Bicycle Contraflow Lanes: Death Wish or Life Line?

A counterflow lane or contraflow lane is a lane in which traffic flows in the opposite direction of the surrounding lanes. *

Contraflow is a common part of decent cycling infrastructure and is often seen on one-way streets. A standard example is that car and other vehicular traffic might have only one lane while on both sides there are bike lanes; one going in the same direction as the vehicular traffic, the other (the contraflow bike lane) allows cyclists to safely go in the opposite direction to the cars

Counterflow cycle lane in Paris. Credit: Vladimit Zlokazov

Counterflow cycle lane in Paris. Credit: Vladimir Zlokazov

This is allowed as the road may not be wide enough for two lanes of car traffic but there is enough room to allow for the additional bicycle lane; and without it cyclists may be forced to take a long, and perhaps unsafe, detour.

Another example is where there is only one bike lane, the contraflow lane, with other bicycles travelling in the same direction as the cars sharing the main traffic lane.

A Better Ride

However this works only (this being a view based on considerable day-to-day personal experience in different cities as well as the literature) when the traffic is slowed.  Ideally to 30 kph, if not less.

For the cyclist there is considerable comfort and sense of security in riding in the opposite direction from the motorized traffic.  At slower speeds there is not only plenty of time for both driver and cyclist to see each other and react, but more than that – there is also the phenomenon of direct eye contact which has a very important not only for  information and reaction purposes but also plays an significant psychological and social calming role. (When was the last time you smiled and nodded to a car driver when riding your bike?)

In Belgium since about 2005, and in France since 2010, the default position in towns has been for one-way streets to be available for cycling in either direction, known in French as sens unique limité (SUL). In this case, a contraflow cycle lane is often marked in paint, with dotted white lines and ideograms of a bicycle, either all the way along the street if busy, or more commonly just at junctions.

* Source: Parts of this text have been taken directly from the very good Wikipedia entry under this heading which I have adapted and added to here. Thanks to Jimmy Wales and the numerous contributors. And thanks too to Vladimir Zlokazov for that good shot of a cfc lane in Paris.


Simple Ideas Department

Countersense cycling is a simple, cheap, easy to implement, proven idea which is ready for study an adaptation in your city. The advantages are considerable.

How much does it cost? Cheap. Planning, signage, paint and enforcement (more oversight really since these schemes tend to be largely self-enforcing).

Contraflow cycling is often assumed (without evidence) to be associated with higher accidents risks, however where it has been properly evaluated, contraflow cycling actually seems to reduce the accidents risk, and in places considerably.  Not only notably fewer incidents, but significantly less damaging to the cyclist.

Then there is “dooring”, i.e., getting wiped out by someone quickly swinging their ar door without looking to see if there might be a cyclist coming up. When the cyclist is on a counterflow lane next to rows of parked cars (see above illustration), the odds change radically.  First, the cyclist can see if someone is about to get out of the car and take the necessary precautions.But it works on the car end as well, since the driver and passengers can see in front of their eyes, the bikers as they approach. Win/win.

Another utilitarian advantage is that in cities where there are complicated one way and limited access schemes intended to control, reduce and channel motor vehicle traffic, the lucky cyclist may end up with a shorter and faster (as well as safer) trip.

And not to forget that by removing road space for motorized traffic, the lanes also work as de facto traffic calming.

For more on World Streets Simple Ideas Department, click here –

amsterdam counterflow bike lane

Counterflow lane in Amsterdam

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Eric Britton
13, rue Pasteur. Courbevoie 92400 France

Bio: Founding editor of World Streets (1988), Eric Britton is an American political scientist, teacher, occasional consultant, and sustainability activist who has observed, learned, taught and worked on missions and advisory assignments on all continents. In the autumn of 2019, he committed his remaining life work to the challenges of aggressively countering climate change and specifically greenhouse gas emissions emanating from the mobility sector. He is not worried about running out of work. Further background and updates: @ericbritton | | #fekbritton | | and | Contact: | +336 508 80787 (Also WhatApp) | Skype: newmobility.)

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6 thoughts on “Bicycle Contraflow Lanes: Death Wish or Life Line?

  1. Nice entry, Eric. I love contraflow lanes. I find them particularly effective in places like central Vienna, where some of the narrow lanes allegedly date back to Roman times (but probably don’t). Anyway, in that environment, without enough width for two vehicle lanes, there is often room to add a contraflow bike lanes. That creates a situation where a motorist may be faced with a ten or fifteen minute trip full of wrong-way detours to get to some nearby destination by car, but a cyclist can ride directly there in the time it takes to pour two cups of good Viennese coffee and set the coffee pot back on the stove. This summer we saw and enjoyed similar contraflow lanes in Berlin, Geneva, Paris, and countless other cities we visited.

  2. Merci Beaucoup! I have read your article on counterflow with interest. We are in the process of changing the town of Stellenbosch to cycling priority, and Ii have given counterflow a lot of thought. Ii think we will do it! I was doored on Thursday in a one way street moving with the traffic… Guy opened the door of his pickup just after he parked! I had no chance… Second time in 50 years on the same spot! Very sore, but will survive! Viva BICI!!!! Dawid Botha, Mayopral Committee – Eng Services, Stellenbosch Town Council.

  3. Good article! Contraflow lanes exist in Stockholm, but there could be more. On the positive side, the city sees a lot more bikers these days and the city really supports them (at least the government ruling until elections a few weeks ago, we’ll see about the new one), handing out goodiebags and setting up permanent bike pumps etc. On a given bridge in the morning (weather permitting, fall started yesterday) you now see more people on bikes than in cars – only that the cars take up loads of more space…

  4. This was an interesting comment in from Mikael Colville-Andersen
    CEO for Copenhagenize Design Company

    “The concept of contra-flow is important but there is no decent infrastructure in the photo. It’s a little painted line and it sends cyclists between parked cars (door zone) and moving traffic. It is so far removed from “decent cycling infrastructure” and the Best Practice that has been established over the past 100 years that whoever put it in should be fired immediately.”

    I thought that was interesting and have asked him to clarify so that we can learn from his experience.


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