Contraflow Conundrums

Are you ever tempted to cycle the wrong way up a one-way street? Do you wonder why it’s allowed on a handful of Glasgow streets but not on others which would offer convenient short-cuts? Committee member Brenda examines the ins and outs of contraflow cycling for GoBike and asks you, our members, to feed in to us on the final questions.

One-way streets can force us onto longer, indirect routes on busier roads those or with risky junctions. They’re often created to stop drivers rat-running, or to make more room for parking – every new residents’ parking zone seems to need new one-way streets. They make cycling less attractive by making routes longer and busier with traffic.

This is very good news, and comes after repeated, assertive, courteous and firm responses crafted by GoBike’s Consultations Lead to the ongoing slew of parking/one-way street TROs which have made no provision for cycling and have cut off convenient direct routes for many people.

But there are still questions about contraflow cycling – what exactly is it we’re thinking of and what are the safety implications of whatever that is?

On the first question, it’s worth taking a moment to think about what the idea of ‘contraflow cycling’ conjures up for each of us. Stop and take that moment now – picture yourself cycling the wrong way on a one-way street. What are you seeing? What are you feeling?

My picture is of pedalling gently along a quiet back street with cars parked on each side with just about enough room for a car to get between them. I’m stopping and tucking into a gap in the parking if the odd car comes the other way (and they’re passing me carefully and slowly). Not the best cycling conditions, but way better than that hill I’d have to go up or busy road I’d have to ride on, or series of turns I’d have to do in the traffic to go round the block. I feel perfectly safe, if anything’s coming it won’t be going very fast, I can see it and ‘it’ can see me.

What I can imagine the road engineers picturing is swarms of cyclists salmoning against the lanes of traffic on, say, Bath Street without a thought for the carnage they’re causing as drivers swerve and brake to avoid them.

And then there’s the handful of contraflow lanes that already exist in sections of Argyle St, Gordon St, West Nile St and Howard St in the city centre, much abused by drivers (including police drivers) for parking, where we should be ‘protected’ by that line of magic paint, but are too often forced out into the opposing lane.

It could be that we’re not all thinking of the same thing when we’re asking for contraflow cycling. It could be that the people who work in the roads departments are thinking of something different again. It could even be that the safety concerns about contraflow cycling are well-founded. Perhaps there is evidence that contraflow cycling is too risky.

Well – no. It doesn’t take much googling to find reports on the safety of contraflow cycling. Two key summaries of studies from cities around Europe (ii) (iii) agree on these headline points:

  • Contraflow cycling is safe – no riskier than with-flow cycling, perhaps safer.
  • The few accidents tend to be at the entry and exit rather than in the length of the street.
  • Narrower streets are safer: they force all road-users to slow down and to pay more attention to each other.
  • It’s safest when it’s the rule in an entire area, because then things are more predictable for everyone.

This is a useful summary of what the reports find:

At first sight, contraflow cycling looks risky. Over the years, however, experiences in various cities and countries have been consistently positive and have proven the overall safety gains of contra-flow cycling. Nowhere has contraflow cycling led to a rise in accidents, on the contrary. In many cities where contraflow cycling was tried, road managers and police started with very stringent safety criteria, but they mostly relaxed them as time went by.

So there is no evidence for the safety concerns of the police and council officers – but there is substantial evidence that those concerns are unfounded.

Hang on a minute though, perhaps the cities studied all had top quality protected opposite-way cycle lanes in their one way streets. Or perhaps they had very stringent criteria for the streets in which contraflow cycling is allowed.

But no, that’s not the case either. The famous cycling cities (Amsterdam, Copenhagen) barely feature in the reports. The studies include Brussels and Paris, in both of which contraflow cycling was permitted in all one-way streets with speed limits of 30kph (~20mph), with no special infrastructure.

If you like getting stuck into details, there’s a comprehensive study of accident statistics over three years in the Brussels city region (iv) (quoted in both the summary reports). Since 2004 contraflow cycling has been generally allowed on all one-way streets wider than 2.6m, indicated just by road signs (compulsory) and (optional) road markings. There are some 250 miles of it, about 25% of the road network open to cyclists. At about half of all the intersections one or more of the streets has a contraflow.

This detailed study found that – in this large network with no special infrastructure – contraflow cycling is safe, regardless of road width or parking arrangements.

Closer to home, a small and cautious trial in a London borough (v) started by allowing contraflow cycling (without expensive lanes and splitter islands) in five one-way streets. Careful monitoring found that these roads posed no more of a danger to motorists, pedestrians or cyclists, than those with the expensive infrastructure. The scheme has been extended across the borough. This wasn’t specially adventurous – UK and Scottish guidance has allowed contraflow cycling without special infrastructure (and no minimum road width) in 20mph zones since 1998 (vi) , repeated in 2008 (vii), both sources referenced in subsequent documents on designing for cycle traffic.

One of the summaries makes the point that different cities have different approaches to contraflow cycling:

  • In cities with high levels of cycling and generally high quality cycling infrastructure the infrastructure for contraflow cycling also tends to be high quality (segregated, wide…).
  • Cities wanting to increase cycling levels from a low base have introduced contraflow cycling without extensive (and expensive) special infrastructure. This opens up short direct routes, though at the expense of some comfort and speed.

There are suggestions that splitter islands or short lengths of marked lane at entries and exits can be useful, but even without these features contraflow cycling makes a positive contribution to road safety (including any effect on pedestrians). And it’s agreed that contraflow cycling is safest when universal in an area, because no one has to remember (or guess) what’s allowed in any one street.

What’s also clear is that blanket application of contraflow cycling in an area without infrastructure allows much better routing, but doesn’t make for the best cycling conditions – we would need to get used to taking care, looking out for unwary pedestrians (but we do that anyway, right?) and co-operating with approaching drivers. Of course, this could still be better than negotiating the alternative busier streets.

After immersing myself in this stuff for a few weeks (as well as the various guidance documents) it seems that these are the issues for GoBike:

  • The council’s recent willingness to consider contraflow cycling in new one-way proposals is very welcome. Is it now good tactics (or even just polite) to pause our pressure for more?
  • Should GoBike press the council (and their police safety whisperers) to make decisions based on evidence from cities that are further on in the changes they say they want for Glasgow (becoming a ‘cycling city’)?
  • Should GoBike campaign for contraflow cycling to be allowed on all one-way streets in 20mph zones (perhaps initially limited to ‘narrow’ streets – those without markings for two or more driving lanes)?

GoBike members, we would like to hear your views. Please let us know what you think via our members’ channels.

(i) Glasgow’s Strategic Plan for Cycling 2016–2015, GCC, p30 (see here)
(ii) PRESTO Fact sheet Contra-flow cycling (see here)
(iii) Contraflow Cycling Briefing, European Transport Safety Council, 2018 (see here)
(iv) Safety aspects of contraflow cycling, Chalanton and Dupriez, BIW-IBSR, 2014 (see here)
(v) Two-way cycling in one-way streets, Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (see here)
(vi) Contraflow Cycling, Traffic Advisory Leaflet 6/98, Department for Transport, 1998 (see here)
(vii) Designing for Cycle Traffic, Local Transport Note 2/08, Depart for Transport, 2008 (see here)