A Sharrowing Experience

There’s this stretch of road not far from our apartment on the western fringe of Des Moines that is marked with sharrows.  They’re done right on this particular road, which is to say that they’re right in the middle of the traffic lane where they belong.  This isn’t always the case.  The nice folks in bicycle friendly Ogden Utah had a tendency to paint them too far to the right.  That often meant that they directed us into gutters or parking lanes where we often ended up at risk.  They were basically worthless.

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An engineering failure.  This sharrow is painted too far right in the lane to be of value to cyclists  It encourages people in cars to try and squeeze through.  It fails to convey any of the benefits on the NACTO list.

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This sharrow in Clive Iowa is property placed, but because sharrows have never been explained to motorists, most who come up on me from behind expect me to yield the right of way.

So it’s nice that they’re out in the middle here, encouraging those of us who cycle to take the ever-loving lane.  That’s the whole idea behind sharrows and that’s what I do whenever I ride this road.  Unfortunately, most motorists here are absolutely clueless as to where I’m supposed to be and how they’re supposed to share the road with me.  That’s a problem, too, and there’s a reason for it.  More on that in a minute.

So what’s the deal with sharrows anyway?  Well, the nice folks at the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) came up with the idea of painting a bicycle with a chevron on roads where bicycles and cars are expected to share the same space.  Properly known as shared lane markings or SLMs, sharrows are designed to convey the following benefits to (and this is key) ALL road users.

  • Alert motorists to the presence of bicyclists.
  • Identify the proper position for the bicycle to travel in the lane.  This is especially important where road hazards such as railroad crossings are present.
  • Encourage safe passing by motorists.
  • Reduce the likelihood of sidewalk riding.
  • Reduces the frequency of wrong-way cycling on the road.

Sharrows are a good idea, at least in theory.  The devil is in the details.  When sharrows are improperly placed on the roadway or painted on roads were traffic is too heavy and speeds are too high,  or even when laws relating to how motorists are supposed to share these roads are not enforced, it all becomes counterproductive and dangerous.

But how can laws be enforced when the laws have never even been explained to motorists?  There’s no mention of sharrows at all in the driver’s manuals of most states I’ve lived in including  Iowa ,  ColoradoMinnesota, and Utah.  I couldn’t tell you if Indiana mentions them or not because for some bizarre reason Indiana requires you to download their driver’s manual a chapter at a time and I certainly don’t have the time for such nonsense.  Neither, I suspect, does anyone else which might (in part at least) explain why people in Indiana drive the way they do.  It doesn’t explain Texas, though.  In a deliciously ironic twist, only the Lone Star State ( a state that is on nobody’s bicycle friendly list ever), mentions sharrows.  Go figure.

This is just food for thought.  I speak with a lot of cyclists who think that infrastructure is the answer to all of our problems.  It’s not.   Infrastructure done poorly and in a half-baked fashion conveys a false sense of security while putting us in harm’s way.  No infrastructure at all is better than the bad stuff.

But even when it’s done really well, bicycle infrastructure requires special care because motorists may not know what is expected of them in terms of how to engage us.  That may be their fault.  It may be somebody else’s.

In a perfect world, we could just tell them to slow down and not run their car into other road users  or inanimate objects and that would pretty much solve all of our (and their) problems.  Alas, the world is not perfect and it doesn’t appear that we’re heading that direction any time soon.  Therefore, it’s our job as cyclists to keep ourselves safe.  Sharrows can help.   They’re great when done right and it is explained to motorists how they work.  It’s a shame that’s so seldom the case.

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