Totcycle | Family Biking

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« What Is It With ... "Sharrows"? »

If you live in Seattle, you've probably noticed SDOT crews burning the late-night propane torch laying down hot little "sharrows" all around town. Sharrows? You know ... the road markings with a bike and chevron arrows, or alternately, the "attention: cyclist in house" markings. These sharrows are a big part of Seattle's Bicycle Master Plan, comprising 1/4 of the planned bicycle routes.

And while I'm usually tickled to see anything happening that promotes cycling, I have mixed and largely unimpressed feelings about sharrows. They do have some research from San Francisco showing that they help with teaching new cyclists to ride outside of the door zone (provided they're properly placed, which isn't always the case), increase passing clearance by motorists, and seem to reduce wrong-way or sidewalk cycling. They're supposed to remind motorists to share the road with cyclists, and to designate popular/practical bicycle routes without, of course, mandating that we use them (since every road except the interstate is shared). I hear Seattle will be evaluating how effective they are, in some fashion.

But to me, sharrows feel like a quickie way to create "bike facilities" without doing anything about the car/bike/parking balance. I'd prefer properly placed (ie outside the door zone) dedicated bike lanes or bicycle boulevards.  Or European style separated cycletracks with carefully planned intersections that protect and favor bicycle traffic.

Some argue that bike facilities increase safety in a roundabout way, which is to boost ridership by increasing perceived safety, which then increases real safety by having a greater, more visible presence of cyclists on the roads. I don't know that sharrows are going to get people out on their bikes the way bike lanes and paths might. But those options might involve some loss of parking or slowing down cars, which require political will and vision that doesn't seem to be here yet.

Not to mention the dominant car culture "free parking is a constitutional right" and "how dare you slow me down" attitudes that are so common. There ain't no such thing as a free parking spot (TANSTAAFPS?). We all pay for parking in terms of increased building costs/rents, inefficient use of urban space, etc etc ... And the number one thing that would make our urban roads safer for all (motorists, cyclists, children, pedestrians) would be complete streets designs and aggressive enforcement to slow cars down. The rate of serious injury and death from collisions increases steeply as you get above 30 MPH.

It's funny how worked up people get about cyclists running stop signs while remaining totally complacent about the fact that driving-related fatalities are staggering, and unchanged over the years despite many safety improvements in car and road design. The "safer" the cars and roads, the worse we drive. Read Traffic for a fascinating look at "How We Drive".

And sharrows are also a bit depressing to me, as they illustrate what an unevolved bicycle awareness we have, both for cyclists (who ideally would know not to ride in the door zone without the sharrows) and motorists (who clearly need better education as well, regarding how to share the road). But if we need that help, and they work, I'll begrudgingly support them, I suppose ...

Thoughts? Anyone feeling safer yet? Here's to hoping we evolve beyond the need to remind people how to share.

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Reader Comments (16)

I'm actually against bike lanes as I feel the segregation perpetuates the belief that bicycles don't belong on roads but belong on some other, special road-like surface that keeps them out of the way of motorists. Separated paths (such as paved multi-use trails) I can get down with - particularly when they allow a cyclist (or runner, or skater) to travel to places that surface streets would be inefficient for. I live in Washington, DC, and there are a number of separated paved trails that allow me to travel to where I need to go while avoiding the Beltway.

If there were universal bike trails along every road, in every city, everywhere, I would be totally into them. Until then, I avoid them (around here they're almost always in the door zone) and ride like I'm a motorist.

"It's funny how worked up people get about cyclists running stop signs while remaining totally complacent about the fact that driving-related fatalities are staggering"

Isn't it, though? People get so furious about the concept that a cyclist isn't making a full and complete stop at a stop sign or a red light without considering why it might not be the same for a cyclist as for a car. I had a friend who used to complain about the red light running make a complete about-face once she had ridden in traffic herself and understood that it's easier to know what's going on around you and SAFELY proceed through intersections against the signal.

August 10, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterEmily WK

I despise sharrows.

I won't let my kids ride in them alone. When I ride them I think I am riding over chalk outlines of traffic accident victims. I hate riding in door zones where sharrows are placed. Often sharrows are in the most poorly maintained area of roadway too. It is a pity that sharrows are our default bike facility that we build in Seattle.

Keep getting more people on bikes Totcycle and Kidical Mass! As taxpaying, road users I'm convinced we will soon have the voice and the votes to effect policy change to create bike boulevards and dedicated bike-only lanes carved out of existing roadway. Keep up the good work!

August 10, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterCathy Tuttle

Thanks, Emily & Cathy! Agreed that sharrows in the door zone are evil and to be avoided ... I do think that SDOT seems to be doing a better job of proper lane placement of the newer sharrows.

Bike lanes in the door zone are even worse, as Emily points out, since it gives the impression that that's where bikes have to ride. I see a lot of ignorant carhead comments about "arrogant" cyclists riding outside the bike lane. Riding to the left is what you should do if the bike lane is in the door zone, if you're moving at the speed of traffic, and coming up to intersections, where the bike lane often puts you in the path of right hooks.

As for red lights, I would only do that in deserted intersections where the bike isn't tripping the sensor. Nothing perpetuates the "scofflaw cyclist" stereotype more than running a red light. I can understand why cyclists do it, but for motorists, running a stoplight is such a societal taboo that it is shocking behavior. And I do think it really fuels the cager vs cyclist dynamic. As for stop signs, I will admit to frequently being in My Own Private Idaho stop law, but I think we cyclists should be a lot better about yielding right-of-way to cars and pedestrians at stop signs.

August 10, 2009 | Registered CommenterJulian / Totcycle

We have a few sharrows around here in Portland and I have to say I like them. However, this is a big distinction, in Portland the city is very particular about where they put sharrows. They do NOT use them as infrastructure on the cheap. Rather, they use them as short-distance connectors where they cannot fit proper bike lanes. Motorists are considerably more patient in those sections of road that have sharrows compared to similar places without them. Certainly though they are the bottom end of bicycle infrastructure and ought only be used where no other options are realistically practical. If they were being used all over town to let the city take credit for building bike infrastructure without spending money or dislocate parking I'd be less than enthused.

August 12, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAllanF

This is why I love reading family cycling blogs b/c I learn so much. New Haven has a few "bike lanes" painted with sharrows. I use the quotation marks purposefully b/c the supposed bike lanes in my neighborhood are right up against heavily parked street. The sharrows are absolutely painted IN door zones. Ahhh.

August 14, 2009 | Unregistered Commentersara

I think sharrows are a waste of paint. Read the comment stream after any blog post about cyclists or bike infrastructure or a bike accident on a mainstream blog and you'll see that they are not doing much to sensitize drivers to sharing the road. I'm not totally opposed to lanes - I love my lane on Marginal Way in the morning, but in the big picture I'm for doing away with on-street parking on one side of most major streets, creating room for true cycle lanes or tracks, and amping up mass transit. But I realize that is a pipe dream.

August 15, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterBikejuju

I agree w/ you on the sharrows. I feel like drivers just don't pay any attention to them since they don't actually give cyclists more room the way bike lanes do. bike lanes and paths mark out a space for cyclists, but sharrows seem to just vaguely tell drivers there may be cyclists. I've also started a blog about cycling @ It would be great if you could link.

August 16, 2009 | Unregistered Commentercloudsofviolet

I totally agree about the sharrows! I feel like it's a way the city can say they're building cycling infrastructure without actually spending much money. I would never ride in the sharrows here in Vancouver with my daughter. I usually give the example to people that if it's not safe enough for me to ride with my child then it's not safe enough period.

August 19, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterPippi

Add another one to the anti-sharrow column. They just added sharrows to one side of the Ave (between 50th and Cowen Park) and a "bike lane" to the Southbound lane. Both are poorly placed right in the door zone.

As Anne and I were headed to drop off our ballots we chatted about the poor design and how it will lead to car-bike crashes. Ten seconds later, a guy in the bike lane in front of us missed getting right-hooded by inches (both rider and car had to make evasive actions) by an overtaking car.

These lanes/sharrows sure don't make me feel any safer!

PS -- we're bummed that we missed Kidical Mass Beer Edition while we were bike touring on Lopez Island, but glad you had a great time. At least we were keeping with the spirit of kids, bikes, and alcohol (wait... that didn't come out right! ;-)

August 19, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterTim K

My town recently painted the chevron-style "sharrows" all over its main roads, doing a good job of not placing them in the door zone. Prior to this, the cyclists I'd see on the streets were mostly the fixed gear crowd and the seasoned commuters, 80% of them male. Since the "sharrows," the number of women, families, younger cyclists, casual and relaxed cyclists, etc., has visibly increased, as has the number of cyclists overall.

I don't see the "sharrows" as an inferior version of bike lanes. I thought their purpose was to promote vehicular cycling by (1) reminding cars that bikes are legally allowed on roads, and (2) reminding cyclists that they belong on the road.

August 20, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterLovely Bicycle!

To clarify, the proper use of sharrows are places where there is not room enough for a bike and car to be safely side-by-side. Examples would be squeeze points due to bridges, street plantings or pedestrian islands around parks, or heavily trafficked and non-standard intersections. The roads leading to the pinch points may be otherwise suited for bikes and may or may not have bike lanes. However, at the pinch point it is safest for the cyclist to take the lane. The sharrow communicates to motorists that cyclists will be taking the lane and they should yield.

That's how we do it in Portland, and in my experience it works. Not saying sharrow haters are wrong, but the hate should be directed toward their improper use, not the sharrow itself.

August 20, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAllanF

I think there's probably more sharrow-hatin' going on in cities where they're often deployed incorrectly or as a cheap paint substitute for other facilities on roads that could support them.

I think they can serve a purpose, and sad to say, most cities need some reminding that the road is shared. And with the influx of new cyclists we're seeing, they need some educating about where/how to ride safely. And if sharrows can help cyclists feel like legitimate "intended road users", maybe we'll ride more like legal, enfranchised citizens of the road and less like the "outlaws" we're often depicted as.

August 20, 2009 | Registered CommenterJulian / Totcycle

Hear, hear! Just found this blog and I love the comments. We are just getting sharrows placed around Pittsburgh, and (fingers crossed) I am cautiously optimistic. Here's the newest ones. It's always good to have examples of things done well.

August 20, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterLyle

I agree that sharrows are not always the ideal way for cities to deal with biking infrastructure (but as a couple of people pointed out, there are correct ways to use them). But I sit on my city's BPAC (Bicycling Pedestrian Advisory Committee) and can tell you that it's not the city's way of not dealing with infrastructure, but merely to provide cyclists and motorists some awareness until bigger infrastructure can be addressed. Our city has plans deal more thoroughly with bike lanes and other infrastructure, but until we can get the money, we're using sharrows in more places to get the idea across that cyclists are part of traffic. Yes, it's stop-gap measure, but at least something is there! In my opinion, motorists need to be aware that cyclists are a part of everyday traffic. They may not like it, but we are there!

Great blog, btw!

October 23, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAmy

Thanks, Amy! I'm warming to sharrows ... and cooling to bike lanes which are so frequently in the door zone, and on busy arterials at that.

October 23, 2009 | Registered CommenterJulian / Totcycle

I haven't tried riding in a sharrow yet and based on what you've all said I won't bother trying even once. I think it's dangerous.

January 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSamatha @ DKNY designer

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