CONTRA-FLOW LANES: Fear and Comfort on Your Own Block

There was a time when the very idea of using road space for bike lanes struck most Americans both absurd and an invitation to disaster.  While some reality-challenged people still hold on to that position most people seem to have moved on.  Most big cities now have at least some bike lanes.  It turns out that the presence of bike lanes makes roads feel and actually be statistically safer for both bikes and cars –attracting more cyclists on to the road which makes (most) drivers more aware and accepting of their presence, reducing speed (but not “through put” – the time it takes to get down the road), and keeping less-skilled cyclists and drivers out of each other’s way.

There was also a time when the idea of placing a separator between a bike lane and car traffic – using a painted buffer or bollards or parked cars or even a curb – seemed bizarre to most people, including many bike advocates!  And now even as established an organization as the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) includes cycle tracks as an accepted technique in its list of possible designs – including them in proposals for the River and Western Avenue bridges over the Charles and even (hopefully) on the Longfellow!  It turns out that having separate “paths” for bikes and cars, and finding ways to promote the separation of bikes and pedestrians on shared paths, also increases both the perception and reality of safety.

It’s all happened very quickly.  But now the fight seems to be over “contra-flow” lanes – a bike lane that allows cyclists to safely move against traffic on a one-way street.  (These are not physically separated cycle tracks or paths, on which the direction of travel isn’t an issue.)  Beyond simple fear of change, the emotional energy behind the opposition to on-road contra-flow seems to have three sources.  First, it’s another tweak at the cultural assumption that streets are for cars.  Second, it adds insult to injury by allowing bikes to do something that car drivers aren’t allowed to do, really annoying drivers who may be willing to tolerate bikes but believe that it’s not fair for cyclists to do anything that cars can’t.  Third, there are people who fear for their safety as pedestrians – it’s scary enough to them that bikes have been added to the street mix, but adding the possibility that racing cyclists might be coming from an atypical direction is simply too much.

The reality, of course, is that properly located and designed contra-flow lanes actually make the streets safer for everyone including pedestrians and car drivers.   In a situation where the “with traffic” detour requires cyclists to use a long, intimidating, or even dangerous route, they are very likely to prefer to go “against traffic” on the blocking one-way street. (For example, cars going from the Public Garden to the medical area have to use Storrow Drive to get around one-way Charles Street.  Is it surprising that bicyclists aren’t willing to follow?) Still, although contra-flow is not really a very new idea – examples have been around for many years – it is a relative newcomer to the mainstream discussion.  And, like the pool table in River City, as the latest new thing contra-flow lanes are a lightning rod for anxiety.

The strategy for advocates is to trace the electricity back to its source – to find ways to talk to people about the basis for their nervousness.  We can’t solve the existential apprehension of living in uncertain times, when so much seems unstable and insecure if not dangerous.  But we can address the specific concerns about bike lanes – in any direction.  There are, it turns out, tested and effective methods of ensuring that contra-flow bike lanes work – which implies that it is also possible to place one in an inappropriate location or to design it in an ineffective manner: something that we have to also acknowledge.  It’s our job to be clear about the difference.


From Public Lane To Traffic Lanes

It wasn’t too long ago that the space between buildings was commonly understood to be public land.  People socialized and kids played; vendors set up shop; horses and wagons and pedestrians all moved around each other.  As the new book Fighting Traffic recounts, it took years of expensive public relations and legal maneuvering for the car industry and its allies in steel, coal, real estate, construction, and other fields to twist public policy and cultural assumptions around to the point where “streets” were considered to be reserved for car traffic.

In that context, one-way streets were created to facilitate car movement: sometimes to speed circulation around (or through) a potentially congested around, sometimes to prevent accidents if there wasn’t enough space for two-way traffic, sometimes to reduce the amount of traffic going through residential areas.  One-way streets were never intended to (and don’t) prevent two-way pedestrian movement.  And neither were they created with bicycles in mind.

Faced with a one-way street blocking them from a highly desired destination, cyclists might detour around so long as the alternative route is not too long, or its surface isn’t too choppy, or the volume of car traffic isn’t too heavy or fast.  A cyclist will not go the long way around if it feels more dangerous than going straight ahead – if it doesn’t feel comfortable within her level of skill, experience, energy, and available time.  Otherwise, it is likely that the person will head the “wrong way” down the road or – increasingly likely as bicycling becomes more popular among “ordinary” people with high levels of traffic anxiety – on the sidewalk.

Contra-Flow Bike Lanes

Enter the contra-flow lane – as much for the safety of pedestrians and the comfort of car drivers as for the benefit of cyclists.  A contra-flow lane channels cyclists into an identified section of the road or on to a separated path/cycle-track.  Creating a contra-flow lane often requires using some of the limited “right of way” width, usually leading to narrower car lanes which (along with the presence of bikes on the contra-flow lane) tends to slow them down – which also reduces accident rates.  And, by making bicycling safer and more convenient, contra-flow lanes help encourage more people to leave their cars at home and pedal – reducing congestion, pollution, noise, and their personal health.

To keep cars from cutting through the quiet streets of the Cottage Farm neighborhood on the most direct route from the BU Bridge to the Medical Area or Brookline Village, the final 100 feet of Essex Street is blocked off with one-way signs.  This directs the entire flow of cars, trucks, and buses down the narrow lanes of Monmouth Street.  Is it any surprise that the vast majority of bicyclists choose to avoid the danger by doing a quick contra-flow segment – and wouldn’t it be safer if there was a marked lane for them so they aren’t in the way of on-coming cars?

(And, in addition to increasing safety, contra-flow lanes can significantly increase the convenience of using a bicycle — a legitimate goal is we are to create a more mode-balanced transportation system that is currently designed to primarily convenience car drivers at the expense of nearly everyone else.)

“The ‘special thing,'” points out Northeastern University Engineering School Professor Peter Furth, “is not that bikes would be allowed to do something special. The special thing is that cars, which normally would be allowed 2-way, have had to be banned in one direction because they were too much of a nuisance to the neighborhood.”

Of course, contra-flow lanes have to deal with the realities of street life. The United States has a “keep to the right” pattern: we assume that people going the other way will be on our left – so a contra-flow lane should also be to the left of on-coming cars.  Intersections are where most accidents occur – so it is vital to protect the entrances and exits of contra-flow lanes (as well as any cross-streets and driveways) so that cars don’t turn into the lane and pedestrians know to check both ways.  But these are technical issues for which there are many technical solutions.  The problem is the fear, which is much harder to address.

Criteria and Standards

Contra-flow lanes don’t belong everywhere – only where they provide a substantial savings of time or convenience over possible detours, in locations where it is possible to properly treat the entrances and exits, and on streets that have enough width.  The key is remembering that while both cars and bikes are legally defined as “vehicles” they are radically different – and a three-thousand pound high-velocity metal battering ram should not always be treated the same as a muscle-powered, 30 pound, hollow frame.

Contra-flow lanes come in a variety of forms: physically separate cycle track, a buffered (with paint or bollards) bike lane, a “regular” bike lane marked by a double or single or dotted line – or even reflectors in the road.  Contra-flow lanes can be painted special colors.  And while most of them are located against the curb, they can also be placed inside of, or even outside of, a row of parked cars.  (Cyclist on a contra-flow lane heading towards a parked car are more likely to be seen by the exiting driver or passenger than someone coming up from behind; and if they do hit the door, they will hit the front/outside – meaning that it is more likely to “give” and be pushed back than if they had hit the back/inside, thereby reducing the likelihood of injury.)

At their extreme, contra-flow lanes can lead to “shared space” road or intersection treatments, where all curbs and road markings have been removed and everyone is free to use whatever mode of movement they wish so long as they move slowly and accept responsibility for everyone else’s wellbeing.  Shared spaces have been proven extremely safe in the European cities where they’ve been implemented, although they are still controversial and not liked by everyone.

Contra-flow lane designs have been evolving over the past decade and have recently been codified in the National Association of  City Transportation Officials (NACTO) book of best-practice standards.  In 2011, federal authorities also confirmed that contra-flow lanes were permissible.  Various studies of the impact of already existing contra-flow lanes repeatedly find them to be safe and useful.

But will this official recognition of the legitimacy of contra-flow lanes end the opposition or the feeling of unease that the whole idea creates for many people?  Maybe. Probably not.  But it opens the door for more rational discussion.  And maybe once we get through that complicated portal, we might be able to have deep discussions about why people are feeling so anxious in the first place!


Other Related Posts:

>AVOIDING “NIMBY” – Navigating Between Fear and Greed

>REFRAMING ISSUES TO UNITE US: A Transportation Platform for Local Use

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