During Mia Birk’s recent visit to Seattle, she has focused much of her attention on our city’s use of the sharrow. She was very skeptical at first. After all, she lead much of Portland’s bike infrastructure efforts, which have been successful in getting new people on their bikes by providing high quality, often separated bike facilities.
And let’s be honest, the sharrow is often nothing more than bike riders marking our territory. It’s like a city-sanctioned tag. They don’t provide bike riders with any more privileges or rights than we have on other streets, rather they are just visual reminders that those privileges also exist on this street.
Seattle Likes Bikes published a post a year ago that dives into the differences between “proper” sharrow usage (as outlined in the MUTCD) and what Seattle does. In Seattle, the sharrows are often used as a guide to suggest (though it is not law) to riders where on the roadway they should ride. I can see some value in this role, since it is too often that I see people timidly riding much too far to the right of the roadway or right next to parked car doors. If the sharrow gives riders the encouragement to ride in a safer position (and give them the confidence to assert their legal right to be there), then that is a good thing. After all, experienced riders will simply assert their rights and ride where they know is safest, regardless of road markings.
However, the worst thing a sharrow can do is tell bike riders to stay dangerously close to parked cars or other hazards. This is not uncommon in Seattle, especially with older markings (the “bike in a house” markings, which are an old sharrow design, are rarely placed properly).
The other problem with sharrows is that they give a political out for half-assing a road project that needs bike infrastructure. Bike lanes (especially protected or buffered lanes) often require a reduction in either parking or general traffic lanes. By painting sharrows on the road, the city can avoid a fight and still chalk that road up as having a “bicycle facility.”
So, in which situations should sharrows be used? After visiting Seattle recently, Birk came up with the following on her blog:
1. Gap closure on a road that has bike lanes, bike boulevards, or off-street paths on either end. It’s tricky to state a maximum gap closure distance, but I’d say a half mile is reasonable. Could be longer depending on the circumstances.
2. On neighborhood greenways/bike boulevards as both guidance on where you want cyclists to ride and as passive identification/marketing. See the Streetfilm’s Bike Boulevards Video, and the PBOT Plan on Greenways for more information. Note that design of a neighborhood greenway/bike boulevard is intended to create a safe, comfortable shared use environment.
3. On a downhill in combination with an uphill bike lane…
4. Streets where cyclists can keep up with traffic, such as on downtown Portland’s one-way streets where traffic signals are timed at 12 to 15 mph and cyclists can easily keep up.
Seattle has also used them with some success as a Band-Aid for particularly dangerous sections of road, such as near the trolley tracks on Westlake:
The city has also used them at intersections to mark which lanes bikes should use or — as in the case of the photo below at 11th NE and NE 45th — should not use: