City Bike Lanes vs. Sharrows
posted by September 15 at 17:27 PMon
About a week before the big Pro Walk/ Pro Bike Conference in downtown Seattle, I started to notice tons of new, hastily scrawled pavement markings all over the city. The spray-painted signs indicated places where the city planned to put in bike lanes and sharrows—those lane markings that are supposed to let drivers know that cyclists may be in the lane of traffic. (Of course, many drivers don’t know that.) Because my route to work includes a lot of up- and downhill cycling, my path transitions frequently between bike lanes (which the city is painting on uphill slopes) and sharrows (which are mostly limited to downhill slopes in places where there isn’t room or the political will to add another bike lane).
In some ways, the bike-lane-uphill/sharrow-downhill system makes perfect sense—on uphill slopes, it’s much better to have a bike lane than a sharrow, because cyclists can’t get uphill as fast as cars. A bike lane puts them out of the way of traffic and allows cars to pass.
But substituting sharrows for bike lanes on downhill slopes creates problems the city might not have foreseen. Unless you’re going as fast as car traffic—in which case, you’d have to be cruising along at 35 miles per hour on most of the designated bike routes in Seattle—you’re going to stick to the right side of the lane, to avoid annoying drivers and to stay out of harm’s way. That puts you right smack in the “door zone”—the area of the traffic lane where car doors can open into a cyclist’s path. If you’re moving at a typical downhill speed of 15 to 20 miles an hour, you’re not going to have time to stop—or check the lane, move out of the way, and shake your fist at the jerk who didn’t bother to look for you—before you run into an opening door. That’s less of a problem with bike lanes, because they give cyclists more room to maneuver and stay out of the door zone without veering into the lane.
And intersections—where the majority of bike/car collisions take place—are even more perilous. If you’re cruising along on the right side of the lane of traffic, confident in the false sense of security a sharrow gives you, you’re not going to have time to stop if a driver pulls out in front of you—which, believe me, happens all the time. Yes, plenty of cyclists love to tear down big hills like 10th Ave. East on Capitol Hill, at top speed. But plenty of cyclists get hit doing just that, too. It’s irresponsible of the city to encourage them.
So why not just install bike lanes everywhere? Because it would mean removing some on-street parking. Parking spots are practically sacrosanct in Seattle, and making parking as convenient as possible for drivers has always taken precedence over making the roads as safe as possible for cyclists.
(Photo via Bicycle Facilities Pool on Flickr)
In related news: A recent study shows that the more dedicated bike facilities (and cyclists) means fewer bike accidents. Thus in countries like Denmark and the Netherlands, where many more people get around by bike, the cycling fatality rate is about a fifth of what it is in the United States.