Contraflow Bike Lanes Deemed Acceptable by the U.S. Federal Highway Administration

The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) confirmed contraflow bike lanes with proper signage and pavement markings as permissible under the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD). MUTCD is a periodically updated set of national standards for all traffic control devices administered by the FHWA.

Contraflow bike lanes, lanes where bicycles go against traffic flow, have been a highly debated and controversial issue. Those against the idea argue on the basis of traffic laws, safety, directing resources away from automobiles and even based on the cost of new signage. However, supporters of contraflow bike lanes argue that they would open up one-way streets to cyclists, allow for two-way bike traffic, increase convenience of bike travel and safety, and slow down traffic by narrowing the road. The conflict between the two sides and the ambiguity of whether contraflow bike lanes are in accordance with existing traffic laws have been the major causes of reluctance on behalf of local governments to administer them in their jurisdictions.

Although contraflow bike lanes have already been implemented in parts of the United Sates,  the confirmation from FHWA is further proof of their acceptance into everday traffic infrastructure. “These standards [MUTCD] are widely accepted,” writes Stephen Miller from Greater Greater Washington, a blog about transportation, urban planning and smart growth in Washington, D.C. “Most counties and states aim to comply with every part of the standards…”

According to a 2006 document by FHWA on bicycle and pedestrian transportation, contraflow bicycle lanes provide a substantial reduction in travel time in out-of-direction commutes. These bike lanes also provide access to high-use destinations and improve safety by reducing conflict on the longer road. But whether bicycle infrastructure design will change drastically still depends on bicycle advocacy and on individual jurisdictions. Despite the okay from FHWA, contraflow bicycle lanes may still not be the right option for every scenario.

However, the only two documents on contraflow bike lanes available on FHWA’s website are the 2011 updated web page, with only loose guidelines, and the 2006 document, which contradicts the recently updated guidelines. The 2006 document specifically refers to the limitations of contraflow bicycle lanes on one-way streets but fails to mention their use on two-way streets.

Washington, D.C. has been one of the recent cities to include contraflow bike lanes in its efforts to ease bicycle travel, joining the likes of Portland, Ore., Boulder, Colo., New York City and London. The addition of the contraflow bike lanes on 15th Street and New Hampshire Avenue have been a gradual improvement with the signage and infrastructure evolving through ongoing public input.

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