hill.
Just as we were nearing the bridge, the next platoon caught up to us. Despite our visibility for more than 1/4 mile on an empty road, one guy drove his BMW up behind us and honked. I don’t know if he was inattentive or if he just thought he could bully us into the shoulder. Neither of us flinched. The rest of the platoon had stayed in the left 2 lanes and he got trapped behind us for 15 seconds. He passed safely while making some more noise. That was the only incivility we experienced on Lake Mary Blvd.
Before riding, we identified a decision point for making a regular left turn or opting for a plan B. On big, fast roads, it helps reduce stress to have a plan B in mind ahead of time. The plan B was to make a right on International Parkway Blvd., then make a U-turn and come back across. We would execute the plan B if there was not a gap in traffic on the downhill side of the bridge before the first traffic light. By calling the decision there, we would be able to keep our attention forward through that intersection where traffic would be merging from I-4 and the right lane becomes a right-turn-only lane.
It turned out the gap timing was perfect and we were able to make an easy move to the left lane at exactly the place we wanted to. It was a seamless crossing. We stopped for a minute, reset the cameras and headed back the other way.
Crossing Eastbound is less complicated. The lane configurations are straightforward.
There is an I-4 West on-ramp just after you turn from International Parkway Blvd. I like to enter the road with a green light, that ensures the traffic initially approaching behind me is low-speed traffic. Since we were not going to turn right on red, we pulled up on the left side of the wide right turn lane and motioned for the drivers behind us to pass on our right. They both thanked us.
The key to riding the Eastbound route is to ride in the left tire track and track along the lane line, ignoring the edge line. The right lane widens gradually for a significant distance before the I-4 East on-ramp begins. It’s important to leave that space to your right open so the motorists headed for I-4 pass on the right rather than changing lanes to your left and cutting across your path. It should go without saying that trying to use the shoulder here would not work well (the exclusion zone is highlighted on the illustration above).
Since we were turning right on Lake Emma Rd. We had to move into the right lane as it formed from the I-4 off-ramp. That was no problem. There was only one car at the time.
All in all it was a perfect ride. The following video shows our ride across the interchange in both directions.
There’s no questions that these big, fast interchanges are intimidating. It would certainly be nice if DOT didn’t blow out our roads to move more cars faster at the expense of everyone else. It would be nice if there were better alternatives, but even the bicycle-specific infrastructure is far from perfect. Bicyclists would benefit from more permeability of I-4, so it wasn’t a choice between a journey of twice the miles vs cycling on a complex road with high speed traffic. We also need better development planning. The lack of residential street connectivity is a huge impediment and it’s just inexcusable. The Cross Seminole trail runs down a large power easement behind numerous broccoli subdivisions and none of them connect directly to it. We can do better.
Regardless, we can and should stake our claim to every road, no matter how big. As John shows us, we can ride anywhere safely if we think it through and control our space. It doesn’t matter if we ride a Pinarello Prince or an Electra Townie. Confidence and safety comes from what you know, not how fast you can go.
Mighk said it best, sometimes our students inspire us way more than we inspire them. John is definitely one of those students. Some of you got to meet John on the First Friday ride. You’ll get to know him a little better, soon. He will be writing a Student Story for CyclingSavvy.
Thanks John! And Congratulations!