Listen: The Bicycle Story podcast takes on the history of the sharrow

Sharrow on NE 45th Street in the U District. Image: Google Street View

Sharrow on NE 45th Street in the U District. Image: Google Street View

Seattle’s unofficial motto could easily be “The City of the Sharrow.” Keegan Hamilton at the Seattle Weekly once suggested the Seattle Sharrows as a name for a D-League basketball team.

And sure, why not? Take one glance at major streets in all corners of the city, and you’re bound to see two chevrons with a bicycle icon beneath it. The sharrow is the city’s most prolific graffiti tag.

There’s a reason I used the color-inverted sharrow as the logo for this blog (other than the free public use rights and a vague allusion to me writing with ink versus the city’s white road paint). In some ways, this simple icon tells the story of biking in Seattle perfectly: We’re a city that wants so badly to appear to be trying to make cycling safer and more accessible, but is so scared of actually making a significant change to roadway design that might upset anyone, that we have to-date painted well over 3,000 of these markings.

92 miles of the city’s claimed bicycle network consists of “shared lane markings.” These 92 miles are why you could be fooled looking at the official Seattle Bike Map into thinking the city’s bike network is fairly complete and connected. Of course when you actually get out on the streets, you encounter roads like NE 45th Street pictured above (and noted as a bike route on the bike map). Yeah, no.

Well, initial findings from a recent study out of CU Denver suggest that shared lane markings have had either no impact on biking rates and biking safety or may even have a negative impact. These results still need peer review, but they likely are not surprising to anyone who has found them of little help on major busy streets.

Seattle’s Josh Cohen has produced a great report for his most recent podcast at The Bicycle Story. Cohen not only spoke with one of the study’s authors, Wes Marshall, but he also tracked down James Mackay, a bike planner who invented the sharrow for the City of Denver in the 90s and helped get the marking into the national traffic design standards.

“Bikes almost became extinct in America, so it’s sort of like reintroducing them,” Mackay told Cohen. And the sharrow was invented for the reason you might expect: City leaders wanted to do something for biking without impacting general purpose or parking lanes. In a way, they were just to officially communicate that bikes do have a legal right to be on a street and should be expected there.

“The evolution of sharrows over the last two decades parallels the evolution of biking as transportation in America over the same period,” Cohen concludes, “they were [created] in an America that saw bikes as exercise equipment and children’s play things.

“They were also a way for cyclists to squeeze a single tow in the door and lay claim to a little piece bit of space on the road,” he said. “In some cities, cyclists now have an entire foot in the door.”

And perhaps that’s the most important thing to remember: The sharrow was born from a cultural mindset that had stopped believing people on bikes had any right to even be on a street at all. After decades of car-centric engineering and investment, our culture simply didn’t acknowledge bicycles as an option. Bike advocates fought hard to protect the legal right to bike on public streets as legal vehicles. A sharrow is a message from the city that bikes are legal, and maybe there were a whole lot of people who needed to learn that lesson (and a handful who still do).

But with the adoption of the city’s Bicycle Master Plan, the era of the shared lane marking in Seattle has given way to the protected bike lane and neighborhood greenway era, promising much higher (and demonstrated) rewards of ridership and safety. And with them comes the need for bold leadership in the face of opposition to parking removal or road design changes. It’s time for a proper place in the city’s transportation network for people of all ages and abilities to feel comfortable and safe getting around by bike.

Maybe sometime soon, Seattle Bike Blog will need a new logo.

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19 Responses to Listen: The Bicycle Story podcast takes on the history of the sharrow

  1. Van Wolf says:

    I had never seen a sharrow before I came to Seattle, as an outsider I saw them as an invitation to ride on the street, a sign to drivers that ‘hey, cyclists frequently use this byway’. Back in my hometown cyclists were required to use the sidewalk or trails, and if they weren’t required, they were certainly shamed into riding on the road. If there was no sidewalk, you were supposed to ride against traffic, what we down here call “salmoning,” At first, I felt safer on roads that had sharrows, but this has changed as I cycle more and more frequently.
    I have had far too many close encounters on sharrow marked streets, and while I work hard to change the minds of those around me, that cycling is not just for children or to work out, as a transportation cyclist I am often intimidated. Many times I have seen sharrows on streets that have cars parked on both sides. How is a person on a bike and a person in a car supposed to pass each other this way? Usually dangerously.
    I think we can change the sharrow from a byword by cyclists for “facepalm” to something closer to its original intent. I believe roads that have sharrows need to have a standard, such as only one side of the road having on street parking, or none at all. Or that the cyclist is supposed to ride in the center of the lane on sharrow marked streets, with no passing allowed. There’s a lot of ways we can still use the sharrow.
    Paint is not infrastructure, its supposed to be a sign of it thereof. I don’t think the sharrow needs to be retired, I think it needs to be reborn.

    • Josh says:

      Many times I have seen sharrows on streets that have cars parked on both sides. How is a person on a bike and a person in a car supposed to pass each other this way?

      They’re not supposed to pass each other. They’re supposed to share the lane, taking turns, one at a time, like any other vehicle, and wait to pass until there’s room to pass.

      That’s one of the problems with Seattle’s early sharrows, they were generally painted much too far to the right, and SDOT’s official guidance actually recommended drivers squeeze past bikes with less than 18″ of clearance.

      (NOTE: Actually, SDOT still suggests that on streets with sharrows, bikes should hug the door zone so cars can squeeze through with 18″ or less of clearance, see http://www.seattle.gov/transportation/sharrows.htm

      In the 2014 BMP Update, there’s a requirement that sharrows be properly centered in the travel lane, so that it’s less ambiguous that bicycles and cars should share the lane in serial, not in parallel. But SDOT says it’s going to take a decade or more to remedy all the improperly-placed sharrows already on the ground.

      Plenty of cities elsewhere in the country have found measurable safety improvements from sharrows, and the new Chicago study is no different — areas where sharrows were used were safer than streets with bike lanes according to the study’s own data. (The paper is pre-publication and hasn’t been through peer review, but it’s available behind a paywall if you want to read the actual numbers instead of the spin.)

      Don’t get me wrong, sharrows aren’t bike lanes, they’re just paint, but installed properly, and especially in cities that follow MUTCD’s suggestion to combine them with “BICYCLE MAY USE FULL LANE” signs, they really can be a significant improvement for city streets.

      • Steve says:

        I don’t think sharrows actually even have any legal meaning.

        Either way, you’re allowed to take the lane on any road bicycles are allowed. I mean that is fundamentally true in every jurisdiction in the US.

        I wish they would center the sharrow on the Southbound Stone from 45th to 34th. I take the lane there because downhill at 29mph, cars have no business passing, but I frequently get honked at because I’m not on the sharrow in the door zone allowing 1 ft passes.

      • Josh says:

        Sharrows have no meaning defined in the RCW itself, but the RCW establishes the WSDOT version of MUTCD as the standard for roadway markings. In that regard, the sharrow is far from unique — the RCW only prohibits driving across double *yellow* lines, for example; the double white lines used for HOV/HOT lanes aren’t in code, but they’re in WA MUTCD.
        http://www.wsdot.wa.gov/Publications/Manuals/M24-01.htm

        The MUTCD-defined meaning of a sharrow says it may be used to:

        Assist bicyclists with lateral positioning in a shared lane with on-street parallel parking in order to reduce the chance of a bicyclist’s impacting the open door of a parked vehicle,
        Assist bicyclists with lateral positioning in lanes that are too narrow for a motor vehicle and a bicycle to travel side by side within the same traffic lane,
        Alert road users of the lateral location bicyclists are likely to occupy within the traveled way,
        Encourage safe passing of bicyclists by motorists, and
        Reduce the incidence of wrong-way bicycling.

        The minimum standard for sharrows beside parallel parking is to have the sharrow centered 11 feet from the curb. No matter how narrow the street, you can’t put it any closer to parked cars than that.

        But best practice is to go beyond bare minimum wherever possible. The ITE’s Traffic Control Devices Handbook has tables for sharrow positioning, to make it easy for road crews to properly place the sharrow centered in the effective travel lane.

        Until the adoption of the 2014 BMP Update, SDOT insisted on minimum-spec, not best practices, but the BMP Update included specific language mandating centered placement of sharrows.

    • Al Dimond says:

      I’d support a law stating that in any lane marked with sharrows it’s illegal for someone driving a car to pass someone biking without making a legal lane change.

  2. Joseph Singer says:

    Ask a typical motorist what those markings in the street mean? Don’t even call them “sharrows.” Probably over 95% wouldn’t have any idea what it signifies.

  3. Shirley says:

    That was slightly depressing to listen to.

    I do like the sharrow indicators on the greenways where they are a great way finding tool. I’m a fan of a large section of the Central District Greenway. Rhe markings on the ground helped me navigate from beginning to end one evening. Although, this might be confusing when the greenway sharrow marking merges with an existing old sharrow. It’s hard to know what is part of the greenway and what is left of the older marking. If the city plans to use the sharrow as a greenway tool then they need to scrub those other markings where the two merge.

  4. William says:

    “Maybe sometime soon, Seattle Bike Blog will need a new logo.”

    Not if the likes of Tom Fucoloro keep on distracting the limited bandwidth of SDOT with secondary priorities like Pronto.

    • Alkibkr says:

      Thank goodness Tom Fucolaro, SDOT, and a majority of the City Sustainability and Transportation Committee share the vision that a bike share system will be a major driver of increased bike transportation mode and improved bike infrastructure. They recognize that to dismantle the small Pronto network in its infancy would be a major mistake. Do you think it was a coincidence that the 2nd Ave bike lane was transformed in a panic just before the Pronto launch? The way to fight resistance to carving more street space out for bicycles is to get more people out there on bikes. Cities that have grown their bike share systems have deemed bike share “the gateway drug to cycling”. I agree with Tom, the Pronto system is easy to use, the bikes are designed to take on most Seattle hills, now the system needs to be expanded to cover more useful destinations with stations placed in highly visible locations to expand its ridership. The opening of UW and Capitol Hill Link stations will help connect the Pronto stations in those areas with the rest of the network, improving the overall utility of the network.

  5. shmarrow says:

    I was visiting Oakland, CA recently and saw a sharrow that might actually make a busy street more pleasant to ride on. The sharrow was accompanied by a solid green stripe down the whole lane. It made it feel like the cars were guests in a very wide bike lane.

    here’s the google street view:
    https://goo.gl/maps/NsPySNv2BWy

    I know this isn’t right for every street, but it’s a nice addition to the repertoire of low cost options to make streets safer for bikes. I’d love to see one in Seattle.

    • William says:

      Might start with 45th street in the U district as per the picture above!

    • (Another) Tom says:

      That does look nice – I like how it clearly shows that bikes can (and should) ride right down the center of the lane.

      Only somewhat discouraging to see the driver in the foreground of your link is clearly texting. It’s cool though because the car seat in the back is empty so he doesn’t need to worry about safe driving until he picks the kid back up from day care.

    • Peri Hartman says:

      I like that ! It’s much clearer to a driver that they need to significantly move over if they are going to pass. It leaves no doubt that the cyclist is expected to ride well out of the door zone.

    • Josh says:

      Putting sharrows over green pavement is experimental, it requires FHWA approval before installation. (But SDOT doesn’t care much for Federal rules, and routinely flouts FHWA’s approved experimentation requirements, so perhaps they’d be willing to try green-background sharrows, too.)

  6. ODB says:

    There are some great comments pointing out the shortcomings of the study in the Streetsblog article. Another approach is to think about the study’s implications: if it suggests that sharrows “may even have a negative impact,” then should we remove all of Seattle’s sharrows in order to halt their pernicious effects? If that doesn’t make sense, then what is the value of the study? What is it about sharrows that would cause them to have a “negative impact”? Would they actually discourage people from riding? Would they actually cause more injuries? Why would they cause more injuries? Does that make any sense at all?

    • Karl says:

      Well, when it comes to Seattle, with a HUGE proportion of the Sharrows painted far to the right, instead of indicating that it is unsafe for a car to pass a bicycle within the lane, it gives drivers the impression that the bicyclist should move over and “share” the lane with the car. The exact opposite of their intention!

      As far as I know, there has never been any driver education on the subject either, so most drivers have no idea what the Sharrows are supposed to mean.

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