Ride Boldly!

Bikes, bicycling, and road safety.

FHWA Approves Contraflow Bike Lanes; Physics Remains Horrified


Via TheCityFix comes news that the Federal Highway Administration has officially blessed the concept of contraflow bike lanes as part of the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD).

Summed up, a contraflow bike lane is a bike lane that puts cyclists riding on street against the flow of traffic.

Arguments in favor of such lanes typically relate to allowing cyclists to use one-way streets in both directions, which makes it more convenient for cyclists. Some also argue that it helps calm traffic, although I don’t know that there’s good data on that.

While TheCityFix seems to lump opponents in with people who also oppose mode shift, saying “(t)hose against the idea argue on the basis of traffic laws, safety, directing resources away from automobiles and even based on the cost of new signage,” the pro-auto folks are their own group. Many bicycle advocates argue against contraflow bike lanes without being pro-automobile. Going against traffic flow creates confusion, and the laws of physics are pretty immutable in that a head-on collision between two moving objects — even one at a lower speed — is more damaging than a rear end collision or a collision where the moving bodies are moving in a direction other than straight at each other.

It’s obvious that opening up streets with contraflow lanes will reduce travel time for the group receiving the road rights. I’m still not sold on the safety of it, particularly in situations in which cars attempt to pass one another, or bicyclists attempt to pass each other. Momentum cares not for MUTCD guidelines. Advocate John S. Allen did a very nice piece on contraflow lanes that I think sums it up well in that sometimes a contraflow overlay can serve a good purpose, but at other times it’s a hazardous addition to the road. Much like many other guidelines in the MUTCD, I expect to see contraflow lanes implemented in ways that are both good and bad.

If you enjoyed this post, please consider leaving a comment or subscribing to the feed to have future articles delivered to your feed reader.

Author: julie

Julie Kosbab is an online marketing consultant and active transportation advocate living in Anoka County, Minnesota. She was one of Minnesota's only League of American Bicyclists Certified Instructors when certified in 2005. She is a past member of the National Bicycle Tour Directors Association. She has 2 children and 4 bicycles. Find her on Twitter as @betweenstations.


  1. Your link to John Allen’s page shows how contraflow lanes *can* be done right, and like he writes, the devil is in the details.

    There’s a contraflow lane in Santa Cruz that seems to work very well. It’s actually a two-way lane alongside a two way road, but there are no intersections crossing it (well, except for a train crossing, a couple of “authorized vehicle only” crossings for police and lifeguard ATVs headed to the beach, and numerous pedestrian crossings) which eliminates turning movement hazards. A rubber curb between the normal travel lane and the bike facility keeps head on collisions from happening.

    Because it’s a one way street with very heavy beach traffic and a very roundabout route for anybody attempting to go the other way, many people salmoned up Beach Street anyway even before the facility, with predictable results. The facility improved safety for cyclists.

  2. As I say, I think this is a scenario where the approval in the MUTCD will lead to some very functional overlays, and some that are just outright horrific. I seem to recall, but would have to research to be sure, that the old Minneapolis Hennepin Avenue bike lanes were technically ‘okay’ under some form of the MUTCD or similar. It was a two-way lane through the center of the roadway, thereby putting slower traffic to the LEFT of fast-moving buses and cars, and creating all sorts of freak-show turning conflicts.

    Where contraflows concern me most is those scenarios where there would end up being turning conflicts. In situations where special signaling devices were installed, tested, and implemented to allow safer turns, or situations with few intersections (as you say has occurred in Santa Cruz), it seems like it would be a dandy solution. I just worry that they get laid in on streets with frequent intersections — either with or without traffic controls. Since vehicles on cross streets would be looking in the prevailing direction of car traffic, there are a lot of cut-off collision possibilities for the cyclists coming on the contra-flow.

  3. 5th is an example of how to do it wrong. That road is marked as “one-way” even though there is two-way traffic. Cross traffic seeing the one-way signs may not look the “wrong” way to see bicycles.

    There is almost no guidance on how to do these properly. The only thing I could find is from the old FHA University Course on Bicycle and Pedestrian Transportation:

    “Any intersecting alleys, major driveways, and
    streets must have signs indicating to motorists
    that they should expect two-way bicycle traffic.”