Why SF Should Strive to Replicate the Polk Contra-Flow Protected Bike Lane

A family rides the new Polk Street contra-flow bike lane to City Hall on Bike to Work Day. Photo: SFBC

On the two southernmost blocks of Polk Street, between Market Street and City Hall, the new contra-flow protected bike lane creates a unique street layout for San Francisco. For the first time on a downtown street, people on bikes are accommodated in a way that people in cars are not. Bike traffic goes both ways, while cars only go one.

It’s one of several ways in which this short stretch is more powerful than the sum of its two blocks. The Polk contra-flow lane is the best segment of bicycle infrastructure in San Francisco, acting as a real-world showcase of what’s possible for a citywide network of high-quality bicycle routes.

The Polk contra-flow lane is “a game changer, without a doubt,” said Leah Shahum, executive director of the SF Bicycle Coalition. “People can now see with their own two eyes and ride on what is a model for a great bike facility. We don’t have to theorize about what could be, or show pictures of European cities. We can literally look at what is a well-designed, inviting and safe bikeway that lives up to the ‘8-to-80’ promise that city leaders have committed to.”

The new bike lane is the first to be separated from motor traffic with a concrete planted median, with parking spaces acting as an extra buffer at some spots. It features bicycle traffic signals, green paint for high visibility, and clear pavement markings at the Market Street intersection to guide bike commuters to the entrance.

Where the protected bike lane ends at Grove Street, and two-way motor traffic returns, riders aren’t totally thrown back into the fray, either. A green bike lane segment was added across the front of City Hall, and it was made safer with car parking re-configured to back-in angled parking. This treatment goes to McAllister Street, where the rest of Polk is being re-designed as a separate project.

“They’re now seeing those bread crumb trails, where they can get from point A to point B,” said Tim Papandreou, the SFMTA’s director of strategic planning and policy. Papandreou is overseeing the development of the SFMTA’s Bicycle Strategy, a guide for the city’s next generation of bicycle improvements.

The SFMTA created a metric called “Level of Traffic Stress” to measure the quality of bike route segments. It is based on how easy and comfortable a bike route feels for the average person. The Polk contra-flow lane is a prime example of “LTS 1,” the lowest level of stress, meaning the street is considered to be accessible by San Franciscans of all riding abilities, says Papandreou.

“When we point now to Level of Traffic Stress 1, comfortable cycling for everybody, that’s exactly what we’re talking about,” he said. “With the will of the leadership, and funding, we can do more of that.”

Mayor Lee, DPW Director Mohammed Nuru, and their commuter convoy on the Polk contra-flow bike lane on Bike to Work Day. Photo: Mayor Ed Lee/Twitter

As it happens, the Polk lane acts as a sort of green carpet to City Hall, a highly visible invitation to SF’s public officials to roll up to work themselves. “Every decision maker coming in and out of this building will now be reminded of the importance of bicycling in our city, and the potential it holds to make San Francisco a better place,” said Shahum.

Photo: SFMTA Livable Streets/Facebook

“The ability to cross from Market to come over to City Hall is absolutely amazing,” said Supervisor London Breed at the Bike to Work Day press conference last week.

Passersby, on bikes or not, will also be getting a close look at the new standard for protected bike lanes in SF. “Even for people who may never get on a bike, this is a chance for people to see and understand the benefits of dedicated bike space, for non-bicyclists too,” said Shahum. “This is a tremendously more predictable street, whether you’re walking, biking, or driving.”

The new lane links some fast-changing neighborhoods. Market and Polk is the doorstep of Twitter and new high-rise condos, and people can now bike easily to and from the Tenderloin, and the restaurants and nightlife on middle and upper Polk.

“Safer connections between south-of-Market and north-of-Market strengthens the Central Market, Civic Center and Tenderloin communities,” said Tracy Everwine, executive director of the Central Market Community Benefit District. “It’s fantastic DPW prioritized this much-needed infrastructure project to help us become a more bicycle friendly district.”

Everwine was referring to the fact that the project was only built in time for Bike to Work Day after a push from Department of Public Works chief Mohammed Nuru, at the urging of the SFBC. The contra-flow lane was proposed ten years ago, and is one of the last projects to be implemented from the 2009 SF Bike Plan.

“People waited a long time,” said Papandreou. “This is a 15-year overnight success.”  

It also figures to be the forerunner of several more high-quality bike lanes planned for other streets in the coming years. Raised bike lanes are set to hit Second Street and Masonic Avenue in the next two years, and they’ve been proposed for the Better Market Street project, along most of that corridor.

The bike lane on the southbound side of southern Polk was widened and upgraded with plastic posts, green paint, and a re-configured ramp. Photo: SFMTA Livable Streets/Facebook

Next year, construction is planned for a redesign on Polk north of McAllister to Union Street, but merchants obsessed with preserving car parking have prevented protected bike lanes on most of that segment. A raised, protected bike lane will extend up to California Street, but the segment north of California to Union Street will only get sharrows in one direction and a conventional bike lane, between parked cars and moving cars, in the other.

The southbound side of most of Polk is set to get a green buffered bike lane that will run either curbside or next to parked cars, depending on the block. It would be similar to the setup put in place on the southbound side south of Grove Street, where the bike lane was upgraded with green paint and plastic posts, and widened, to complement the new contra-flow lane.

Shahum said the cheap and easy measures like paint and posts — similar to what’s been in place on mid-Market for a few years — are “nice to have,” and it adds to the “continuity” of the bike network that’s needed.

But the real model is across the street, she said, where the real physical protection offered by the contra-flow lane represents “the level of safety and comfort that we know we’re going to need in the city to help bring out the next generation of prospects of people that are bicyclists.”

“This is basically mainstreaming bicycling for a few blocks on a San Francisco street,” she said. “We’re not just squeezing in the margins anymore.”

The entrance to the Polk contra-flow lane, complete with bike signal, at Polk and Market. Photo: Frank Chan/Flickr
Navigational bike box markings at the Market Street intersection make the Polk lanes easy to use. Photo: Stan Parkford
The parking-protected bike lane layout provides an optimal situation for car parking and loading. Photo: Sergio Ruiz/Flickr
  • These two blocks are very nice. Short, but very nice. They have improved my quality of life.

    Failing turning SOMA back into two way streets, I would love a contraflow lane on Folsom, at least in western SOMA. Harrison is a horrible street to bike on, and Howard makes you track back to Folsom anyway. The combination of one way streets and ginormous blocks are really problematic on a bike. Though I don’t salmon or ride on the sidewalk, I understand when people do on Folsom.

  • The whole “gap” between the south end of the Howard bike lane and the southern two-way Folsom lane (great job SFMTA) and northern one way Folsom (wonderful sneak attack bike lane addition SFMTA) is an area where I would love to see a scrappy interim solution while we wait for the new world class solution which is on the way.

  • This is an important showcase for what sharing the public transportation realm looks like when done right. Folks go on about hypothetical dire consequences of something new (for this City). So great to have an on the ground example of buffered cycle tracks demonstrating that “it just works”.

  • This is great! The whole city should be covered in these.

    Heading south on Polk and turning left onto Market was a little unclear to me. I did it wrong once, but now it’s clear you just get out of the bike lane and into the left lane to make the turn.

  • @davidbakerfaia:disqus yours is an important point, because the inability for most people to visualize the benefits (including our planning staff at times) leads to the installation of compromised solutions.

    One can see this in the watering down of the Upper Polk plan, and the distinct lack of boldness in new opportunities such as Columbus Ave in North Beach, where planners think a pilot bike lane sandwiched between moving traffic and parked cars somehow indicates progress.

  • Richard Mlynarik

    a scrappy interim solution

    Nothing could be simpler. Just remove (if I counted correctly the other day) 19 inexplicably un-metered curbside parking spots on the east side of Folsom between Division and Duboce and apply the Magic Green Paint that Makes Everything Wonderful.

    Oh, and “world class solutions” to any public infrastructure anywhere in the San Francisco Bay Area? WTF? WTF?!? Never seen one, and I can bet you a large amount I will not live to ever do so.

    PS The Muni 12 should be allowed to use the crazily wide SoMa Folsom bike lane thing. It’s completely unacceptable that buses are stuck stranded screwed in gridlock while a handful of bicycles (including my good self) slip right by.

  • M.

    This story got covered all over, including the UK and New Zealand. It fits the global image of SF as in the vanguard. True or not, that’s a lot of why SF’s main economic sector is tourism. I’ve made the case many times about how Polk could get a stream of tourists making a loop including Fisherman’s Wharf, The Embarcadero, Market, the Civic Center…More of the same, please!

  • Does Mayor Lee’s cheap suspension bike say anything about his understanding of urban cycling needs? I’m not sure.

  • And the DPW guy seems to be on a mountain bike. Is it me or are they women’s bikes?

  • Steven H

    Which is weird, since my hometown (DC) has had contra-flow bike lanes for a few years now. I just assumed everyone has them! Has the vanguard got bikeshare yet?

  • djconnel

    Absolutely! Any time change is proposed, there’s an obsession with what could be lost, and a total lack of vision (even in the face of examples) of what will be gained.

  • Gezellig

    Real-life experience with good separated bike infra is a huge deal!

    So, basically, we need dozens more routes like this…and for longer than 2 blocks. And they should intersect. Perhaps like this:

    Or this:


    Dreaming here…but imagine if crazy intersections like Market/16th/Noe were reconfigured as a (more ovoid) roundabout patterned off that model? I’m still waiting to see which US city will first implement the protected 4-way-stop intersection. NYC has already started to do Dutch-inspired cycletrack roundabouts in a couple locations:


    It’s a big deal even (and maybe especially?) for people who don’t ever bike on Polk but just see it in action. Whether you’re on foot or car or bus or whatever you can tell that it just “works” to give bikes their own protected channel.

    In addition, experiential empathy is a big deal. The more this kind of stuff gets built, the more people try biking who might not’ve really considered it before. Even if you don’t bike most of the time but every once in awhile start biking you start to “get it” in terms of experiential empathy. Otherwise a lot of drivers out there last rode a bike on a driveway as a kid and have no experiential empathy for what it’s like to get around a city like SF on a bike.

  • SFnative74

    It does, and this is the 3rd contraflow lane in SF. First one was done in 2005.

  • SFnative74

    Do “real drivers” drive a certain type of car? Or “real pedestrians” wear a certain brand of shoe?

  • SFnative74

    Looking at the bikes, they are not women’s bikes – they have sloping top tubes, which make them easier to mount/dismount and are very common these days. The mayor is also on a fully rigid bike, not a suspension bike. And the “DPW guy” is on a hybrid with a front shock, which is a really good choice for a city bike for some people.

  • SFnative74

    A world class solution in bikeway design tends to be cycletracks, something you seem to love to mock when people bring it up.

  • M.

    😀 I did say, ‘true or not.’ My own perspective is international where contraflows, protected cycleways, etc. have been in place for a long time or are rapidly being installed. Discussions w/ visitors and my friends from abroad reveal a perception that SF has an eccentric style, an anything goes gestalt, and some of the best food in the US (faint praise?).
    However the most remarkable features re. getting around are 1. hills and 2. cable cars.

  • M.

    and total muteness from the naysayers.

  • M.

    any gridlock caused by cyclists is dwarfed in comparison to vehicular congestion and double parking. Ask any Muni driver.

  • SFnative74

    The idea to allow buses to use the bike lane is not necessarily a bad one, but in this case it would require removing the newly installed posts and re-open the way for mis-use by drivers. Also, opening a bikeway to bus use could be considered but it would be nice if bus lanes were first open to cyclists for use in this town, as is common in other cities. There are plenty of places where it could work (Post and Sutter are two places we could start).

  • 94110

    Yes. It’s called a “manual transmission”. If you drive an automatic, keep it in the suburbs.

    Man it’s fun to decide an entire class of road users are invalid. Now I see where the anti bike nuts are coming from!

  • I was wrong, just upset about the progress of safe bicycling in SF and wondering if it’s just a show or if they really care.

  • It just looked like front shocks. People are upset about the extra danger, pollution and budget cuts,the mayor brought with getting rid of Sunday meters.

  • murphstahoe

    Sloping top tubes have nothing to do with mounting/dismounting. It’s just cost savings for the manufacturer.

  • Richard Mlynarik

    any gridlock caused by cyclists

    It’s being unable to use an entirely empty congestion-free traffic lane which is screwing Muni. not the handful of cyclists (myself included) in that lane.

    It’s crazy. It’s highly sub-optimal, even. But of course insane outcomes are what we all, in each of our special snowflake ways, are all working diligently towards here in “World Class” San Francisco.

  • SFnative74

    There are cost savings, they make it easier to mount/dismount, they can be used to adjust the vertical stiffness of a bike frame, they are for creating a certain look, they are for creating fodder for commenting on items that have nothing to do with the original posting – they are for a lot of things!

  • SFnative74

    Well, this post was about Polk St. Any comments on that design?

  • M.

    Shared transit lanes is one answer – if taxis and limos can deal with that.

  • phoca2004

    Wow, two whole blocks of decently implemented bike lane, that lead to city hall. Let’s hear it for pols ensuring their $4 a slice toast is buttered, and only how many years in the planning! That is what I call visionary leadership.

  • 94103er

    Of course this is what we all want, but hasn’t been shown lately that there’s no way, no how this will meet approval with SFFD? Does any new street infrastructure stand a chance if the fire department fights it? Is it a different situation in NYC or something? I really don’t understand how this all works–probably because in SF it’s pretty much all a matter of which corrupt decision-maker gets to speak up last.

  • @SFnative74 – I’m not sure how that would work in a city with so many failing slippery slopes. Our transit-only lanes are routinely blocked by cars, our “diamond” lanes consider taxis to be “transit” (unlike most of the world’s cities). A bus-and-bike lane would be yet another variety of confusion, no doubt filled with cars as well.

  • Gezellig

    Yeah, I’m also curious as to how NYCDOT reached out to FDNY make sure its projects got done. Though in general NYCDOT seems to have a lot more say in getting things done, no matter what the scaremongers say. They weren’t even stopped by Senator Chuck “Won’t Somebody Please Think Of The Limos?!” Schumer who had a sad about a bike lane being installed in front of his house and fought it viciously…but NYCDOT still just went right ahead.

    In any case, experience has shown that even with the fairly radical road diets NYCDOT has been doing in Manhattan emergency response times are at their best ever:


    Some might even argue that it’s *because* of the road diets they’re at their best ever. After all, declining road “accidents” means FDNY can focus on other emergency calls.

  • person-200

    I love this…except…once you cross market to 10th there’s NO ROUTE. The happy bike place just vanishes and the right lane at market and 10th is a clusterfuck for cars I pity any cyclist that attempts it.

  • Fair enough. I was a it concerned and skeptical. Thank you.

  • Fair enough, I was just concerned.


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