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    Sharrows are a sham solution for bike lanes

    These faux-lanes for bikes are ambiguous and do little more than enable politicians to claim more bike miles. Here's a better solution.
    A Seattle sharrow: not at all intuitive

    A Seattle sharrow: not at all intuitive Matt Fikse

    Look at any of the great bicycle-friendly cities of world (Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Portland, to name a few). In a quick glance one thing stands out: the existence of clearly demarcated lanes for bicycle travel. Whether separate from auto traffic or adjacent to it, when demarcated bike lanes appear, people tend to use them. A real-world case of "if you build it, they will come."

    In Seattle, however something quite different has also appeared: "Sharrows" or "shared-lane markings." No doubt you've seen them. They amount to a bicycle graphic slapped into car lanes and are inconsistently spaced and placed on streets all throughout the city. For the city transportation department, they are quick and easy to apply. From a public relations point of view, the introduction of sharrows allows a rapid ramp-up of statistics on how many miles of bike facilities the city has and plans for the future.

    The problem with sharrows is that they are a poor solution. Their meaning is not intuitive. Is the space they mark intended for a bike or a car — or both? Why is this one set out in the lane and that one over on the side? Who has priority?

    They are easy to implement but a confusing waste of paint compared to a proper bike lane. Other than serving as a way for politicans to attempt to spray-paint their way to reelection, sharrows don't really work very well.

    Local cyclists seem to agree. In the Cascade Bicycling Club's Report Card on Bicycling, Seattle 2009, the number one response to the survey question, "What would make Seattle better for bicycling?" comes the answer "separate bike paths." The top answer to the question, "What is the main issue with bicycling in Seattle?" is "disconnected bicycle routes." Of all the categories rated in the group's Report Card, the Network/Satisfaction with Routes category earned Seattle the lowest grade of the report: a mere C+.

    A better approach would be to standardize Seattle's bike lane design by slightly narrowing car lanes where possible and creating separated lanes for bikes. Define a reasonable but narrower car lane standard, then spray-paint away. Every street with a certain width could have a standard format bike lane applied and the bicycling free-market would sort out which routes become the most popular.

    This approach would provide space for bikes and also offer a natural traffic-calming effect without the expense (and perennial neighborhood funding squabbles) of traffic circles or ad hoc speed bumps that create an unpleasant ride for everyone. (What's more, traffic circles have the nasty side-effect of diverting the cars driving around them directly into paths of sidestreet-crossing pedestrians.) Multi-lane streets can likely withstand a reduction in each car lane width to provide an adequate bike lane or two. And if there isn't room for a proper bike lane, don't put one there. If there's not room for the lane, there's probably not room for safe cycling.

    Perhaps the ultimate word on sharrows comes from the City of Seattle's own website, which today answers the question "What do sharrows mean for motorists and bicyclists?" with this damning bit of faint praise: "Motorists: Follow the rules of the road as if there were no sharrows... Bicyclists: Follow the rules of the road as if there were no sharrows."

    Exactly the point — so why waste the paint?

    Matt Fikse-Verkerk (Twitter: @mattfikse) covered urban affairs, politics, tech, and business at Crosscut from 2009 to 2014. He lives in Seattle and works for a biotechnology firm in Redmond, WA.

    Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!


    Posted Thu, Sep 3, 8:42 a.m. Inappropriate

    I agree entirely. I think the problem is that a lot of streets with sharrows actually don't have room for car-lane reduction. The markers on the pavement are more of a psychological thing that tell drivers "Yes, bike's are really and truly allowed on this street." It's an incremental solution: I expect full bike lanes will be put in eventually.

    The real solution is to remove curb parking from streets with sharrows so there's room for proper bike lanes (or perhaps to make some streets bike-only--Europeans do that all the time). But I think drivers will need a decade or so to warm up to radical changes like that.


    Posted Thu, Sep 3, 8:58 a.m. Inappropriate

    Sharrows are not ideal, but bike lanes squeezed next to parked cars are far worse. While there may be a good feeling of safety that comes from a separated bike lane, once a cyclist gets above 10 or 15 mph, bike lanes become deadly. That's because cars and pedestrians at intersections can't see cyclists up next to the curb or parked cars as well and people exiting their cars can't see the cyclists as well. Accidents at intersections where "I didn't see the cyclist as I made my left turn" are the most common accident we experience.

    Sharrows are used more often in areas where cyclists are going faster and are positioned such that the middle of the sharrow is out of the door zone and cyclists are in a more visible location in the street.

    Obviously, a network of separated bike trails would be the best, but face it, we live in a car centric culture where the majority of citizens are overweight and don't want to exercise or support cycling.

    The city needs better education on what sharrows mean and how they should be approached on the street. In the mean time don't be fooled into thinking that bike lanes, as used in this town are a better alternative. They are far more dangerous.


    Posted Thu, Sep 3, 10 a.m. Inappropriate

    To those preparing to fire off a note to SDOT after reading this piece:

    Converting limited street right-of-way from general purpose use to bike lanes is a political issue. The Stone Way street completion is a good case study. If this is something you care about, write the council & mayor directly.


    Posted Thu, Sep 3, 10:15 a.m. Inappropriate

    I agree with nickster... real bike facilities are separated from traffic by a barrier.
    Painted bike lanes are a disaster because cars feel entitled to force the bike to stay in the lane, which often is an unsafe place to be.

    The sharrows are minimal but as a cyclist I have come to appreciate them because cars tend to treat them as de facto bike lanes, but without forcing the bike out of the roadway.


    Posted Thu, Sep 3, 10:23 a.m. Inappropriate

    These bikes sharrow "lanes" are so confusing. They change depending on where you are in town, and change even within a neighborhood. But I came across a real doozie the other day. I was driving south on Second Avenue in downtown Seattle and noticed a 'sharrow' sign posted (as in 'a metal post holding a sign') at 2nd and Spring. This sign sports a diagram and language that directs vehicles turning left from 2nd onto Spring to YIELD to bicycles ON THE DRIVER'S LEFT SIDE. (Yield to cyclists that are in a sharrow lane, continuing to travel south, not turning? Watch for bike traffic traveling on my left side?? What??) I found this to be completely weird, illogical, and counter-intuitive. Most of all, it seems entirely unsafe for driver and cyclist.

    So, if I understand this correctly, as a driver I'm now supposed to check if a bicycle is coming up from behind me, on my LEFT, before I turn left and head up Spring?? All the while checking for pedestrians who are crossing in front of me. I am to Yield to Thru Traffic on my LEFT, while I'm trying to turn from the far left lane of a one way street into the far left lane of another one way street? Really??? The City thinks this is safe??

    I've been safely riding a bike since the 60's. I learned to drive in the 70's, and I'm a very courteous and safe driver. One rule that was pounded into our transportation brains back then was this: Never, ever come up next to (or attempt to pass) a vehicle on its left side when there is a chance it may be turning left. As a cyclist I was taught to keep my distance but ride in the middle of a lane, or near the right-hand side of a lane. The left was considered particularly deadly. And one was instructed never to pass on the right, either on a bike or in a car.

    So please explain to me what logic they're using at this particular corner. I worry this is a tragedy waiting to happen.


    Posted Thu, Sep 3, 10:35 a.m. Inappropriate

    I have a scary word: BOYER! Sharrows and parked cars and traffic circles. I'm terrified to bicycle Seattle streets. I think those making planning decisions about bike lanes should RIDE THE ROAD or have loved ones RIDE THE ROAD - sharrows are like many handicapped parking spaces - a visual high five for "we're doing right by you!" disconnected from the reality users face. Separate bike paths whenever possible - it will take time to make this a reality.


    Posted Thu, Sep 3, 10:59 a.m. Inappropriate

    Sharrows [...] are positioned such that the middle of the sharrow is out of the door zone and cyclists are in a more visible location in the street.

    We must be seeing different sharrows. The ones I see tend to be smack in the middle of the door zone.


    Posted Thu, Sep 3, 11:30 a.m. Inappropriate

    Here's what a safer type of bikeway, the cycle track, looks like:


    Posted Thu, Sep 3, 12:15 p.m. Inappropriate

    This article is right on. Sharrows are a bad idea that should never have been implemented. They do nothing to improve bike access/safety in Seattle. One alternative I really would like to see that is not being discussed much are dedicated "bike boulevards" similar to what is available in Berkeley, California. This can easily be created in residential neighborhoods covering long distances in our street grid system. See this video for an explanation of how it works:



    Posted Thu, Sep 3, 12:23 p.m. Inappropriate

    rjl20: we must be looking at different sharrows. I'm looking at Stone Way, Alki Way, NE 45th Street, 31st Street, Jackson, and everywhere else I've seen them. Look it up on street view in Google Maps, please. Where have you seen one sharrows placed in the door zone? Bike lanes, by contrast are usually 75% in the door zone. Look at 2nd and 12th, for example.

    The cycle track in Portland is wonderful and should be adopted here. NYC has also adopted separated bike lanes between the sidewalks and parked cars which would be a huge improvement for beginner cyclists.


    Posted Thu, Sep 3, 2:04 p.m. Inappropriate

    I own two bikes. I am pro-bike. However, the logic of this article has a major flaw, saying that bicycle lanes and separate bike facilities are a prerequisite of having bicyclists.

    How many bike lane miles are there in Asia? Do you think the number of people who bike 2 miles per week in any major Asian city is higher or lower than Seattle? Personally I only know Tokyo intimately, and almost everyone in Tokyo rides a bicycle. They installed their first bike lane last year. Bike paths are shared with pedestrians, keeping cyclists down around 8mph average for safety reasons. Faster bicyclists use the street, and cars share the road with them uneventfully. Clumsy bicyclists use the street too, when they can't maneuver around walkers -- bikes with toddlers on front and back, or carrying groceries, or making a deliver. Cyclists stick to side-streets when they can, while cars avoid side streets because they're too narrow and come to unexpected dead-ends (often with ped/bike only cut-throughs).

    Our problem isn't the lack of engineered solutions for bicyclists on our streets. It's the car-oriented culture and lack of consideration for others' needs. We can go ahead and legitimize that by trying to engineer around it, but it's going to continue to be very expensive and incomplete.

    I like sharrows as a driver because it's a reminder of frequent bicycle traffic on a street even if I don't see the bicyclists. I like it as a bicyclist because even if a driver is ignorant of the law, I've got a sign legitimizing my presence. I'd be happier if the entire street was repainted as shared use.

    Rob K

    Posted Thu, Sep 3, 3:18 p.m. Inappropriate

    The deployment of sharrows is not unique to Seattle. They actually emerged about 2004 in San Francisco and since have been applied to steets in Portland, New York, Chicago Long Beach, Santa Fe, etc. In other words, plenty of small to large cities that may or may not have a perceived "strong bike culture".

    The National Committee on Uniform Traffic Control Devices has recommended
    that the Federal Highway Administration include sharrows in the next edition of their manual used by state DOT's for street signs and lane markings expected to come out in 2010.

    There are indeed specifications for their placement to avoid the open
    door(s) of parked cars.

    Sharrows are not in place of dedicated bike lanes, but intended to remind motorists that cyclists may be present and to be aware. Scoff at that if you must, but just like those hand washing signs in restrooms sharrows have proved to be effective. SF studies indicate they improve lane positioning of cyclists, reduce sidewalk and wrong-way riding and improve passing distance by motorists.

    Most of my biking is for commuting, as in getting to point A to B directly, which usually means sharing an arterial with traffic. Though I understand even with sharrows that is a route some cyclists will never find appealing and alternatives such as bike boulevards are needed to accomodate those folks.

    With regard to the author's assertion
    "if there isn't room for a proper bike lane, don't put one there". Pursuant to RCW 46.61.770, with or without a lane or sharrow please expect to see me riding on the right side of the right through lane on all but limited access highways (... and on the last Friday of the month me and few friends may occasionally stray from that).


    Posted Thu, Sep 3, 4:07 p.m. Inappropriate

    The folks at Cascade Bicycle Club passed along this link to the San Francisco 2004 study on the effectiveness of 'sharrows'. Worth a look:


    Posted Thu, Sep 3, 4:35 p.m. Inappropriate

    Allie from SDOT here with a few quick notes on sharrows:

    The sharrow is a relatively new pavement marking. The use of sharrows has been found to reduce accidents by better positioning the driver and the bicyclist in the lane, and by making motorists more aware that bicyclists may be present.

    In the US, at least 14 other cities use sharrow markings, so you will find them in places like Portland, San Francisco, Denver, and Pittsburgh. They can also be seen in at least seven different countries. In the US it is still considered experimental, but has been recommended for adoption by the Federal Highway Administration."

    SDOT installs sharrows where there is not enough room on the road for bike lanes, even with general travel lanes narrowed as much as possible. In many cases there is only room for one bicycle lane, so a bicycle lane is installed on one side of the street and sharrows on the other.

    The Cascade Bicycle Club’s position on disconnected routes does not necessarily signify they are against sharrows. We would all prefer connected lanes and trails, but many existing city streets are not designed to accommodate them. The City of Seattle has been working for years at extending and connecting bicycle lanes and trails in the city, such as the gradual completion of the Burke Gilman Trail.


    Posted Thu, Sep 3, 6:35 p.m. Inappropriate

    I agree with all the points in this article. Sharerows are a joke, and in many locations the paint used to create them is already starting to fade. In an everage week I ride at least 60 miles on various trails and streets.

    It is profoundly depressing to know that in spite of efforts by cyclists to thousands of cyclists refrain from using our cars whenever possible it will take SDOT approximately 60 years at the present rate of implementation to fully build out the Bicycle Master Plan. Supposedly, the bike plan is budgeted at $240 million dollars over 10 years, but annual spending is actually much less than $24 million per year.

    In contrast, SDOT's estimated budget for the makeover of 6 blocks of Mercer Street recently increased from $240 to $290 million. Other Seattle-funded SLU gentrification projects will cost an additional quarter of a $ billion. That pretty much says it all about Seattle's real transportation priorities.

    Mud Baby

    Posted Thu, Sep 3, 9:18 p.m. Inappropriate

    The paint on my bike lane isn't just right, blah, blah, blah.
    Are you kidding me!
    In my neighborhood bikes, cars, and walkers "share" a road that does not have a painted line at all, no sidewalk, few stop signs, an open ditches . . in Seattle.

    Sharrows? You got it good.

    Mr Baker

    Posted Fri, Sep 4, 10:23 a.m. Inappropriate

    Mr Baker: Are you just bitter about not getting promised sidewalks, or is there a genuine safety issue on your street?

    Rob K

    Posted Fri, Sep 4, 2:33 p.m. Inappropriate

    It may be a false sense of security but I do feel better biking in a 30 mph lane when there is a sharrow; as noted above, it gives some (more) legitimacy to the cyclist. If there is no space for a bike lane (and I agree with the comments con bike lanes, above) the sharrows help the situation.


    Posted Fri, Sep 4, 11:16 p.m. Inappropriate

    I think we may end up finding, in about 15 years, that sharrows have the same challenges as do poorly placed crosswalks. They may give a false sense of security in places where the physical roadway design is not safe. With crosswalks, in certain places (generally on multi-lane roads), studies have shown that fatalities are higher than would be the case if there was no crosswalk. After yanking out crosswalks all over the city in response, I'd expect SDOT to be more sensitive to the potential for unanticipated side effects. My preference would be to design safe bikeways, and if they're not safe not to pretend that they are and encourage people to ride there.

    It also seems to me that confusion works against safety in most situations. (The exception may be places that are so obviously unsafe that people drive on full alert). With sharrows, nobody knows how they're supposed to behave. Is it intended that bikes should ride in the middle of the lane there, and if so, why are so many on an incline? In a car, are you supposed to pass as with a normal bike lane, even though there is no way to get the 3-foot distance the law requires?

    Is this a traffic control or simply a statement of political sympathies? When lives are at stake, I'm not comfortable if it's the latter. If sharrows will result in more casualties (and I don't know that they will), I hope it won't take decades to find out as it did with crosswalks - we should be working with other sharrow experiment communities now to collect the data that will tell us one way or another.

    Posted Sat, Sep 5, 8:47 p.m. Inappropriate

    Bicyclists should be concerned about the new Alaskan Way designs. Wait, more than concerned -- the number of traffic lanes (will it be 4 or 6?) and painted bike lanes should be regarded with suspicion.

    I liked the early design for a 2-lane frontage road on the east side with an island between it and 4-lane Alaskan Way. The island could have a ped/bikeway similar to the existing path, and 1-track of a 2-track streetcar line, the other track 'northbound' on the frontage road with stops that also served bus lines running east. The island sidewalk would border the frontage road but not Alaskan Way. Some curb parking would be located on the frontage road. Curb extensions at intersections would limit curbside parking.

    I'm afraid the wide plaza will become a makeshift parking lot and driveway. Mark my words. There are respected architects who say the wide plaza is out of purportion. A working waterfront shouldn't be bordered with a wide plaza. The sidewalk could be widened 6'-12' with curb extensions. McGinn is right about the Deep-bore being a mistake.


    Posted Sun, Sep 6, 5:54 a.m. Inappropriate

    Why are these dangerous things being painted on to arterial routes when usually there are multiple sidestreets running parallel? Is there some bureaucratic rationale that says sidestreets can't be used because of uncontrolled intersections? One would have to be a suicidal maniac to ride a bike on most of Seattle's arterials, sharrows or no sharrows. I cringe when I see people on bikes out there duking it out with the traffic, especially when there is almost always a much quieter, safer route a block or two or three away. What is going on here? It doesn't take any sort of genius to realize that when cars and bikes collide, bikes lose. The city is crisscrossed with sidestreets. Why aren't bikeways laid out on them?

    Posted Sun, Sep 6, 9:09 a.m. Inappropriate

    Good one, Wells. The new Alaskan Way wide plaza will become a makeshift parking lot and driveway just like the chunk of the old Interurban right-of-way along Westlake, which is nothing more than a parking lot and a sidewalk for local businesses. SDOT hasn't even pretended that bikes should use it by painting sharerows there. This is another example of the City of Seattle's real transportation priorities.

    Mud Baby

    Posted Sun, Sep 6, 10:44 a.m. Inappropriate

    sharrows on 45th in the University district, idiots.
    some red paint blood spatters on the sharrows.......


    Posted Sun, Sep 6, 11:45 a.m. Inappropriate

    Another idea - lower the speed limit. It's 25 in the city, except if posted otherwise, which is usually 30 on aterials. On arterials, drop it to 25, and then enforce that. People go at least 40 on arterials anyway, at least in my neighborhood. What's so important that we can't slow down to respect other people's need to be safe?

    Posted Sun, Sep 6, 12:49 p.m. Inappropriate

    Rob K, the post WWII neighborhood I live in has turned over the population (for the most part) and there are plenty of children that own bikes, it is not particularly safe to ride them around here.

    Not only is there not a poorly marked bike lane, there are few actual car lanes.

    Few stop or even yield signs.

    Couple that with open ditches.

    No, it's not having a sidewalk that bothers me, I have the 3 blocks of sidewalk in front of may house (pinch me). That stretch of sidewalk is one of the few places children feel safe riding a bike.

    Your painted lane is not just right? Are you just bitter that you were promised bike lanes and got. . . Bike lanes?

    Mr Baker

    Posted Sun, Sep 6, 1:03 p.m. Inappropriate

    Here is an idea, collect a tax and choose how you want it spent.

    Bike tax.

    Mr Baker

    Posted Sun, Sep 6, 4:55 p.m. Inappropriate

    Great! Can I choose how all my sales and federal income taxes are spent, too?



    Posted Mon, Sep 7, 7:37 p.m. Inappropriate

    A technology can be applicable in one place but not another.

    What I find amusing in this article, is that the author has his own predefined concept and ignores the evidence.

    Can a sharerow make sense? Yes, if for nothing better than to warn motorists that there are bikes on the road and that there is no bike lane. So, until a better day comes it could serve some use.

    However, the author assumes that what people really want along crowed roads is bike lanes, he reports:

    In the Cascade Bicycling Club's Report Card on Bicycling, Seattle 2009, the number one response to the survey question, "What would make Seattle better for bicycling?" comes the answer "separate bike paths." The top answer to the question, "What is the main issue with bicycling in Seattle?" is "disconnected bicycle routes."

    They don't say "bike lanes" they say "bike paths"...and this is something I have been arguing. Bikes and cars just don't mix. The ideal bikeway is Soos Creek Trail or Interurban...a true bicycle roadway. As the people above say, the problem is connecting the trails, not routing bicyclists into traffic.

    Oh, and before the Super-Bicycle-Guys who ride up James Street and so on respond to this and tell me oh yeah, I ride in the I-5 express lanes, remember, I am trying to represent the average person, not the institutional bicyclist, but the person responding in the survey above.

    To get back to your question and my opinion: Cars and bikes don't mix. However, in a world where they must mix, having something to warn drivers is better than nothing. I don't like bike lanes, I like bikeway. A bike trail or bikeway is its own technology. You can build bikeways with less muss than a "road diet". A bikeway can be as wide as the Interurban. It doesn't require as heavy grade of roadway, or substructure because bikes are lighter. It doesn't require the guard rails, number of traffic lights and so on. My guess is for the price of a few blocks of new car roadway you could build miles of bikeway.


    Posted Tue, Sep 8, 7:09 p.m. Inappropriate

    Some... and I emphasize SOME, cyclists want it all. Respect from car drivers. Dedicated bike lanes (trails). Running red lights at will. Changing from street to sidewalk whenever it suits them. Riding double (or triple) in a bike lane. Flipping anyone who thinks differently.

    They deserve some of these... not all.


    Posted Wed, Sep 9, 11:45 a.m. Inappropriate

    I read the San Francisco report you mention in your follow-up comments and and thought it fairly summarized the SDOT intention. I don't know if you had access to that before you wrote your piece and if it changed your opinion. I noted the SF report states these "sharrows" are no replacement for dedicated bike lanes.

    My thought is the the key to this and any improvement to the bike/auto conflict is education. Spending some of this money on advertizing and PSA's to remind the public of what these markings mean to bicyclists and drivers, what is the green box, remind drivers to be alert to cyclists at all times and riders to ride legally and defensively would go a long way to reducing the amount of anger on the road.


    Posted Thu, Sep 10, 10:54 a.m. Inappropriate

    Glass half-empty piece, Matt.

    I'm a regular cyclist, though not a daily commuter--and my impression (as both biker and auto driver) is that these prominent markings DO help to raise driver awareness of cyclists' presence and right to consideration. I appreciate that they've been added, and wouldn't want to lose them--unless there comes a day when full implementation of bike lanes is possible, but I don't think that's in the mix at present.

    Mental exercise: Choose between (a) removing these markings now, and (b) keeping them. [You don't have the third choice, which you definitely want, which is full bike lanes. That's not an option.]

    From the SF study's "conclusions" section:

    "This research has proven that shared lane pavement markings in San Francisco have a positive impact on motorist and cyclist behavior, positions, and safety.

    "These results are complementary to a 1999 Florida study (Florida Department of Transportation, Evaluation of the Shared-Use Arrow). While both studies found that such markings significantly reduce wrong-way and sidewalk riding, the Florida study found a much smaller impact on cyclists' positions. In contrast to San Francisco, the Florida study measured rider positions on roadways with no on-street parking, and on streets where cyclists were less likely to "take the lane".

    "The bike-and-chevron marking had a stronger impact on motorist positioning and in reducing wrong-way riding and is preferred by cyclists surveyed.

    "Based on these findings, the project team recommends the bike-and-chevron marking be used as a standard marking for shared-use lanes on appropriate
    streets in San Francisco.

    "Based on comments received, the pitch of the chevron should be increased by approximately 6 inches (see Figure 11.) The project team also recommends that the California Traffic Control Devices Committee adopt this marking as an optional marking for Class III bikeways throughout California.

    "It should be noted, however, that this study did not analyze shared lane markings as a direct substitute for bicycle lanes, and therefore does not recommend that shared lane markings be used as a substitute for bicycle lanes where they are a feasible option."


    Posted Fri, Sep 11, 11:40 a.m. Inappropriate

    I like the new green background-painted sharrows in Long Beach:



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