Contraflow Bike Lanes Finally Get Nod From U.S. Engineering Establishment

Contraflow bike lanes -- of bike lanes that are directed the opposite way of vehicle traffic, look to be on their way to the nation's leading traffic engineering guide. Photo: NACTO
Contraflow bike lanes could soon be included in an influential traffic engineering guide. Photo: NACTO

Buffered bike lanes have been used in some American cities for decades now, and an increasing number of cities are implementing contraflow bike lanes. But only just now are these street designs getting official recognition from powerful standard-setters inside the U.S. engineering establishment.

Bike lane markings in the intersection space may soon be part of important engineering guidance. Image: Bike Delaware
Bike lane markings through intersections may soon be part of important engineering guidance. Image: Bike Delaware

Late last month, the National Committee on Uniform Traffic Control Devices gave its approval to 11 treatments, including these two bike lane configurations. Committee members also, as anticipated, approved bike boxes and bike signals, which had been considered “experimental,” as well as bike lane markings that continue through intersections.

This opens the way for these designs to be included in the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices. Without recognition in the MUTCD, engineers in many cities are reluctant to install these treatments. Official acceptance in the leading design manual would help make these treatments more widespread — and that will help make American streets safer for biking.

That’s still not a done deal. The committee approval is advisory, and the group’s recommendation will now be sent to the Federal Highway Administration for potential inclusion in the MUTCD. To get final approval, the new guidelines must undergo a rule-making period where they are reviewed by other engineering institutions that have historically been averse to change, like the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.

  • Joe R.

    Ferdinand, I have pretty severe carpal tunnel syndrome and probably some type of arthritis besides. Both those things run in the family. My hands usually start getting numb about 15 minutes into a ride. My feet follow by the end of an hour. Stopping/starting adds exponentially to these problems, particularly if my legs stretch out too much because I happened to stop where there’s a hole in the street (that’s one way I pull ligaments). Because of all these things, I try to not stop at all (and that is possible even in populated areas if you choose your routes and when you ride carefully). If a light is red and I can’t go straight through due to traffic, I turn right just so I can keep in motion. Also, as most of my recreational rides have always tended to be pretty late at night, it’s rare that I can’t pass red lights by just slowing down to 10-12 mph and looking before going through. Finally, I tend to pick routes with few traffic signals, or where traffic signals kind of match my riding speeds. End result of all this is I usually ride 20-25 miles but only need to stop a few times, if that. Unfortunately, on trips where I’m actually going someplace instead of just riding around, I can’t do those things. When riding during the day passing red lights often just isn’t possible due to traffic levels. Yeah, it took my six months to recover. I’m pretty sure I pulled a ligament after one of the stops. Even gentle acceleration is a lot more stressful than just cruising. More often than not, I needed to accelerate strongly just to get out of the way of cars that day. Normally I never bonk on hills. I just power up them like a machine. But that day, my body just wasn’t able to do what my brain was asking it to.

    For me one of the great joys of riding a bike is the sensation of speed. That’s what got me into riding and keeps me riding. I love the very rare times when the stars align and I power down hills at 50+ mph. I could never be content puttering along at 10 mph, much less doing so for hours. Riding slowly doesn’t help me any with stopping/starting because it results in much more frequent stops as you don’t make as many lights. In fact, I even mentioned in another post that if I ever get too old and frail to ride like I do now I’ll just get an e-bike so I can pedal with less effort, but still maintain 20+ mph cruising speeds.

    By the way, didn’t you say you average 10 mph? There’s worlds of difference between averaging 10 mph and cruising at 10 mph. That trip to Coney Island I took I only managed a 13 mph average speed despite the greenway segments. The portion on local streets probably didn’t average much over 10 mph but I had to cruise at 18-20 mph between red lights in order to get those average speeds. Any rider who cruises at 10 mph, but stops at every red light like you do, will average far less than 10 mph. Anyone who can average 10 mph while stopping at every red light is going way more than 10 mph in between red lights.

    Nothing, including the status quo, stops me from riding but I keep thinking of ways riding could be made more pleasant. You’re saying you wouldn’t want to ride all the time like you can in places like the Belt Parkway greenway? I know that’s not a particularly interesting ride as far as scenery goes, but suppose you could ride without stopping (unless you want to) through most of NYC? What bike rider wouldn’t want that? You could see a lot more in the same amount of time. I used to ride a lot more during the day, and used to take a lot more trips. Unfortunately, in the last 15 or so years the amount of traffic has greatly increased. At the same time the city put in 3 to 5 times the number of traffic signals on many of my former routes. Both of these things turned daytime riding from something I enjoyed into a chore to be avoided at all costs.

    Anyway, it’s been one of those off riding years for me. They typically happen every couple of years where I might only do 1000 miles instead of my usual 3000 or more. We’ll see how the year ends but so far I only have 511 miles. Of course, if I pick up the pace to my usual 300 to 500 miles a month I could still end the year on a good note. We’ll see if my busy work schedule allows that. Unfortunately, there have been way too many nights I haven’t even been able to get my full amount of sleep, much less had time to ride. I’ll never be doing the kinds of rides you do, however. The most my body can stand to be on a bike is about 2.5 hours. If things go well, meaning I feel good and have empty roads, maybe I’ll cover 40-42 miles in that amount of time. That’s about it for me. The most I ever rode in one shot was 60 miles. That took 4 hours exactly. This was back in my 20s when my CTS wasn’t as severe.

  • Gezellig

    I’ve lived in the Netherlands and can’t recall any grade-separated bikeways there, at least as of 2012 when I moved back to the US. The infra there is big on physical separation with smartly controlled at-grade crossings. There are things such as bridge crossings that go over and (rarely) under water but I wouldn’t really count that as grade separation because it ends as soon as the water ends. There are no pervasive elevated or underground bikeways in the Netherlands that I know of. Do you have any examples?

  • Joe R.

    I’m referring to the bike highways there which often pass over or under major roads. The Netherlands planned their bike infrastructure very carefully. As a result, they are able to build nearly non-stop bike highways connecting towns with a minimal amount of grade separation. Also, the Netherlands has no huge, very dense cities the size of NYC where the only way to fit in non-stop bike highways might be with viaducts. Honestly, the viaducts are probably a solution for a handful of large, dense cities, mostly in Asia, but there are a few such cities in the West as well where they would be applicable. I don’t know if they would really be applicable anywhere in the Netherlands.

  • Gezellig

    As with other bikeways there, high-speed intercity bike “highways” in the Netherlands minimize stops for bikes, but this is rarely done through grade separation (again, with exceptions such as bridges over water or over/under freeways). They tend to look like this one connecting various places in the Flevoland Province:

    http://youtu.be/FZtkVBlgT6E

    It gets the job done pretty wonderfully without grade separation.

    Bike viaducts through urban areas remind me of this:

    http://la.curbed.com/archives/2013/05/who_will_care_for_downtowns_neglected_elevated_walkways.php

    Btw completely separating bikes from visibility can have the unintended consequences of discouraging large groups of people from using them:

    http://la.streetsblog.org/2010/01/05/the-case-against-bike-paths/

    We could go back and forth about the pros and cons and the effects of viaducts all day but the cost alone makes it all pretty moot. Well designed cycletracks can achieve many/most of the same objectives with far less of the cost.

  • Joe R.

    Yes, exactly, but that’s a product of great planning plus relatively low population density. Even the dense parts of big cities in the Netherlands resemble the outskirts of NYC. The larger point though is whether grade-separated or not, these routes are expressly designed to minimize stops with the goal of speeding up longer distance bike trips. That’s certainly something which would be very useful in a place like NYC.

  • lop

    >Even the dense parts of big cities in the Netherlands resemble the outskirts of NYC.

    No, they are much denser than outer Queens, SI, parts of the Bronx and Brooklyn, the outskirts of the city, where do you get this stuff?

  • Joe R.

    All the pictures I see show Dutch cities with a bunch of buildings 3 to 6 stories tall for the most part. I have those where I am, too. There isn’t Manhattan-like density there anyway you look at it. Try Google Earth, for example. Or just go by numbers. Amsterdam is the most populous city in the Netherlands. It has 811,000 people. That’s less than half of what any borough in NYC, save Staten Island, has, not even counting illegals.

    Or if you prefer to go by population per square mile, NYC has 27,750 people per square mile, Amsterdam has only 12,670. If you don’t count Staten Island, NYC has 32,380 per square mile-nearly three times as much as Amsterdam. In fact, Staten Island is actually the borough closest to Amsterdam-like population density at 8,150 per square mile.

  • lop

    Queens has a population density of about 8237/km2.

    The dense parts of amsterdam is much greater. The center is about 13700/km2, not the densest area if i remember.

    But Queens is much denser west of the Van wyck than east, outside of flushing and jamaica. that part of queens, which definitly qualifies as the outskirts of the city, with all the single family houses east of the van wyck, is much less, less than 5000/km2.

    dont go by google maps.

  • Joe R.

    Obviously density varies a lot within a city. One thing I’ve noted is European cities tend to have a more uniform density than American cities. In general that means for any given overall density you won’t have either sparsely populated parts or stiflingly dense parts. That fact probably lends itself to a bike network better as it means travel patterns tend to be uniform throughout the city, you don’t have as many packed arterials with cars going from one dense part to another, etc. I’ve noted repeatedly how much less traffic signals are used in European cities compared to American cities. This is probably a direct result of the more uniform population densities. Fewer traffic signals makes it much easier to route bike networks on surface streets which still provide reasonable overall travel times.

  • Gezellig

    “Yes, exactly, but that’s a product of great planning plus relatively low population density.”

    The Netherlands is consistently dense. It has a population density of about 1,300/sq. mile. The US has a density of about 84/sq. mile.(http://www.infoplease.com/ipa/A0934666.html).

    As for specific cities, Rotterdam is spatially probably the closest thing to a big North American city in the Netherlands. A taste of biking around it:

    http://youtu.be/mQyea9aqbcQ

    “expressly designed to minimize stops with the goal of speeding up longer distance bike trips. That’s certainly something which would be very useful in a place like NYC.”

    Yes, stop minimization is crucial for bikeway design. And there are lots of ways to address this at-grade, as basically all of the Netherlands proves.

    “I actually like that pedestrian viaduct in LA. If anything, it gives people walking an escape from the congestion/confusion of the streets below. I really don’t see what’s wrong with the concept beyond the cost.”

    These are especially problematic for pedestrianism in that they’re inherently anti-urban–they remove pedestrians from much of the fabric of urban life. These kinds of things are ok in limited contexts but are not a reasonable or desirable policy on a pervasive basis.

    “A system of viaducts certainly wouldn’t be as they would be right above the street. Anyone in trouble could call down to the street for help (or just go to the nearest exit).”

    The whole point, though, is that whether fair or not it’s the *perception* of lack of safety that keeps many people away from things like that.

    Sorry, bike viaducts just have too many cons to happen.

  • Joe R.

    As I pointed out in another post, I feel consistent density lends itself much better to grade level infrastructure. You don’t have that in the US. Even in NYC, densities vary wildly from as low as 100,000 per square mile during peak times in parts of Manhattan. In general that means lots of travel between denser areas, to the point even much less dense areas still have lots of traffic. That in turn means lots of traffic signals, lots of double parking, lots of intersections.

    The end parts of that video remind of Queens Boulevard except of course the street design is much better. Still, I notice large parts of that path run along natural borders like rivers or highways which make it quite a bit easier to make it virtually nonstop. How would you do this on a Manhattan Avenue at grade level other than by closing off the cross streets to motor traffic on the same side as the bike path? I can guarantee you our politicians would never allow that, so what are you left with? Traffic signals every 250 feet, pedestrian intrusions into the bike lane, food carts in the bike lane, etc. These are bunch of reasons why I feel in certain contexts bike viaducts make sense. You would really need to look at the layout of our streets to understand the magnitude of the problem. Better yet would be some actual experience riding here. If that sped up video were made on a Manhattan bike lane with the cyclist following the law, you would feel drunk after watching it for a few minutes with all the stops and starts (probably about 10 or more per mile). You actually agree with me that stop minimization is crucial for bikeway design. So how could you implement that in much of NYC other than going above or below grade?

    That tunnel is awesome. I’d be perfectly happy with a system of bike tunnels instead of viaducts in NYC if that were the only way to grade separate. In fact, tunnels are nice in that they’re warmer in winter, cooler in summer, you don’t have winds or precipitation.

    These are especially problematic for pedestrianism in that they’re inherently anti-urban–they remove pedestrians from much of the fabric of urban life. These kinds of things are ok in limited contexts but are not a reasonable or desirable policy on a pervasive basis.

    If you build enough of them you’ll eventually just move the so-called fabric of street life up a level, except now pedestrians won’t have to deal with cars at all. I kind of get lost here with comments like yours because I’m just not seeing how having pedestrians mix it up with cars at street level is such a great thing for “street life”. If anything, it’s better to be above the fray. Nothing great about crossing streets full of cars. Ideally it would be wonderful if we could just move the entire motorized network below ground but that would require rebuilding cities from scratch.

    Removing private cars and taxis completely from cities would go a really long way towards fixing the issues I mention. Is there the political will to do that, even in the Netherlands?

  • lop

    >If anything, it’s better to be above the fray

    Destinations aren’t in the air. Street life depends on destinations. You don’t have to remove cars to make streets better for pedestrians and bikes. You’re talking about reconstructing almost every building in Manhattan to put in second floor retail. The cost would be in the tens of billions at the low end.

    >stop minimization is crucial for bikeway design

    Like with car travel, it depends on distance. Given the massive cost and impact of viaducts, for an average trip length in the citibike area of under two miles local streets together with improved river greenways would be plenty. Most people going further are traveling parallel to a subway line, or if their origin was in another borough they are entering Manhattan near the river, so almost everyone has a convenient way to make their trip.

  • So we should make all streets one-way facilities.

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