Chicago balks at contra-flow bike lane, while SF rejects paint-only treatment

Some folks in Chicago are a little confused about why city engineers would actually want to make cyclists ride against traffic. In infrastructure terms this is known as a “contra-flow bike lane.” At first glance, it takes the norm of bikes riding the same direction of travel as cars and intentionally turns it on it’s head.

Polk Street Contra-flow bike lane
Photo by Dianne Yee. Used with permission.

In some implementations calling it “Contra-flow” is more a nod to the way things used to be, and less about how the bikes and cars interact. A good example of this is the Polk Street Contra-Flow Bike lane in San Francisco. By being physically separated from the motor vehicle traffic (“protected bike lane”) it seems a bit of a stretch to say that the cyclists are really riding against traffic. There are numerous dedicated or mixed use paths across the country that have much less physical separation from the motor vehicle lanes they parallel than the Polk street implementation.

The new contra-flow bike lane in Chicago, however, will not be physically separated from the rest of the traffic on the one-way road. The bike lane will pass between moving traffic and parked cars – both going in the other direction. This will force parking cars to cross the bike enter the bike lane heading in the opposite direction. I’m also curious what cyclists that are going with the flow of motor vehicle will do, and if that will create conflicts with other cyclists going in the opposite direction.

According to reporting in the local media, this may just be legalization of already existing, common cycling behavior. It will be interesting to see how this plays out after the lane opens.


Interestingly enough, the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition just recently rejected a new bike lane proposal on Turk St. in San Francisco. According to StreetsBlogSF, this is the first time ever that the coalition has taken a “No” stance against a new bike lane. They are pushing for a safer, parking protected bike lane instead of the cities painted-stripes-in-the-door-zone approach.