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.

  • BBnet3000

    About time. One way streets should be one-way only for cars.

    On intersection sharrows: Why dont they paint these in the middle of the lanes on the cross-street so they will last longer? Instead, they seem to often end up where the tires from the cars on the cross street wear them away very quickly.

  • Robert Johnson

    Interesting that they are considering bike boxes with the failures in Portland. At one point, they doubled crashes in already troubled intersections.

  • BBnet3000

    Ive found that theyre a great way to put bikes uncomfortably close to left-turning cars cutting the corner as well as in the way of trucks and buses that have to go wide to make a right turn (the latter being the reason the stop line for cars was set back in the first place).

  • Ramon

    The problem with bike boxes comes with how they encourage cyclists to act in contradiction to how traffic signals encourage motorists to act. Consider this scenario:

    Traffic Signal: Green
    Approaching cyclist wants to turn left.
    Bike lane funnels cyclist to the intersection corner.
    Cyclist waits for red phase.
    *Cyclist is at risk of being pinched by right-turning autos waiting for the red phase.*
    Traffic Signal: Red
    Cyclist progresses into the bike box to the left turn area
    Traffic Signal: Green.
    Cyclist turns left.

    That’s the best case scenario (which is still not as convenient as changing lanes, entering the left turn lane, and turning left when appropriate like other road users). Here’s another way it can happen.

    Traffic Signal: Red
    Approaching cyclist wants to turn left.
    Bike lane funnels cyclist to the intersection corner.
    Cyclist enters the bike box, staring towards the left turn area.
    Traffic Signal: Green
    Automobiles in the left turn lane begin turning left.
    Cyclist is stuck in the bike box.
    Cyclist turns around.
    Cyclist waits at the corner for next for red phase.
    *Cyclist is at risk of being pinched by right-turning autos waiting for the red phase.*
    Traffic Signal: Red
    Cyclist progresses into the bike box to the left turn area
    Traffic Signal: Green.
    Cyclist turns left.

    Bike boxes seem like a nice idea. I would definitely like to have the ability to start ahead of the autos at a red light even when I didn’t arrive there first. But the reality is that it just adds to number of potential conflicts on the road.

  • Ramon

    Sharrows should be placed to direct cyclists to the appropriate lateral lane position while on that road. Almost 100% of the time, that means they should be placed between the tire tracks (or just left of the center of the tire tracks). The reduced wear and tear from following the MUTCD is just an added benefit.

  • BBnet3000

    True, and the way they are placed on the right side of the lane rather than at center is a huge peeve of mine in New York, but i was actually referring to where they cross another road (as in the picture above), they could be placed at the center of the car lanes on THAT road so that the intersection sharrows dont wear away so fast.

  • Schrödinger’s Cat

    Please tell me that you guys aren’t getting excited about bike boxes! We’ve had them in the UK for over 20 years and they’re rubbish (though they tend to be called ASLs here). They’re not cycling infrastructure, they’re an excuse not to provide cycling infrastructure.

    Here’s what I think of them! http://departmentfortransport.wordpress.com/2013/03/05/the-road-to-hell-is-paved-with-asls/

    And here’s David Hembows articles about them: http://www.aviewfromthecyclepath.com/search/label/advanced%20stop%20lines

  • Schrödinger’s Cat

    Good news about the one-way exemptions though 🙂

  • I’ve heard mixed things about bike boxes. Do you happen to have a source regarding the doubling of crashes? Thanks.

  • Robert Johnson
  • Eric B

    Using bike boxes to assist with left turns is definitely not perfect, but where they are totally essential is at transitions from bike lanes to sharrows.

  • Prinzrob

    I’ve thought about those same conflicts as well, and although it can’t be solved entirely it seems that adding two-stage left turn queue boxes on the cross streets, as well as right turn on red restrictions and bike-specific signal heads to provide for a head start seems to address some of them.

    With a bike box on one street and a left turn queue box on the cross street, if the light is red the bicyclist can filter on the right (no right turn on red allowed for drivers) and then cross over in the bike box into the left turn lane. A pedestrian countdown signal or bike signal head in the cross street direction can give them an indication as to whether there is enough time to make it into the left turn lane. However, if the light is green the bicyclist can continue straight through and into the left turn queue box, then turn 90 degrees and proceed to the left once the light changes in that direction.

    If traffic is light the option to cross over multiple lanes into the normal left turn lane is still an option, but when traffic is heavy and there are multiple walls of cars between the bike lane and the left turn lane, the bike box becomes a much more realistic solution for the average person.

    As for cars and trucks cutting corners, wouldn’t the bike box be placed behind the crosswalk, fully out of the way of turning traffic? A two-stage left turn queue box would be ahead of the crosswalk, but not anywhere near where left turning cars are headed. It could also be placed away from the curb so as not to get in the way of right-turning traffic, and the crosswalk could even be moved back along with the queue box.

    Of course, building a fully protected intersection as was featured on Streetsblog a while ago is preferable, but also much more expensive.

  • Prinzrob

    Here’s an image showing bike boxes and left-turn queue boxes together. This does show the queue box in the far right corner, which could be moved closer to the middle of the street if that side of the intersection did not have bike boxes and right turn on red restrictions.

    https://pbs.twimg.com/media/Bs4xcIGCMAE1qJG.jpg

  • Fay Nissenbaum

    Whoa – other experts have said cyclists should ride with the flow of traffic – so HOW is contraflow better? Not one reason is given.

  • Gezellig

    Contraflow lanes actually work quite well. And NACTO does give plenty of reasons to consider them for certain routes. Probably the biggest is:

    On corridors where alternate routes require excessive out-of-direction travel.”
    http://nacto.org/cities-for-cycling/design-guide/bike-lanes/contra-flow-bike-lanes/

  • Prinzrob

    Riding against traffic in a lane not designed for it: bad idea. You can’t see the signs and signals facing the other direction, you are heading into oncoming traffic using the same lane, and other road users won’t expect you coming from that direction.

    Riding in a contra-flow lane designed for that purpose would obstensibly deal with all of the above, and therefore the same concerns do not apply. In fact, if a bike lane is designed for travel in a specific direction, then the term “contra flow” is a bit of a misnomer. It’s basically just a two way street, but one direction only allows bikes.

  • Prinzrob

    In the article the right hook crashes were reported as occurring with cyclists riding straight through the intersection, not using the bike box. Although it is interesting data, it’s far from conclusive regarding the usefulness and safety of bike boxes. I’d say the Oregon law which requires drivers to stay out of a bike lane before turning right at an intersection rather than merge into them first before turning, like we have here in California, is more of a culprit. There’s a reason why they call them “coffin corners” in Oregon.

    Also, while the numbers of crashes at the 14 bike box intersections in question did double over four years, it is not mentioned how much the number of bicyclists increased at those locations at the same time. It is also not mentioned that at some of the bike box intersections the number of crashes went down or stayed the same, and that the most crashes were at intersections in downhills where cyclists were traveling faster. This points toward a more nuanced conclusion that bike boxes may be appropritate and safe in some locations but not in others. Not as satisfying a headline, I must admit.

  • Karen Loewen

    Say what? essential at transition from bike lanes to sharrows? You mean whent the bike lane DISAPPEARS on the other side fo the intersection? No bike box will do any better than just taking your place in the que in those examples of bad engineering. Your kind of crap thinking ERIC is what aggrevates so many transportation cyclists!

  • Karen Loewen

    Anyone who has ever spent any time watching what cyclists do when they roll up to a bike box knows the complete failure that these boxes represent. For it to work, they have to enter the box….they do not. They line up next to it and them expect to have some magic green paint authority to move thru the intersection when the light turns green while the right turning vehicles are trying to make right turns and don’t know that the magic green paint lane is a lane that they have to yield to. Bike Boxes = FAIL!

  • Karen Loewen

    So, considering
    the top photo above, what do you suggest a cyclist riding against traffic
    should do when they come to a driveway with a car waiting to enter
    traffic. That motorist will be looking over their right shoulder.
    Should the cyclist stop in that
    contraflow lane and wait for that car to turn or should they just
    continue and try to beat that car, or should we begin training motorists
    to start looking in both directions before they make a turn – breaking
    the basic rules of traffic flow? Just curious supporters… how does this work and why do we even need a bike lane period on that road? Just curious… Does pretty design trump safety?

  • Prinzrob

    Drivers need to be trained to look in both directions before entering any street regardless of direction, not just for bicyclists but also for pedestrians on the sidewalk. A contraflow bike lane is just a two-way street that allows only bicycles in one direction, and bicyclists will need to approach drivers entering the street with the same caution that they should already be using on normal, two-way streets. That being said, highlighting the counterflow lane as it passes over intersections and parking lot entrances with green paint or other enhancements would help.

    Contraflow bike lanes come in handy because bike routes are often few and far between, and there is sometimes a dearth of through-routes that can provide easy bike accommodation. Going the next block over to get to a street headed the opposite direction is pretty easy when driving, but not so much for a bicyclist when the next safe bike route may be many blocks over. These navigational issues and lack of accommodation are precisely why we end up seeing so many wrong-way bicyclists. This makes it not a question of whether people will be riding against traffic, but of how to make it safer to do so.

  • Daniel

    There shouldn’t be driveways. Contraflow isn’t a regular treatment. It is for when there is no nearby street flowing in the other direction. This usually means there is some major obstruction such as a highway, waterway or park. Crossings should be sparse and everyone should be take due care at those.

    But yes the way I was taught you look in the direction you are going then look in the opposite direction and then look where you are going, only when three checks are clear in succession do you go. Drivers who just stare in one direction and go as soon as it is clear need retraining. This is very unsafe behavior.

  • Prinzrob

    Here is some more info on the Portland bike boxes: http://www.katu.com/news/local/Changes-coming-to-some-Portland-bike-boxes-175449051.html?tab=video&c=y

    Out of the 14 boxes they installed, 81% of the crashes occurred at just 4 locations, all with downhill approaches. To me, this means that bike boxes might not be the right solution given specific conditions, but not that bike boxes are inherently unsafe.

    Personally, I would prefer to see them installed to help facilitate left turns by striping the box across all lanes, and not necessarily the way Portland is using them to just reduce right hook crashes by striping the box only across the rightmost lane. Those are both technically “bike boxes”, but I think they should have different names since the usage and purpose is so different.

  • Guest

    What are our failures doing different than in places in Europe that have had them for years and years?

  • As pictured, a contra-flow lane is actually dedicated, demarked, and ideally protected space that runs opposite the auto traffic. A far cry from someone going against allowed traffic in the lane carrying traffic at them.

  • What do you suggest a driver pulling out of a driveway with a sidewalk or other pedestrian right-of-way onto a one-way street should do regarding looking to make sure the way is clear?
    What should a pedestrian do when crossing a driveway, anywhere?
    Who is at fault when a driver pulls out of a driveway onto a oneway street and hits something with the front of their car (be it a pedestrian, a homeless guy with a shopping cart going the wrong way down the street, traffic backed up because of a red light, etc.)? You do need to pull out of a driveway with an awareness of what’s going on in your direction of travel.

    Realistically, I see that sort of thing without contra-flow lanes being involved all the time… https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fljxfid5pGM

  • Karen Loewen

    Pedestrians move at less than 3 mph….bikes move three times that. We aren’t talking about sidewalks anyway. ??

  • Karen Loewen

    Daniel…. very few look for cars coming the wrong way on a one way street. That’s what this would be eqivilent to. They aren’t The left right left only applies for two way traffic.

    There are very vew IN TOWN streets that are one way that don’t have a gazillion driveways and crossings. So where would these be useful?

    You guys sure work hard to make things more dangerous! Just because we can doesn’t mean we should.

  • Karen Loewen

    “…highlighting the counterflow lane as it passes over intersections and
    parking lot entrances with green paint or other enhancement” You are kidding right? Magic green paint that saves lives?

    Comparing this to pedestrians on a side walk moving at 3 mph is a bad comparison AND you know it.

    “Going to the next block…bla bla bla” If there is a matching one way going the other direction that matches the one in that picture, it does not need anything – no facility needed.

    Just because we CAN build something doesn’t mean we should.

    You go to a lot of trouble trying to make things more dangerous for us, don’t you?

  • Karen Loewen

    How is that dedicated, demarked or protected space Romeo? It’s cyclists going against traffic! Invisible to cars intering the lane…deaths waiting to happen. You are delusional!

  • Karen Loewen

    on direction only allows bikes AND it’s completely invisible to motorist entering their lane and direction. Especially the example in the picture!

  • Karen Loewen

    NACTO… makers of magic green paint?

  • Observe the paint on the street.

  • Karen Loewen

    Have you watched bike boxes function or no function for any length of time? Watched the cyclist like up next to the box and then have the right turning cars cut them off the minute the light turns green? The shocked looks on their faces as the get cut off is priceless….green paint can’t protect anyone from anything.

  • Karen Loewen

    Okay….I figured it out. You work for a consulting or design firm, correct? It’s your living to design and install this crap, correct?

  • Karen Loewen

    Yes, let’s add another FIX to the other FIX… ??? How many fixes can we add before we figure out that it would just be simpler and safer to get in the lane with the traffic and proceed thru the intersection just like everyone else.
    How many fixes?

  • Karen Loewen

    You designed this didn’t you?

  • Karen Loewen

    The Europeans that you are referring to have had a complete system for years and years – not a piece meal “pretty but not functional” contraflow lane stuck here and there. Most of these Europeans use their CAR as their secondary mode of transportation. Their designers didn’t stick a contraflow bike lane in the middle of their towns hoping that their citizens could figure out how to use it when it goes against their entire system outside of that street. Just because we can build it doesn’t mean we should.

  • Karen Loewen

    A Sharrow is NOT an indication of where a cyclist should be. It is an indication that the road will be shared with cyclist.

    It is our speed centric culture that has assigned location to those symbols.

    Luckily the MUTCD requirements for placement are minimums…. “atleast 8 feet from pavement end” means they can put it 8 or more feet – it’s up to the engineers/planners at that particular city.

  • Prinzrob

    Here’s language related to addressing that issue from the National Committee on Uniform Traffic Control Devices linked to in the article:

    “Contraflow bicycle travel can be unexpected by motorists crossing the contraflow bicycle lane when entering, exiting, or crossing the roadway. Consideration of additional signalization, signing and/or marking treatments is appropriate for intersections, alleys, grade crossings, and driveways.

    Option:

    At locations where a contraflow bicycle lane is provided across an intersection or a driveway entrance, pavement markings that inform intersection or driveway traffic of the presence of the bicycle facility and the direction of permitted bicycle traffic may be placed within the contraflow bicycle lane across the intersection or driveway opening.”

    All of the guidance from the report is available here: http://www.ncutcdbtc.org/sponsors.html

  • Prinzrob

    I’m trying to respond to your comments as respectfully as possible, and I would appreciate you doing the same by concentrating on content and not personal attacks or antagonism.

    The choice is not between one-way streets or contraflow lanes, it is between wrong-way cyclists on one-way streets and contraflow cyclists on contraflow facilities. As I stated above, we can either plan for this usage and make it as safe as possible, or not plan for it and accept the consequences.

    A data-driven analysis shows both that contraflow facilities provided in other countries actually reduce cyclist risk when installed thoughtfully (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0001457513002686), and the NCUTCD recommendation also refers to existing facilities all around the US that have not experienced significant issues either.

    There are lots and lots of other resources available on the web that you can look up and read if you like which point to the same conclusions. If you are interested in doing some reading and providing a thoughtful counterpoint I am willing to hear it. Otherwise, goodnight.

  • Prinzrob

    I work for a non-profit bicycle advocacy organization that represents 2.5 million people and 33 cities in the two counties east of San Francisco, one of the most diverse areas in the country, and organize one of the largest free bike education programs in the US, providing 150 grant-funded classes every year to nearly 5,000 adults, youth, and families in English, Spanish, and Cantonese. My #1 goal is to enable people to take more trips by bicycle, and to so safely and with confidence. In order to be an effective advocate I try to make decisions based on data and analysis, not conjecture and anecdotes. I am very proud of the work I do, and you can read all about it at http://www.BikeEastBay.org.

    Ad hominem attacks are not appreciated, nor are they conducive to a constructive conversation.

  • Karen Loewen

    Apparently, I have done WAY more research than you have. “As I stated above, we can either plan for this usage and make it as safe
    as possible, or not plan for it and accept the consequences.” What consequences would we be accepting? Safe as possible is not safe.

  • Gezellig

    And actually, even that isn’t *always* as crazy as it sounds. When streets are designed with narrow lanes, people in cars tend to drive cautiously, even nervously. That tends to be good, since it makes drivers extra aware.

    When I was living in the Netherlands I noticed a lot of smaller streets were one-way for cars but two-way for bikes. Unless they’re specifically denoted Bike Streets there’s no bike-specific infra or paint, but the narrow roads and 30kph (20mph) speed limit or lower for cars can work well.

    A typical example below, from both directions on the same street. The sign in the first indicates it’s one-way for cars with the exception of bikes. On the second image you see a bike going against car traffic, as thousands of people do on that street every day. Works just fine:

    Implementing true Bike Streets (Cars As Guests) with all the necessary design features (narrow lanes, low speed limits, etc.) could yield similar results in the US.

  • Karen Loewen

    Hmmmm…. I work for Cycling Savvy and the ABEA. We are coming your way. Get with the program!

  • Prinzrob

    Then please provide citations. I looked and could not find studies that support your claim.

  • Karen Loewen

    101… get with the program. Next you’ll be quoting the 40% hit from behind stat…misleading America!

  • Prinzrob

    Thanks but no thanks. We’re good.

  • Karen Loewen

    Citations for what? You didn’t answer any of the questions. What consequences?

  • Karen Loewen

    Facts and real statitistics gathered using scientific methods scare you guys. Why is that? What are you good with…trying to turn the US into the Netherlands with a 2% buy in? Putting up halfass dangerous facilities just so you can say you have them and be “bike friendly” or just teaching fear to new cyclists? Is that what you are good with? That’s what I thought.