Contra-Flow Bike Lanes: Aspirin for Your One-Way Headaches
Another in a series of articles focusing on creative solutions for safer streets.

How many times has this happened to you? You're riding downtown, looking for an address, finally get to the right street, and realize you are two blocks away “downstream” from your destination on a one-way street.

You can do the legal thing, and walk your bike on the sidewalk, or do what a car would do and ride several blocks out of your way. Or you can be rude to pedestrians and ride on the sidewalk, or endanger yourself by riding the wrong way on the street. All of these options are exercised everyday by San Francisco cyclists. Of course, we recommend you take the legal (and safer) route and ride with traffic, or walk your bike on the sidewalk. But the SFBC is increasingly looking at infrastructure improvements that will allow cyclists more direct, convenient (and legal) access to their destinations. The primary design tool that is used to address this problem is known as a “contra-flow bike lane.”

A contra-flow bike lane is a bicycle lane added to a one-way street that allows bicyclists a legal way to travel against the prevailing flow of motor traffic. The lane is usually added to the driver's left, keeping with our tradition of driving (and riding) on the right-hand side of the street. A double yellow line on the pavement and signs at every intersection remind drivers of the presence of two-way traffic. Sometimes a curb is used between the motor vehicle lane and the contra-flow lane.

Typically, the best streets on which to install a contra-flow lane are those with consistent wrong-way bicycle traffic, few driveways or other intersections, and a significant savings in travel time compared with following the motor vehicle route.

Contra-flow lanes are common in European countries, and are catching on in the United States as localities seek ways to make their streets more bicycle friendly. There are contra-flow lanes in Eugene, OR, Madison, WI, Cambridge, MA, Denver, and Chicago. Here in Northern California, contra-flow lanes can be found in Santa Cruz, Berkeley, Sausalito, and in the Presidio.

The potential for further application of this design in San Francisco is significant, especially downtown and South of Market where one-way streets are prevalent. Wrong-way bicycle riding in these areas is symptomatic of a circulation system that has been designed to facilitate motor vehicle flow at the expense of bicyclist and pedestrian safety. Contra-flow lanes can, as Santa Cruz' Bicycle Coordinator Cheryl Schmitt puts it, "accommodate what already happens on our streets and make it safe."

The SFBC is already advocating for contra-flow lanes in the redesigned Golden Gate Park Music Concourse, in order to allow easy access to and from the Park's institutions. Another potential location for a new contra-flow lane is on Polk Street between Market and Grove Streets, improving access to City Hall.

Through the SF Bike Plan Update, the SFBC will be working with the DPT, as well as neighborhood and business groups, to identify possible locations for contra-flow facilities citywide. If you are annoyed by other one-way restrictions around the city and think a contra-flow lane may be suitable, attend one of the upcoming bike plan workshops. See above and for more details.
By Josh Hart