Gear Prudence: The street in front of my house recently got “sharrows” and I’m … confused. It’s a picture of a bike rider, but it’s not an actual bike lane. It’s in the middle of the road, and not o the side where people actually ride their bikes. It’s just there. I don’t know. I guess my biggest question is: Why are they even there? And does this actually do anything special for bicyclists? —Something Happened Around Recently, Rider Openly Wonders Suspiciously
Dear SHARROWS: Before answering the why, let’s tackle the what. A sharrow (or shared lane marking) is the picture of a bicycle figure topped with a chevron. Sharrow is a portmanteau of “shared” and “arrow” and doesn’t, as many people believe, have anything to do with Shar-Peis and the adorable growly “row” noise they make as puppies. They’re found on roads where there aren’t bike lanes, and the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) writes in their Urban Bikeway De- sign Guide that sharrows “should not be considered a substitute for bike lanes, cycle tracks, or other separation treatments.” As you might have guessed from the “share” thing, sharrows, unlike bike lanes, don’t create a designated space for bicyclists, which means you’re in the same legal situation as you would be if they weren’t there.
Per NACTO, a sharrow aims to do three main things: 1) reinforce the legitimacy of bi- cycle traffic on the street, 2) recommend proper bicyclist positioning 3) offer directional and wayfinding guidance. The second reason explains why they’re in the middle of the street. Sharrows (ideally) signal to a bicyclist where to ride to avoid hastily opened car doors. Also, on narrow lanes, sharrows tell the cyclist where to ride to (hopefully) avoid riding side-by-side with a car. So they’re not (or shouldn’t be) placed completely haphazardly.
Reasons one and three get into the why. Maybe sharrows have been placed to help close a gap between two stretches of actual bike lanes. Or to remind you to not ride into oncoming traffic. As for the legitimacy question, this is a little more fraught. Reminding drivers that bikes are traffic too is fine, but yeah, no shit. Other than highways, bikes are allowed everywhere. We don’t have “carrows” to say that cars are legitimate—it’s just assumed. And denoting certain streets as “bikes are legitimate here” might prompt questions (from stupid people) about the legitimacy of bikes on streets without them.
Cynics suggest one other reason for sharrows: They’re something. “Building a bike lane removes parking, so let’s throw them some sharrows and then we can say we care about bikes,” they imagine nefarious transportation department bigwigs saying in smoke-filled rooms. Are sharrows “bikewashing”? They can be. Do they make cycling safer? Not really. —GP