Bike “Sharrows” and Road User Education

In the ever-changing attempt to provide cyclists with more safety, traffic engineers have come up with the “sharrow” road stencil. A study conducted in Chicago indicates that sharrow signs aren’t increasing safety or ridership, at least not on any thing close to the level provided by bike lane striping.


Education would seem to be the biggest reason, as in people (both motorists and cyclists) don’t know what a “sharrow” means. I personally fell into that camp until about a year ago, and I’ll audaciously guess that my learning curve means over 50% of motorists still don’t know.

So is it just a matter of educating road users? Maybe. More fundamental to our understanding of what to do as road users in the U.S. is striping. We understand striping. We don’t understand much else.

An example of the power of striping is the new right turn lane configuration on Lead at Broadway. As part of the buffered lane setup (sorry, no pictures), the run-up to the light at Broadway has the bike lane, correctly, squeeze in-between the right-turn lane and the right-hand straight lane. I haven’t had much of a chance to ride Lead lately, but ever time I have there’s been folks confused by the idea of crossing that solid white bike lane to enter the right-turn lane.

Solid line, white or yellow, means don’t cross. We Americans generally have that one down, with sickening exceptions.

Put words or anything other than an arrow indicating our ability to get off the road somewhere and we’re lost.  Unlike in Europe, we don’t generally do speed limit stencils, for instance.

So what’s the eventual point of sharrows? Are we going to keep at it until Americans learn them, or do we go into another, ever-changing, direction? Meanwhile, it has perhaps been that our “ever-changing” has heavily shaped the overall road user education problem.

Planner/city walkability expert Jeff Speck has been talking more and more of “naked streets” lately, as anyone following him on Twitter can attest. That’s the idea of taking all the road signage, striping and stencils down/off, and Mr. Speck relates studies showing improved safety from such an approach.

Hence the discussion is now complicated to the point of asking whether we should more fully “clothe” our streets or mimic the old Randy Newman song and start taking stuff off.

So confusing, which is, of course, the problem.

There is also the unsettling matter of the price in human life, limb and bike during the education process, a price that also includes the smaller, yet still meaningful, PR cost of confused motorists and riders. In other words, how much more pissed off do we get when we see and don’t quite understand a sharrow sign? And who do “we” get pissed off at?

We’re far from a settled best practice when it comes to anything other than the comforting, understandable and established bike lane stripe. While installing bike lanes is often massively controversial (more so than you can perhaps possibly imagine), that solid line gets far more de facto respect from drivers and far more comfort from riders than any other shared road experience.

At least in 2016 and not just in Chicago, site of the aforementioned study. It would seem we’re at an important crossroads, so to speak, with sharrows and other “advanced” signage, and it’s time to either go “all-in” 100% with an education effort, or just pile up more cycling crashes, pissed off motorists and fewer overall cycling users of our road system.

You’ll notice I’m not answering my own question here. That’s because I don’t know the answer to the education question. I’m pretty sure I’m not alone.



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