Mr Roadshow and wrong way cycling

Gary Richards aka “Mr Roadshow” answers reader questions about the safety of wrong way cycling.

Richards is the traffic and transportation columnist for the San Jose Mercury News. He published a couple of recent reader questions on wrong way cycling. One reader from Pleasonton writes that he’s been cycling for 60 years and he was taught to ride against traffic for safety. Another cyclist in Concord says riding with traffic in the bike lane doesn’t feel safe to him; when he’s riding westbound, he’d rather ride against traffic in what he calls the “parking lane,” which I think means the parallel parking spaces along Concord Boulevard.

Today’s column was a quick Q&A on numerous issues, so Richards gave a quick “Don’t ride against traffic because it’s against the law,” but he doesn’t really say why cyclists should obey this law except to mention a $150 fine. And we all know the police never ticket cyclists, right?

Why should you avoid riding against the flow of traffic? Or do you bike against traffic and live to tell the tale?


  1. I think the physics means it is safer to ride with the flow than against.

    If you are riding against the flow and a car hits you the net impact is their speed PLUS your speed.

    Riding with the flow a net impact is the car’s speed MINUS your speed (*ignoring angles)

    Riding on the wrong side also reinforces the stereotype that “those darn cyclists always break the law”

  2. I’m against wrong-way cycling, if only because when two bikes meet going opposite directions, there is no real protocol on whether to pass on the left or right.   The desire to stay on the outside of the street competes with the natural idea of staying right and it can easily lead to confusion/accidents.

  3. Richards is right.
    “Benefits of contra-flow for cyclists 
    • Contra-flow improves the convenience and/or safety of 
    cycling, thus helping to encourage a shift from car to cycle 
    • Contra-flow is popular with cyclists because it helps give 
    them an advantage over other traffic. 
    • Being allowed to use a back street in both directions, unlike 
    other traffic, often helps avoid a longer, busier and/or 
    junction-filled journey on an alternative road.” 

  4. i think riding against traffic feels scarier to the driver because this unexpected object (the biker) comes upon you very quickly, but i don’t think there’s any evidence to suggest that riding against traffic is actually more dangerous than riding with traffic.

    most evidence suggests that riding in the road, with car traffic, is what leads to the greatest percentage of biker deaths (and probably serious injuries, maiming, etc.) — see the 35% number:

    and this evidence is the exact opposite of what most bike advocates argue — that sidewalk riding is more dangerous than road riding. it’s bad that we have most bike advocates out there telling people to ride in the way that is most likely to get them killed.

  5. I think the most basic reason why riding against traffic is a bad idea is because then all of the traffic signals and signs are facing away from you, and you have no way of knowing who has the right of way at an intersection.

    Also, if you are biking against traffic then cars making a turn into your direction will often only be looking for oncoming traffic in the opposite, legal direction, and may never see you coming before running into you at full speed.

    The same thing goes for other bicyclists and pedestrians, who may not be looking for you in that direction as well. One must respect others’ safety in this respect, as well as their own.

  6. The LAB study is an interesting one but by their own admission it is very preliminary and inconclusive, so I wouldn’t feel comfortable giving their results any credence at this point.

    That being said, there is undoubtedly a safer way to bike within the roadway and a less safe way. If one does not take the necessary steps to outfit their bike with lights and reflectors at night, if one doesn’t bother to communicate and telegraph their movements to other road users, if one hugs the curb too much remaining in drivers’ peripheral vision and encouraging unsafe passing, if one fails to maintain a straight line and weaves back and forth around parallel parked cars, then yes biking on the roadway could be a more dangerous proposition.

    I think the real test of this data would be to figure out how many of the cyclists who were struck from behind and killed were within a bike lane. If simply riding on the roadway is causing the danger, not one’s BEHAVIOR when riding on the roadway, then the fatalities within bike lanes should be at about the same rate as those not in bike lanes, adjusted for traffic volumes and mode share.

  7. I think the protocol is “whoever is messing up needs to put themselves in more danger” — which means the wrong-way cyclist has to go out into traffic.

    We see this a lot with runners who insist on running on the bike lane in the wrong direction — they need to run out into traffic, not cyclists.This makes sense even without the morality, tho, because the wrong way cyclist/jogger has the ability to see whether or not s/he is about to be run down by a car, so can take evasive action — the cyclist with his/her back to the texting/drunk/careless/whatever driver has no such ability.

  8. The main reason I see riding against the traffic is unsafe is that cars approaching an intersection from a cross street often pull right into the lane not looking to the right. Instead they’re looking to the left to see if any cars are coming so they have no idea if anyone is coming from their right. 

  9. Pedestrians are fine to go against traffic because they can see what’s coming towards them, and can instantly step to the side if the need arises. They also barely change the speed differential, since on a 30mph road the difference would be 27mph with traffic or 33mph against.

    On a bike though, people can’t just get out of the way instantly. Cyclists ride pretty much anywhere between 5-30mph, and generally in a straight line, which means speed differential is possibly as low as zero with traffic, or up to 60mph against. I’d much rather take the lower speed differential, ride in the lane, and ride predictably with the law on my side. I’d be curious to know if a wrong-way cyclist involved in an accident would have any chance of winning an insurance claim too. My guess is that with a law-abiding driver hitting a wrong-way cyclist, it’s considered the cyclists fault regardless of other circumstances (except maybe DUI).

  10. i remember reading about ‘the physics argument,’ and, as logical as it may sound, it doesn’t work like that. in any case, i don’t think this is a worthy argument, regardless of the physics.

    as far as ‘the law’ — we advocates should work to get them changed so that the make sense, are fair, protect us, etc.

    in some Euro countries/cities, it’s legal to ride contraflow on one-way streets even without signage.

    and here in the US sidewalk riding is legal or not depending on local ordinances, state rules, etc. point being, we can (and should) help determine what the law should be — we don’t have to obey laws uncritically, especially if/when they put us in harm’s way.

    eventually I expect more bicycle advocates to get behind the Idaho Stop — which is flawed itself, but is a small step in the right direction.

  11. practically speaking, i think it’s in cyclists’ best interests to concentrate on…not getting hit in the first place. we see drivers walk away from collisions where they’ve recklessly killed innocent pedestrians and bikers all the time — no punishment at all. and taking a chance on severe injury is one thing, but death is another.

    shoot — lately it seems we have drivers walking away unpunished after they’ve taken out pedestrians and cyclists who are _on the sidewalk_ — at least if a biker is facing in the direction of the marauding driver, the biker can have a split second to react and possibly save themselves or their loved ones.

    i’d be for the City/government paying any all insurance claims/damages anytime the design of the roadway can be seen as defective — which, for biking, means every single road in America, almost without exception. hey — universal health care for cyclists.

    at least one Chinese city (forget which) covers insurance claims for anyone injured while riding one of their bike share bikes.

  12. Sorry to come across as a troll/flamer, but riding against traffic is really retarded and a death wish. Some excellent reasons have been given here. The traffic signs are turned away from you, cars turning into the lane towards you aren’t expecting bicyclists from that direction, the physics argument, head to head encounters with other bicyclists, plus it’s just plain against the law! How many more reasons does one need? The one place I agree with Peter Smith is that bicyclists riding against the flow do scare motorists. Do we really need to make more people hate bicyclists?

  13. I think the question is…is riding against traffic actually ‘a death wish’ or is it safer? I’d bet it’s either safer or a wash for the obvious reason that you can see dangerous cars/situations approaching you, or have time to react as you approach them.

    To expand, traffic signs are rather meaningless to both cars and bikers, so I’m not sure why they really need to be considered. For example, nobody stops at stop signs, so who cares if they’re not turned towards you? And it’s not difficult to determine who has the right of way, whether and where the signs/lights are at an intersection, so there’s really no reason to think that having signs at a biker’s disposal would actually make that biker safer in any way. 

    If anything, looking at and ‘believing’ that signs are actually ‘true’ — that is, believing that a Stop sign will mean drivers will stop, or believing that drivers will yield for you at a crosswalk, or that drivers will not run red lights — can be very harmful. I’m sure many lives have ended, and others have been drastically altered, as a result of believing that road signage was self-enforcing. 

    I think there’s a strong case to be made for removing all signage from all roads -and removing car horns and even bike bells – taking us to a sort of Hans Monderman-type world, but instead of forgoing the separated spaces, we keep them and just forego the traffic signs and lights — this would force everyone to slow down and actually pay attention.  I’m sure I’m not the first to propose this no-signs stuff.

    Unjust laws need to be changed and corrected, not obeyed.

    The tide is turning on drivers being able to hate and kill/maim/injure cyclists with impunity — the war on driving is just beginning. Anyone who drives in the not-too-distant future is going to have to justify themselves to the rest of us, not the other way around. Regardless, the whole ‘drivers are angry’ meme is real and dangerous, but we shouldn’t condone it — they have no right to be angry and they need to be told that.

  14. I ride on whichever side has the fresh air.  Can’t stand the stench from the tail pipes, always try to be upwind.

  15. That’s just idiotic, Peter. By that logic, I assume that you also drive the wrong way too, so that you can see oncoming traffic. Since that totally makes sense.

    While we do have an overabundance of traffic signs, they exist for reason. While people may not actually stop at stop signs, they slow down considerably and look around. Without signs, people would blast through most intersections at 30mph assuming they have the right of way. The only reason some cities have been able to remove stops is because traffic was so heavy that no one was moving fast enough for a stop to matter.

  16. I don’t understand the the ‘idiotic’ language — a simple Google search would show just how ‘idiotic’ it is.,,2143663,00.html 

    you know, who was the guy that invented that idiotic concept — oh, Hans Monderman. 

    drivers have rearview mirrors, and bikers generally do not.

    regardless, most driver deaths aren’t caused by getting hit from behind.

    and i suspect you’re wrong about all three statements in your second paragraph.

  17. So then, tell me why don’t you drive on the “wrong” side of the road if signs and mirrors don’t matter?

  18. i don’t want to get arrested?

    i believe we need mostly separate spaces, not shared spaces, which means i like sidewalks and cycletracks being around for the foreseeable future. cars be gone.

  19. Looks like we’re almost there…

    So if driving on the wrong side isn’t safer, then why would you thing cycling on the wrong side would be?

  20. There’s a whole bunch of back and forth here and not a lot of moving forward.

    I didn’t say anything about the safety of driving on the wrong side, I simply said I didn’t want to get arrested, that’s why I don’t do it.

    Again, the reason cycling on the wrong side of the road is probably safer than cycling on the correct/legal side of the road is because the cyclist would be able to see approaching vehicles — be they drunk, distracted, etc. — and be able to take evasive action if necessary. Cyclists on the correct/legal side of the road most often don’t have this luxury because cyclists typically don’t use rear-view mirrors.

  21. Rather than the Idaho Stop, we should probably be pushing against the overuse of stop signs when more permissive traffic control (like yield signs) would work better.  Japan and much of Oceania and Europe, along with parts of the American midwest, favor the yield sign to avoid causing contempt by familiarity on the stop signs.

  22. You can see traffic approaching with a rear view mirror, too, but you and other road users have more time to react to your presence when you’re both travelling the same direction.  You’re more likely to be hooked by a driver turning since they’re not expecting traffic on the near side of the intersection coming at them on the nearest lane and won’t be looking out for you.  You also put yourself in a chicken situation with oncoming cyclists, putting them in danger.

  23. Well, you are five times more likely to be hit and three times more likely to be killed in the crash riding on the sidewalk than you are riding legally with traffic according to the NHTSA

  24. Or the jogger can just use the shoulder/sidewalk, and the cyclist use the correct lane, rather than put anyone in danger.  If they have to take evasive action, odds are they’re going to leap in front of/steer into the bicyclist.

  25. True. 

    So my solution, if you don’t feel safe, is:
    1) argue for cycletracks,
    2) ride on the sidewalk, deferring to walkers, and if no other good options
    3) ride opposite traffic.

  26. i saw some old vehicular cycling-oriented study that claimed sidewalk cycling was about as dangerous as playing Russian Roulette with a fully-loaded .45, but the study just didn’t make any sense. i’m too bored with all that to look for it now, but if you think it holds water and care and happen to find it (or ‘them’ or whatever), please feel free to post a link.

    in any case, I’m much more confident in the death numbers — that is, if you want to stay alive, stay on the sidewalk. looking at reported deaths of cyclists around the US for the past couple/few years seems to suggest most are killed from behind on the road.

    the injury numbers could be another story — but injuries, to me, weigh much less heavily than “not going to be around anymore to support your family” — by an order of magnitude or two or more. 

  27. 1) Cycletracks are great if they don’t run on the left side of oncoming traffic.  Otherwise you get the deathtrap that is OR 10 in Beaverton.

    2) If that’s even a legal option.  Even then, you’re 5 times more likely to be hit on the sidewalk (since motorists and other cyclists aren’t looking for you there) and 3 times more likely to be killed.

    3) No.

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