Elly Blue, a prolific bicycle writer and zine editor from Portland who is a staple of our weekly Bike News Roundups, came to Seattle over the weekend along with Joe Biel of Microcosm Publishing (you may remember Elly and Joe from Bikestravaganza in 2010).
After hanging out at Twice Sold Tales, we took a long walking tour through Capitol Hill, First Hill, Yesler Terrace, the ID and the Central District nerding out about bike infrastructure and bike culture (among other topics). We also made it to the Goodwill Glitter Sale where we found tons of fucking sequins.
Our conversation made its way to sharrows, which are the topic of her most recent story for Grist:
Seattle has its own brand of sharrow growing pains. Riding and walking around town, it’s hard to see a logic to the streets chosen for sharrow treatment. Some are on relatively quiet back streets, others are on breathtakingly fast arterials where the symbols are worn and rutted by the daily flow of cars and trucks speeding over them.
Sharrows are popular because they are politically easy — you can almost hear city officials sigh with relief when sharrows are mentioned. On the surface, they seem like a way to please the increasingly vocal bike lobby without ruffling feathers by putting in a bike lane at the expense of car parking or traffic lanes, which are often perceived as being for cars only. And they’re cheap: Sharrows cost only $229 each to install, including labor and materials, while a full-blown bike lane can cost between $5,000 and $60,000 per mile.
But do sharrows work? One recent study says sharrows slow car traffic slightly, and make bicyclists a little safer. But they are even better at keeping drivers at a distance from parked cars — once again, bike infrastructure benefits more than just people on bikes.
Fucoloro’s conclusion about sharrows: “They’re better as wayfinding signs” rather than safety tools.
Seattle’s sharrows are a rather confused road marking. They seem to have been tasked to do a lot of things, and I am not convinced that many people know all of their tasks. Legally, they don’t do anything. No laws change when they are placed on the ground. They are a reminder that people biking have a right to the road, and when placed properly they give helpful suggestions to people biking about where on the roadway is best to ride.
But sharrows can also be used as an excuse not to build a proper bicycle facility, either because parking or lane changes would be controversial or difficult. When sharrows are placed on busy roadways despite better alternatives that remain unmarked, I wonder if they are almost counter-productive.
Here’s an example: 15th Ave E in Capitol Hill. It’s a commercial drag with lots of great destinations, and it’s marked with sharrows. But it’s not a particularly fun or comfortable street to bike on, and nearly any parallel neighborhood street is a better option for the majority of people biking. Yet the sharrows on 15th send visual cues to people biking that it is the best street to choose. It also gets marked on the city’s bike route map because it now has a “bicycle facility.”
So while sharrows might help avoid some honking or otherwise meatheadish and aggressive driving behavior, they can do a disservice for beginning bikers trying to find their way around.
At a recent meeting of the Seattle Bicycle Advisory Board, SDOT mentioned that sharrows were preliminarily planned on the upcoming N/NW 85th St repaving project between Greenwood and Ballard. This is a notoriously steep and busy street that only the bravest sect of bikers would feel comfortable using (especially uphill). The board wisely advised against placing sharrows on the road (bike lanes are not on the table, it seems) because they didn’t think it was wise to send signals to new riders that 85th is a good way to get between the two neighborhoods.
Especially as the city moves into neighborhood greenways, the meaning of the sharrow in Seattle is set for a make-over. SDOT has drawn out preliminary markings on N/NE 44th St in Wallingford, and they are using sharrows in exciting ways (for example, they have sharrows at the traffic circles designating which way to go around them while also reminding drivers that the street is a family-friendly bike route).
As we move into “next generation” bicycle facilities, like wider bike lanes, separated facilities and neighborhood greenways, it makes sense for the city to be a little more picky about where the symbols are placed. After all, once the Wallingford greenway is complete, it will be one block south of the most dangerous bicycle intersection in the city: NE 45th St in front of Dick’s Drive-In. That intersection is marked with sharrows, too.