Wrong way cycling not as dangerous as we thought?

The other day Elly Blue wrote that wrong-way riding (aka “salmoning”) is maybe not so much a character flaw as it is an indication that something is wrong with the system, whether it be evidence of a lack in bicycle safety education or a problem with our infrastructure.

Consider the problem of education, and by education I don’t believe Elly necessarily means formal classes, but the informal stuff drummed into our heads by family, friends, the media, and society that eventually becomes “common sense.” She points out:

Lots of us were taught as kids to ride facing traffic; it was drilled into our heads that this was in fact the only safe way to ride. This lesson is backed up by the intuitive appeal of being able to see whatever is coming at you so that you can get out of the way in time.

This belief that riding facing traffic is “safer” seems to be very common. It reminds me of Bill in Longmont, Colorado. A couple of times a year I’d see him with a new cast or a sling around his arm or shoulder. It was almost comical if he didn’t so consistently risk his life like he did. He consistently rode the wrong way on the sidewalk. He thought I was crazy for riding in the lane with heavy traffic and told me so. His evidence? His multiple emergency room visits with serious injuries over the previous decade, all of which came about after he was hit while riding the wrong way on the sidewalk.

Picard Facepalm

(Disclosure: I’ve had two bike-related emergency room visits since 1981. That first time I was a minor, and I did what the police told me to do and took the ride to the hospital. No injuries at all. The second time was a couple of years ago because I needed stitches for my split lip. I was riding with traffic both times.)

Elly also brings up infrastructure or missing links in the bike network. She writes:

I hear about this all the time from people who are deeply embedded in the bike community, who know the laws better than they know their kids’ schedules, who ride dozens of miles every week on city streets doing everything by the book — except maybe there’s one street next to their kids’ daycare they don’t feel safe riding on, so they ride against traffic on a one-way side street to get around it.

Elly has described me to a tee. I’ll admit to this one, although usually my motivation is generally laziness or time savings rather than safety perceptions. I routinely bike against traffic for a half block on 1st Street in downtown San Jose to get to my bus stop in order to avoid an around the block trip.

After the city of Santa Cruz converted Beach Street into a one way street, bike riders there regularly flouted the law by riding against traffic. This was before my time there, but they did this because the alternative — an around the neighborhood detour on lousy streets with 15% grades — is stupid. Luckily, common sense prevailed and the city installed a hugely popular two-way bikeway on Beach Street.

In the subsequent Twitter discussion about Elly’s article, I learned something fascinating: wrong-way cycling may not be as objectively dangerous as I believed! Somebody from Bike Delaware sent a couple of links to me. The first is this Sustrans design guidance in the UK advocating for two-way cycling as “the default option” on one-way streets, going so far as to suggest that “contraflow cycling can be introduced without a cycle lane where traffic volumes and speeds are low.”


Do Not Enter Bicycles OK

That design guidance is interesting, but is it actually safe? This research published in Road and Transport Research suggests that salmoning isn’t as deadly and stupid as we’re often led to believe.

a brief review of international research was undertaken as the basis of understanding and addressing the risk associated with enabling contra-flow cycling without contraflow bicycle lanes. The results may be surprising. The most significant study undertaken found that enabling contra-flow cycling in quiet one-way streets, using “bicycles excepted” signage and without formal contra-flow lanes, reduces rather than increases the overall crash risk for cyclists.

It turns out that these “bicycles excepted” signs are even mandatory for one way roads low speed streets in Belgium and France. Who knew?

What about Bill in Longmont? I moved from Colorado years ago so I don’t know if he still rides or lives there (and I hope he’s high and dry today, wherever he is), but Bill generally rode on the sidewalks next to high speed stroads. I’d see him shoot across intersections going the wrong way at probably 15 MPH. The research and guidance for wrong-way cycling is for low-speed, low-volume one-way streets. Think of glorified alleys. This is not a discussion of a typical American suburban road with four lanes of two way 45 MPH traffic.

So the general advice to ride with traffic still holds, but we might have an exception for one-way, low speed streets. Remember also that riding against traffic is still a citable offense in all US jurisdictions, as far as I’m aware, and you likely will be found at fault in a collision if you are involved in one. Then again, even if you’re a school kid walking on the sidewalk doing absolutely nothing wrong, those in authority still find a way to blame the victim when a maniac allegedly confuses his accelerator for the brake pedal and guns it.

5 Comments

  • September 13, 2013 - 12:41 pm | Permalink

    There are a lot of questions I have regarding the Road and Transport Research conclusions. Were their tests conducted on streets with significant numbers of crossings, driveways, or curb cuts? Drivers turning onto a one-way street often will only look in the normal direction of traffic before proceeding, and would completely miss any counterflow bicyclists.

    Counterflow bicyclists would also not be able to see any road signs or traffic signals. If a municipality is not willing to even put a stripe of paint down for them, then it is even more unlikely that they will add or reorient signs and signals to accommodate counterflow traffic.

    The real issue to be dealt with is the prevalence of one way streets, which work to accommodate through car traffic at the expense of other road users. They have been shown to be bad for biking, bad for safety, bad for navigation, and bad for local businesses, which is why progressive cities are more often converting downtown streets from one to two-way.

    I also admit to biking counterflow on the sidewalk for a half block to get to my house, as opposed to making a tricky left turn onto my street and then an even trickier left turn from the middle of the street to get into my driveway. However, when I’m on the sidewalk I’m riding at a walking speed, and I will dismount if there are any pedestrians present. As often is the case, there’s a safer way and a dumb/dangerous way to “bend” the law while biking, but the general public tends to lump it all together into one category (rolling/yielding vs blowing through stops, for instance).

  • September 14, 2013 - 9:00 pm | Permalink

    You’ll probably want to read
    http://www.bicyclinglife.com/Library/riskfactors.htm
    and
    http://www.cabobike.org/articles/bicycles-and-the-law/

    for more information about wrong-way riding.

  • Kim
    September 16, 2013 - 5:36 am | Permalink

    The main risk to riding the opposite direction on streets is that traffic stopping at an intersection are looking for cars coming from their left, and not looking for cyclist coming from the right.

    The bike lanes in Sacramento have signs telling foot traffic to use the left shoulder. When I lived there the only close calls I had were with people that ignored this and walked on the right. When they turned their heads to check traffic before crossing the bike path, they often started veering into the path of cyclist.

  • September 16, 2013 - 1:50 pm | Permalink

    That TRB published article is more a meta analysis of data from multiple studies, i.e. it’s a book report. Still, the results they arrive at were not expected by me. Agreed about the importance of being aware of risk factors when breaking the law.

  • erutan
    May 18, 2014 - 9:37 pm | Permalink

    I’ve seen a few formal bidirectional bike lines on one way streets, and liked that approach.

    I got chewed out for riding on a (generous) shoulder of a local highway in WA by a local biker… but the opposite side of the road wasn’t as appealing and I would have had to cross traffic twice in ~2 miles instead of just turning directly onto a side road. Another time touring I had quiet side roads that would take me off the 101 2/3 of the time, but only on the “wrong side” of the highway. /shrug

    If I’m purposefully just riding against traffic on a one way street for whatever reason I do so extremely cautiously and give others right of way.

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