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Grist: Elly Blue’s take on sharrows after a recent trip to Seattle

Elly at Twice Sold Tales on Capitol Hill

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:

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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.

Read more…

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.

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15 responses to “Grist: Elly Blue’s take on sharrows after a recent trip to Seattle”

  1. *Walking* tour? Why??

    1. Tom Fucoloro

      Because walking is awesome.

      1. Did you at least bike to the walk? ;)

  2. Lisa

    I actually kind of like 15th ave E for biking, the road is narrow enough with enough destinations that it slows traffic to a decent quick biking speed. However, the only reason I use 15th instead of the side streets is because the side streets are super crappy on Capitol Hill, and I actually feel more in danger of hitting a pothole or bump and flying off my bike than I do from cars on the smoother roads. I do agree that sharrows seem to be sort of a band-aid solution, I would love some nice pavement and sharrows on a side street more than a busy main road.

  3. AiliL

    If SDOT was serious about installing Sharrows showing where the “best place for a cyclist to ride” is, then they would do so consistently and place them smack in the middle of the roadway rather than using the minimum distances provided in the federal guidelines for road markings.
    * I have seen recent Sharrow placements a bit closer to the center of the roadway than previously installed, but in many cases they remain too far to the right (Fauntleroy Ave SW, southbound is a prime example as is Beach Drive SW) which can (and does) encourage cyclists to ride way too close to parked cars, especially on faster arterials (like Fauntleroy) in which drivers consistently drive ~40 mph (it’s a 35 mph roadway).
    * Many people I know refuse to ride southbound on Fauntleroy at all, even with Sharrows because of the fast traffic which can be quite heavy and aggressive during rush hour – and at other busy times even during weekends. The reason SDOT gave at several SBAB (Seattle Bike Board) meetings for installing Sharrows was they didn’t want to upset the locals by removing parking (there was not enough room to install another bike lane between Alaska/California) and that the Sharrow lane was “downhill” – in spite of the fact that it’s very flat. I have yet to see any families or kids riding southbound on Fauntleroy, or Western, and am very interested to see what SDOT will do to Avalon Way SW with Sharrows/bus bulbs/bike lanes.
    * SDOT does seem to be using Sharrows as “wayfinders” to some extent, but many times SDOT is using major arterials, like Avalon Way SW, rather than the actual routes cyclists use, such as SW Yancy/Andover which is in actual need of Sharrows.
    * And to this day, the Sharrow on Beach Drive SW remains on the wrong side of the white fog line in spite of multiple cyclists requesting that this incorrectly placed Sharrow be removed.

    1. NF

      A good way to advocate for center lane placement of sharrows is to point out the cost savings. Center placement pulls the marking outside of the auto wheel treads, and extends the life of the pavement marking.

  4. AiliL

    Don’t even get me started on the Sharrows located on Admiral Way SW from the viewpoint to California. Those are likely the most problematic since they do absolutely nothing to create a safer riding situation for cyclists. After several attempts to use that route I usually default ride on the sidewalk, not my choice of travel at all but at least I can mitigate the threat of being sideswiped or hit from behind a little better.

    1. JAT

      Absolutely right, and as we know, the city dithered over the bike lane on the big uphill, totally failing to see that the danger point is at the viewpoint – when the new lane abruptly ends – a curve where habitual speeders suddenly recognize they’re going too fast for conditions, and regularly crash, sometimes fatally. I’ve seen the planting strip brick tree rings destroyed and replaced at least five times over the years.

      But the city can’t widen lanes or add bikeways everywhere.

      My preferred route is out north on Harbor to California and up the hill that way. It’s further, but for a couple minutes you don’t feel like you’re in a city anymore, and those are my favorite bike moments…

  5. pqbuffington

    Yes, Seattle sharrows…not so much the indicators of rank but more the chevrons of corporal agony and private heroics.

    Not that anyone asked, but my favorite sharrowed route fantasy would be the time…I believe it was 1956 Gent–Wevelgem, when I attacked on the Kemmelberg (in reality, E Aloha St, from 19th Ave E westward toward the 14th Ave E highpoint) only to be bested by “Rik” Van Looey at the finish (in reality, the Summit Public House).

    And my favorite sharrowed route anecdote…That was when a totally-emotionally-out-of-control-driver tailgated and then passed me (while flipping me the bird, no less) on 20th Ave E (southbound, across Alder, Spruce, and Fir and eventually speeding through at least two school-zones at about 8:30 am) and then yelled at me that I was not allowed on said street because there were sharrows on 19th Ave E, one block west. It almost got real ugly when I caught him at the lights at Yesler and then Jackson…

    1. Gary

      If you get treated like that again, call 9-1-1. They want to know about these drivers.

  6. JAT

    Okay, Kevin Love…
    It may be just me, but as an American, I really rankle when I see the term “proper bike facility.”

    It puts me in the mind of “they can’t make a proper cup of tea here!” in a screechy Monty Python in drag voice. See Antonyms at indecent, indecorous, unbecoming, uncomely, unseemly, untoward…

    Safe, practical, well designed, useful? Sure, but “proper?” Give me a break!

  7. merlin

    The sharrows on Stewart between Denny and downtown – crazy! You’re either supposed to ride to the left of the stream of buses in the far right lane, or move over to the far left. I’ve done both – but I’m afraid every time I do that non-bikers will see me and conclude that everyone on a bike is a suicidal fool.

  8. Doug Bostrom

    Far from perfect, admittedly!

    Perhaps I’m weird (perhaps??) but the regular appearance of sharrows through my windshield serves as a helpful reminder to scan for bikes as well as cars and pedestrians. As well, they help make me far more cautious about making right turns or lane changes to the right, more likely to remember to check the offside mirror. I can think of a couple of occasions where this may have made an important difference.



  9. qwerty

    one potential downside to sharrows is they may condition drivers to think that dedicated bike lanes are also ‘shared’ spaces. The sharrow intention is great when it comes to bringing awareness, but their meaning in busy city traffic can be confusing and my lead to increased automobile obstruction of bicycle lanes.

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