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Monday, September 15, 2008

Bike Lanes vs. Sharrows

posted by on September 15 at 17:27 PM


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.


RSS icon Comments


We live in Seattle. While every cyclist in the city would prefer it to be Denmark/Germany/the Netherlands, it will still always be Seattle. I agree with so much of this discussion, but am soooo sick of every sentence that starts with, "In Denmark..."

Posted by This is Seattle, not Denmark | September 15, 2008 5:32 PM

That's bullshit. Forty years ago Copenhagen was just as bad as any American city. All it takes is a little dedication. There's nothing magic about Denmark.

Posted by chris | September 15, 2008 5:40 PM

@1 This is Seattle, but our mayor likes to talk as if it's more Danish than it is, or Dutch than it is or Davis than it is. Given the tendency of the electorate to ignore it's own best interests and vote on the basis of rhetoric, it's always important to keep the reality-rhetoric gap in focus.

Posted by kinaidos | September 15, 2008 5:45 PM
Experts say the effect is independent of improvements in cycling-friendly laws such as lower speed limits and better infrastructure, such as bike paths.
...according to the study. That is the opposite of the claim that more biking facilities are responsible for lower fatalities.

The study in fact says that more bicyclists make biking safer, just as more pedestrians make walking safer. Tom Vanderbilt's Traffic delves into this, with regard to NYC having the lowest pedestrian fatality rate in the country.

So building bike infrastructure is beside the point. Focus on trying to get more people to bike.

Posted by elenchos | September 15, 2008 5:46 PM

Many of the bike lanes do not put cyclists out of the door zone, and hence are not safe to ride downhill at speed. The lanes on Dexter (north of Aloha or so) and pretty much all of MLK aren't nearly wide enough to safely ride in them faster than 10 or 15 mph, especially since people park and obstruct them. Poorly engineered bike lanes are no panacea.

Posted by Andrew | September 15, 2008 5:47 PM

as someone in Denmark right now (in a town called Roskilde, look it up, it might be the size of UW, but still better for bikes, wuht) I think essentializing this debate is bullshit. Honestly, it isn't conceivable for US municipal governments to provide for cyclists. Unfortunely, this is a fact for our country (if you wanna be western-centric) only. The fact that we actually devote so much space to cars is, outside of the context of the us, laughable. Even the Spaniards. It is sad days!

Posted by cookie | September 15, 2008 5:48 PM

Does anybody else just cheat and ride on the sidewalk?

Posted by Y.F. | September 15, 2008 5:51 PM

#2, I see I hit a nerve. Clearly, you must start a lot of sentences with that statement.

My point is just to shut up with the "In ___ everything is better" talk. And, let's get on with working with what we have. And, I agree we can start with making our country less autocentric.

Posted by This is Seattle, not Denmark | September 15, 2008 5:57 PM

Just cheat and ride in the lane! Take the lane!

Can we all agree that you are more likely to be accidentally hurt than intentionally hit with a car?

Riding in the middle of traffic might get you yelled at but it will get you home.

Cars can pass you like they would do a car driving slow for whatever reason. If I want to park or look at a street sign in my car I slow down, I don't give a flip about anyone behind me who might be flipping out.


p.s. If you like to "tear down hills" you should be able to keep up with traffic. Traffic isn't that fast on capital hill. I ride from 15th down to Bellevue in the middle of the lane at the speed of traffic no problem.

Posted by daniel | September 15, 2008 5:59 PM

I bike often here in Baltimore. Our street has sharrows that transition to dedicated bike lanes, as does the street that takes us from our home to Johns Hopkins' campus. I've not yet encountered a door opening in front of me (knock on wood), but then I'm not inclined to speed down the hills and also tend to be hyper vigilant. We've got dedicated bike paths in the parks and along some of the busier roads, so at least Baltimore's trying. And I see people biking ALL THE TIME on our street, so that's a plus, too.

Posted by Balt-O-Matt | September 15, 2008 5:59 PM
Posted by chris | September 15, 2008 6:03 PM

I've used my bike as my car for 5 years.

Here is a plan that will solve everything:

1) Use the chart created by the Bike Master Plan which draws lines from one Seattle neighborhood to the next (eg, Cap Hill to U-dist).

2) Create *continuous* trails or bike lanes (and I mean bike lanes with no parked cars on the right) from one spot to the next. This way it's not a hodge-podge or "the best we could do on this particular street."

There. Now you can bike from Cap Hill to the U-dist. Or from Ballard to Downtown. And you won't get ran over and you won't get doored. Is this hard to figure out or controversial??? How could it be?

Posted by BobHall | September 15, 2008 6:19 PM

Aren't sharrows the worst of both worlds? I mean, what's the fucking point? You're already allowed to bike in the street.

They didn't make the road wider, or remove parking, or curb off bike lines. They just fucking painted a picture of a bike on the road. Big deal.

Posted by chris | September 15, 2008 6:23 PM

They just sharrowed all of N 45th from Wallingford into the U District. Ridiculous! The lane didn't magically get any wider; it's still far too narrow for a car to pass a bike safely unless the bike is swerving out in a gap. Sharrows are stupid. It's the $10.99 can of spray paint approach to traffic management.

Posted by Fnarf | September 15, 2008 6:51 PM

I learned a very important lesson the other day. Always roll your window down before dooring a biker. Especially if your driving a convertible. Mercedes glass is expensive to replace.

Posted by You_Gotta_Be_Kidding_Me | September 15, 2008 6:52 PM

Agree with #12 and #13. Reminding drivers there's bikes in the road doesn't hurt, but dedicated routes are the best answer. All you need is a few that criss-cross the city and you'd solve a huge portion of the safety concerns. Do it just like bus and train routes are planned.

I'm not sure where the hell you get the land, but I think it's feasible. It would (should) make drivers just as happy as bicyclists.

The bike lanes in my part of town are not only what divide the street from very sought after metered parking, but also act as bus stop pull-ins, parking for delivery drivers, and a standing zone for people flagging taxis. It's almost funny how much you're looking out for riding in those lanes. It'd be even funnier if people weren't seriously hurt because of it.

Posted by Dougsf | September 15, 2008 6:53 PM

Vanderbilt's book Traffic says that putting up signs waring drivers of the existence of bikes, deer, falling rocks, or signs (!) has no effect. Seeing actual bikes or pedestrians makes drivers more likely to notice more bikes and pedestrians. Seeing a picture of a bike is useless.

Unless it actually attracts more bikes -- that might work, but the study Erica linked to said infrastructure doesn't help.

Where have you been all my life, Traffic? I love that book almost as much as Sarah Palin.

Oh, eliminating on street parking would massively reduce the 15 to 85% of city traffic that consists of people cruising looking for cheap parking. So in that sense it is a good idea, even if that study is beside the point.

Posted by elenchos | September 15, 2008 7:37 PM

Sharrows are the bicyclist equivalent of crosswalks without stop signs/stop lights. SDOT loves nothing better than those unreasonably dangerous crosswalks (more dangerous than jaywalking, fun!), so sharrows should be a big hit in this town.

Posted by keshmeshi | September 15, 2008 7:41 PM

One good thing about all this is it really rips the lid of Seattle as the happy go lucky Nirvana bicyclist paradise. Anyone from afar can understand that it's the plaything of corrupt rober barrons and unscrupulous real estate tycoons.

Kids, my advice is to stay on the farm. You'll have a much better life. Order an espresso maker from Amazon and use Netflix to watch indi movies. It's pretty much the same experience.

Posted by John Bailo | September 15, 2008 7:44 PM

And if you're like John Bailo you're going to remain a virgin no matter where you go, so why bother?

Posted by elenchos | September 15, 2008 8:06 PM

I'd rather die in Seattle than live in Kent.

Posted by The Artist Formerly Known As Sigourney Beaver | September 15, 2008 8:37 PM

ECB's post seems a bit self conflicted.

If the argument against sharrows is that they encourage riding to the right, installing bike lanes is no panacea since they are generally located on the right and delineate a very narrow set of 'allowed' lane positions. The argument for sharrows is that they are less specific than a bike lane and socialize drivers to expect cyclists on the routes. You can argue about efficacy.

The bottom line is that paint will not cure stupid. If you are untrained enough to ride in a poor lane position you will eventually be a statistic. Downhill bike lanes tend to encourage a less than ideal riding position at intersections/alleys/driveways.

Safety first; take the lane if you need it.

Posted by Steve Leonard | September 15, 2008 9:11 PM

Take the lane. Who gives a shit if you annoy a driver? That's what your middle finger is for.

Posted by DOUG. | September 15, 2008 9:20 PM

I thought when I left Seattle last year for Spokane-of-all-places (cheap housing!), that I'd encounter much more hostility on the road when I was out tooling around on my bike.

I couldn't have been more wrong. These crazy hicks are actually waaaay more considerate than the aggro yuppies clogging Seattle streets. I ride in bike lanes, I ride in the street, I ride pretty much everywhere I need to go, and folks are super considerate. I haven't had a single close call in the year I've been here.

Seattle can paint all the sharrows it wants, but it ain't gonna do a damn thing about the egomaniacs on all modes of transportation who are too busy being dickheads to share the road.

Posted by TVDinner | September 15, 2008 9:59 PM

I sharrowed "More chips and salsa till gringo says 'no mas'" on the tabletop at La Botana today. That lady was so cute. She's gotta be from the Yucatan somewhere.

I'm sharrowing from now on. It's awesome. I'm gonna sharrow "Whale" on the piece of whale bone I have instead of scrimshawing it. Fuck it.

Posted by Lloyd Clydesdale | September 15, 2008 10:08 PM

@11 You know what I like most about the Danish video- how there were exactly 0 douchebags wearing spandex or expensive bikes for a jaunt across town.

Posted by Fortuna Mandolin | September 15, 2008 10:30 PM

@6: Roskilde rock festival!

@4: Recent outpourings of anti-cycling hate, in response to "events," really indicated that those commenters had never tried biking, or not tried it enough. Ignorance = aggression.

Posted by Amelia | September 15, 2008 10:58 PM

I love the sharrows painted underneath the parked cars on 5th between Spring and Pike. Except for 2 hours a day when they're only under parked cars every other block that is.

One day we'll have "grade seperated" jersey barriers on the traffic side of bike lanes against the curb (e.g. 5th between Jefferson & Spring, across from the PCC in Fremont), one day, and then folks of all ages and comfort levels can give it a go.

Posted by Westlake, son! | September 15, 2008 11:02 PM

elenchos, you might also enjoy "Still Stuck in Traffic".

Fnarf, and every other grouchy asshole on bike threads, you might enjoy "Effective Cycling" (6th Ed), Pete Lagerway does.

Posted by ...and he's the MF'ing king of SDOT's bike program | September 15, 2008 11:19 PM
Posted by chris | September 15, 2008 11:42 PM

The sharrows are pretty lame, but the city isn't 'encouraging' cyclists to fly down hills because there's a bike painted on the pavement.

Posted by bfelk | September 16, 2008 12:00 AM

You know, if we all had fixies, we'd be able to ride 35 downhill with no problem.

Well, other than stopping ...

Posted by Will in Seattle | September 16, 2008 12:15 AM

ECB, this post makes no goddamn sense. It's at odds with reality Almost all the bike lanes on streets I ride are next to parking, smack in the middle of the door zone. They're useless. Which streets have a bike lane with no parking?

The sharrows I see are more commonly placed on streets that are too narrow even for parking. They're a welcome improvement, as they do not provide a white line relegating cyclists to the right at all times.

Posted by celeriac | September 16, 2008 2:53 AM

the sharrows aren't actually for the cars so much as you the bicyclist: you are supposed to ride on the arrow! really! uphill lanes/downnhill sharrows are much safer than, say, the dexter 'door me' lanes.

btw, physically separated lanes are some of the *most dangerous* forms of bike stuff out there--unless you want a stop sign in the bike lane at every driveway like on parts of the burke-gilman, and plan to obey it.

(i know, emotion is more important than reality for a large group of people--the whole 'flying scary, driving is not' crowd)

Posted by mb | September 16, 2008 3:43 AM

I agree that when presented with a sharrow, unless it is underneath a parked car, we should all ride right over the sharrow or take the entire lane. I get honked at a lot less now that I ride in the middle of the lane or in the right rut where the sharrows are painted. That way, the driver behind me knows that he must use another lane to pass. There is less confusion. Try it.

Thanks Erica, for taking the bike thing under your beat. You present a very reasoned approach to the subject.

Posted by Brad | September 16, 2008 8:53 AM

the netherlands & denmark are FLAT. FLAT FLAT FLAT. and because the cities & towns are dense as fuck, you aren't riding 10 miles to work. more like 2.

so of course you don't need 24 gears & a spandex-encased pad for your taint.

Posted by max solomon | September 16, 2008 9:55 AM

Sharrows are fucking worthless and stupid. I pretend they're not there when riding because traffic pretends they're not there.

Posted by Juris | September 16, 2008 11:19 AM

Just take the lane already.

If it's a street with two lanes each way, cars have room to pass in the second lane. If it's a two-lane street with only one lane per direction, traffic shouldn't be going significantly faster than a bicycle anyway, particularly on the downhill.

I think a network of decent bike paths (out of the door zone, with room for cars to pass) for people who don't want to ride as traffic is a good idea. But most roads just need cyclists to take the lane, drive as traffic, and build safety with numbers.

Posted by Cascadian | September 16, 2008 11:35 AM

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