Seattle’s Sharrows: Love ‘Em or Hate ‘Em?

I’ve been hearing criticism for many months about Seattle’s extensive use of sharrows. So I was really interested to see them in person as I set off for a bike ride last week with Carol McMahan and Brian Dougherty of the Seattle Department of Transportation.

‘Sharrows’ are big bike markings indicating that cyclists and motorists are to share the lane. In 2004, I led the groundbreaking sharrow study in San Francisco that resulted in its adoption in California and eventually nationwide. I discuss the amusing, lengthy and challenging adoption process in my book, Joyride: Pedaling Toward a Healthier Planet, Chapter 30, which I’ve posted here in its entirety for your reading pleasure. Many California cities are using them, while Portland has applied hundreds to low-volume neighborhood greenways, aka bike boulevards, which you can see in this amazing new StreetsFilm video.

The criticism stems from Seattle’s using them on major roads where the appropriate treatment should be a bike lane or cycle track; our SF sharrow study team specifically noted (p. 17) that “This study…does not recommend that shared lane markings be used as a substitute for bicycle lanes where they are a feasible option.” But Seattle seems to be doing just that.

I‘ve been worrying  about this exact thing happening, starting back when I was conducting the San Francisco study, when I got a number of supportive emails from folks who disdain separated bikeways. The gist of their comments was, “the sharrow marking validates what we want, which is to share every travel lane as opposed to being ‘forced’ to use bike lanes.” These comments caused me great consternation, because I am ardently, 100% positive that we must provide dedicated bikeways if we are to succeed in getting people to bike in any significant numbers. (Also, anti-bikeway folks rarely send me nice notes.)

From Joyride:

… the country’s small but vocal anti-bikeway fringe… insist that bike lanes, cycle tracks, bike signals, bike boxes, and the like are the devil’s work. In their minds, the only folks who should be cycling are those confident enough to “take the lane.”

Here’s what we know. In communities with few or no bikeways, strong and fearless cyclists are already doing so. They represent less than one percent of the population. In communities like Portland, where we have invested in bike lanes and boulevards, about six to eight percent of the population has responded enthusiastically by integrating cycling into their lives for at least some trips. Approximately a third of the population is not interested or able to cycle. That leaves a pretty big chunk – around 60 percent – who want to bicycle, think it’s a good idea, and are interested, but are highly concerned about safety and will not in any way, shape, or form start cycling unless we invest in low stress, protected bikeways. The choice is clear: invest in bikeways and get more people out cycling, or don’t, and retain cycling as an elite sport of a privileged group of adrenaline junkies.

Thus my concern: major road sharrows will never attract many ‘interested but concerned’ potential cyclists because they provide neither the separation of a bike lane or cycle track, nor comfort of a bike boulevard or off-road path.

So what is Seattle up to? Sandra Woods, Seattle’s bike coordinator, explains that sharrows alone are not the ultimate goal, but rather a way for the City to quickly apply lots of markings. This explanation was echoed by Cascade Bicycle Club leaders, Mayor Mike McGinn, and other transportation officials throughout the course of my visit. True indeed, Seattle’s gone sharrow-happy this past year, marking hundreds of them, along with numerous non-controversial bike lanes. In other words, they’ve followed the low-hanging fruit approach: pick the easy stuff first and save the tough projects, those that require trading off auto travel or parking lanes, for later.

I was pleased with many of the other changes, including a number of conflict areas marked with color, mirroring colored bike lanes first studied more than a decade ago in Portland and now replicated in many U.S. cities from Columbia, MO to San Francisco to Beaverton OR. (Stay tuned to for forthcoming guidance in the Urban Bikeway Design Guide, to be released Spring 2011.) As well, Seattle has joined 17 other American cities in applying advance bike boxes at intersections and dozens of cities in deploying excellent wayfinding signage. All in all, Seattle’s volume of progress over the last two years is to be commended, applauded, and celebrated. For a couple of decades, Seattle has had an excellent off-road but poor on-road bikeway network. Clearly, they are headed in the right direction, now charging ahead in the creation of a complete bikeway network.

And some of the sharrow applications make sense; for example, a bike lane in the uphill direction on a steep road coupled with sharrows in the downhill direction, and sharrows used to mark a gap along a street with bike lanes.

In the end, I came away with a deep appreciation for the preponderance of sharrows because of their screaming loud announcement to motorists that cyclists are welcome and to be expected. You can’t drive anywhere without seeing them, thus motorists are passively but definitively absorbing the bicycle symbol into their consciousness. Getting into motorists’ heads that bicycling is a mainstream form of transportation is critical to our work. Sharrows as marketing for a burgeoning form of healthy, active transportation… now that’s something I can get behind.

Well done Seattle… keep up the good work, and best of luck picking those higher-up-fruit as you get deeper into the implementation of your Bike Plan.

What do you think?

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