Eyes on the Street: Bike Contraflow Over the Gowanus

Union Street looking west at Nevins. The contraflow bike lane is separated from eastbound car traffic by a dashed double-yellow line. Photo: Keith Williams

Reader Keith Williams, who blogs at The Weekly Nabe, recently got a few shots of the brand new contraflow bike lane in progress on Union Street. This project will add a sorely needed westbound bike connection across the Gowanus Canal — part of a route that jogs from Degraw, down to Union, then back up to Sackett [PDF].

The contraflow lane on Union is notable for a few reasons.

One, it came out of Council Member Brad Lander’s 2012 participatory budgeting process. In the end it wasn’t paid for with Lander’s discretionary funds (other projects got more votes), but because Lander put out the call for ideas, it got NYC DOT’s attention. So, chalk one up for community-based planning.

Two, I believe this is a first for NYC — a contraflow bike lane separated from opposing traffic with a dashed double-yellow stripe. Other contraflow lanes, like the one on Union Square North, have more separation from traffic, but there’s not always enough room for that. Bike lanes like the new one on Union work in other cities and promise to make the city’s bike design toolkit more flexible.

Adding more contraflow lanes could help fill in some missing links in the bike network. A few years ago, for instance, Brooklyn Community Board 2 member Mike Epstein proposed a short contraflow segment to help bridge gaps in the bike network at the confluence of Flatbush, Third Avenue, and Lafayette Avenue.

You can catch more photos of the Union Street project at the Weekly Nabe.

  • Anonymous

    This was sorely needed. The previous legal westbound routes across the Gowanus were ridiculously cumbersome for bikes, especially given the way Union connects to Prospect Park. So, naturally, a lot of cyclists just ignored the legal routes and made their own contraflow trips over Union. I’m glad DOT, after Lander’s goosing, put an end to that.

  • Omefiets

    the Lafayette counterflow bike line is really needed – and there is palenty of space there to implement it. And would connect 3rd and Schermerhorn bikelanes to Fulton street (which needs some sharrows).

    While they are at it, they might as well make the State street – Hanson place crossing of Flatbush legal for bikes…. I do this all the time, but have to cross a sidewalk for 10′ to make that connection – just a few marker on the pavement would be a great start…

  • carma

    quite interesting. as more and more folks start cycling to get around, we are going to need a lot more lanes, contralanes, etc…

    on my rides this week, ive never encountered so much bike traffic before. when i mean traffic, i mean a LOT of bikes that we need to start expanding more lanes.

  • Anonymous

    But we all know bike lanes are rarely used.

  • Anonymous

    Maybe it’s my lack of a spine but the thought of going against traffic including a fair bit of truck traffic protected only by a bit of paint makes me a bit nervous.

  • That lane would scare the bejeezus out of me.

  • Daniel

    It already feels like cars and trucks should be banned from Vanderbilt St in Brooklyn. I imagine if the car parking and travel lanes this would work:


  • Ex-driver

    Is it just me, or is this a really poor design? Why wasn’t the contraflow lane put flush with the sidewalk, and the parked cars moved to the center of the road?

  • Anonymous

    I agree, this lane looks dangerous. Imagine what happens when someone opens their door, or pulls out of the parking space without looking, as a truck is coming on. The parking should be moved to the other side of the street, or the bike lane should be between the parked cars and the curb.

  • rickrise

    A driver preparing to open a door is much more likely to see you coming here than in the usual door zone bike lane (same direction)configuration; likewise someone pulling out. At least, it certainly seems to me that they aren’t looking back all that much! considering what we have to put up with now.

    A study in Germany found that contraflow lanes on low-speed one-way streets resulted in a slight decrease in bicycle crash rates coupled with a notable increase is bicycle usage of the streets in question:

  • Bolwerk

    Laziness probably. I doubt it even costs more. Arguably drivers use the curb to park – when they feel the back left tire hit the curb, they turn the wheel hard to back in.

    I still say NYC is screwing up the bike lanes putting them on asphalt at all. They should be between pedestrians and asphalt, but contiguous with the sidewalk. Safer, and doesn’t even create the illusion that cyclists are “using the road.” It’s almost like city planners enjoy watching meathead drivers get angry at cyclists.

  • Clarence

    I was over in Carroll Gardens/Red Hook yesterday and the numbers of new bike lanes being painted OR re-striped seemed to be off the charts. Exciting to see lots of infra being done in the final year of JSK/Bloomberg.

  • Ex-driver

    I still think it’s dangerous, and certainly violates what I understand to be the principles of traffic engineering, to force bicyclists into oncoming traffic when somebody’s pulling into or out of a parking space, or opening a door.

    Anyway, this could all be avoided by simply having the bike lane and the parking lane switch places. Is there some reasonable reason this could or should not be done?

  • Sean Kelliher

    No, you’re not alone. It is a bad design. There’s nothing to prevent motorists from parking in the lane and getting around them, especially when you’re riding the “contra” direction, will require a huge leap of faith. You’ll have to go out into the vehicle lane with limited to no visibility (depending on the size of the car/truck parked in the lane) and hope there’s not a vehicle coming at you.

  • Driver

    The problem with building cycle infrastructure off the road is that it perpetuates the misconception that cyclists are not entitled to use the road.

  • Joe R.

    Besides that, if the bike lane is at sidewalk level you’ll be going up and down curb cuts at every intersection, which could get tedious. Unless of course, you want to dead end side streets on the side of the road with the bike lane. This is something I actually favor-dead end side streets, and then one can bike along the entire length of the lane without stopping or hitting intersections.

  • Joe R.

    Same here, and I’m pretty hard core with things like that. They should have switched the parked cars and bike lane. As things stand now, the closing speed between bikes and cars went from 5 to 15 mph up to maybe 35 to 50 mph. That doesn’t give a whole lot of time to react.

    All that said, at least this gives legitimacy to the idea that one way streets for cars don’t also have to be one way for bikes. I would like to see more of this, only done in a safer manner.

  • Anonymous

    Pedestrians tend to walk all over bike lanes at sidewalk level, they think it’s part of the sidewalk. See Albany St. in Cambridge, MA.

  • ausserirdischesindgesund

    Think of it as a street with two lanes for the opposing directions that don’t have the same width.

    We’ve got lots of these here in Austria, and while I was sceptical too in the beginning, these are *less* problematic than most other types of cycle paths, because you are noticed a lot more.
    Not once did I have a problem with oncoming traffic passing too close.

    Also cars slow down, a lot, in practice in these streets.

    This is really one of the most desirable types of infrastructure, as it saves cyclists detours of whole blocks in one-way systems.

  • ausserirdischesindgesund

    I use and like infrastructure like this a lot. You ride as closely as possible to the yellow lines, because that side of traffic will notice you easily. The parking cars are of course the dangerous part, so you keep away from them as much as possible.

    Notice how the car lane on the left is easily wide enough for cars to pass you, there won’t be a problem even if you ride directly *on* the yelllow lines.

  • ausserirdischesindgesund

    I use designs like this every day here in Austria. I don’t know if it is “bad” per se, it seems to work a lot better than most of the other design elements we’ve got here (e.g. a lot better that cycle paths painted on pavements).

    There *will* indeed be cars parking ever so often (it is self limiting though, because the motorists “walled in” will complain eventually), and the correct way to handle that is just to do it early enough (while you are still seen and seeing what is going on) in front of the parked car. Just as with any other too narrow street, you use the left lane when there is a gap in traffic.

    In practice speeds will go down when there are two lanes of cars parked anyway, this will not be a problem.

  • ausserirdischesindgesund

    It’s not that bad. Don’t underestimate the effect of bringing down speeds by infrastructure like this. Even when there are no cyclists, the lines will make the street narrower, making it clearly single lane. The lines on the left might be new for motorists too, so they might be somewhat disoriented by them subconsciously, and slow down a bit.

    When there are cyclists coming the other way, this effect is even stronger. Cars *will* slow down.

  • Anonymous

    Yes because cars always slow down when road markings tell them too.

  • I just rode both ways on the lane, nothing terrifying about it. For one thing it is just one block without a lot of activity; you are not likely to have to deal with motorists parking. And as the pdf mentions, people were already riding this way before it was legalized. There’s the constituency. I think the DOT made the right choice here, no need to rile up motorists with a floating parking lane for a short link in a longer route.

    Another thing I noticed, there’s a lot of 20 mph zones with speed bumps and other physical cues to drive slowly in this neighborhood, and most of the intersections are not signaled. It’s quiet, calm. Then I rode to Clinton St., with its absurd series of reds that merely provoke bullish motorists. They honk, they “floor it”, they do what New York motorists are well known to do at stoplights. It makes Cobble Hill feel positively benighted.

  • ausserirdischesindgesund

    Sometimes they do. Everything that makes a street look narrower makes them slower.

  • SteveF

    DOT just formally legitimized the route I have used from Park Slope for the past 30 years. I tried out Bond St using the 3rd St Bridge (two way) and and Carroll St Bridge (wrong way) but Bond is narrow with a lot of parking on both sides to Union St. Drivers consistently harassed cyclists along this section of Bond. Not Safe.

    Instead, I found that riding “carefully” the one long block over the Union St Bridge is the safest way to reach northbound Bond St. I ride west on President St, turn north one block on Nevins (two way for its last two blocks), and “carefully” went wrong way over the Union St Bridge, riding on my right side of the road. The eastbound bike lane is on the other side of the road. A few years ago, DOT painted a white buffer line where the yellow line is now, to narrow the single motor lane. This made the westbound trip even easier.

    There is very limited parking on the north side between Nevins and Bond. Alternate side cleaning closes parking, the bridge area has no parking or standing rules and there are several large driveways that eliminate more parking. On the south side of Union, there are long stretches of No Parking/No Standing along the curb. The land uses have low turnover for cars too.

    The only problem on Union Street have been a string of Tour Buses parked along the curb, waiting for repair at a shop at the corner of Union and Nevins. These buses are nearly always parked in the NO STANDING zones – even left to layover over night. They park them on on the south side of Union right up to the corner at Nevins, totally blocking visibility by right turning cars from Union and all turning bikes from both sides of Nevins. The buses are 8-1/2 feet wide, and hang over the bike lane, even when parked up against the curb – they are =2-1/2 wider than cars!. This business is saving money by illegally parking in NO Standing Zones. It should stop.

    As several people have noted, contraflow bike lanes have been used successfully in European cities for years. This one block of Union Street over the canal is just one of those perfect matches of just the right width for a single wide one way motor lane and two bike lanes. It’s also relatively flat with good sight lines from end to end (except for those buses) and limited low turnover parking. It’s no more difficult to ride on than the streets approaching or leaving Union, but if you really don’t like it, share the sidewalk with a few pedestrians – carefully – and get back on the road at Bond Street. It’s still a good route.

    Thanks Brad and thanks DOT.

  • Bolwerk

    I don’t see how – certainly it doesn’t do that anymore than having a piece of the “road” (I am deliberately making a distinction between “road” and “street”) paved over. The difference, with sidewalk contiguity, is it wouldn’t occur to most people to violate the bike lane, which they do with impunity right now.

    But really, I think all that is just over-analysis. The key point is sidewalk continuity simply provides cyclists a safer place to cycle, which is good for everybody.

  • Just to clarify, I’m not saying that I think it’s necessarily bad infrastructure, but it might take me a few times down to not be super twitchy the whole way.

  • Rabi Abonour

    This is certainly true on Indianapolis’s new “Cultural Trail;” though parts are divided for bikes and walkers, people walk in both parts.

  • Anonymous

    How about a google maps or openstreetmap link to one of those Austrian
    designs. I know contraflow is not uncommon in Europe, but it seems
    ridiculous to put it between moving and parked cars when it could have
    been adjacent to the sidewalk. I doubt you will see anything like this
    in the Netherlands unless the speed limit is 12 mph or less.



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