Where is a Sharrow Applicable?

An image of a sharrow from the Cornell Local Roads Program.

Sharrow is a fairly new term for transportation planners in the United States. The word sharrow refers to an arrow found within a travel lane to remind drivers to “share the road.” Drivers in most places need this reminder. Cyclists are allowed to travel with the flow of traffic on city streets unless otherwise stated.

The bicycle, as a form of transportation, continues to increase across the world. Many people change their mobility habits for reasons of gasoline costs and the desire to combine exercise and daily commutes. This provides the need to incorporate bicycle lanes, trails, and even bicycle boulevards into our planning processes.

The sharrow is one of the major components to the bicycle infrastructure equation, as referenced in the previous blog post Bicycle Infrastructure. I am making the argument that the sharrow is almost utilized too much. Often times, the sharrow is added to a street that would otherwise be better suited for a bicycle lane. I have also asked the following question that I would like to pose to my readers: “By designating multiple streets in a community as the need to ‘share the road’, are we therefore telling drivers that on the unmarked streets, that they do not have to ‘share the road‘?”

Please don’t misread this post believing that I think that sharrows are a bad idea. That is certainly not the case. I believe in sharrows and think that they are a great addition to bicycle mobility. However, they cannot be used as a substitute for bicycle lanes.

I have seen the sharrow used as justification for making travel lanes wider than they need to be on streets that not appropriate, nor safe, for bicycle travel. To understand the flaw in this justification, one must first understand that the wider the space for typical vehicular travel, the more dangerous that it is. If the street requires widening for bicycle mobility, the bicycle lane is a much greater option.

The sharrow is intended to be used on streets with target vehicular travel speeds of 20 to 25 miles per hour. For more information regarding the use of sharrows, there is a valuable tool available as a module to the SmartCode titled The Bicycling Module. The Bicycling SmartCode Module was authored by Mike Lydon with Zachary Adelson and Tony Garcia. It can downloaded free at http://www.transect.org/docs/bicycling_pdfs.zip

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5 Comments

  1. I agree with about half of the article–and in full disclosure, I am no planner–just a public works guy. Don’t use it as an excuse to widen a road or confuse the public about the “share the road” cycling law: check and agreed.  But I think it makes an excellent and cost effective potential substitute for a bike lane given a few existing and less than ideal circumstances.

    Consider a road that is already too wide and the speeds are less than 40 MPH (the limit for the Sharrow), but the complete re-design of the road system is cost prohibitive? It is often infeasible to add bicycle lanes to existing roadways without an overlay of some sort (chip seal, slurry seal, etc.), and a change to traffic patterns will often trigger significant and time-consuming public process, such as implementing a “complete streets” ordinance. With deferred maintenance to roads an increasing challenge for public works groups across the country, this means that adding bicycle lanes (the preferred solution!) is cost prohibitive and on a distant horizon in many cases.  In fact, we are currently only resurfacing 1-2% of our road system per year, meaning it is 50-100 years before a road could be completely resurfaced. Personally, I’ll be riding a recumbant by then. Best case, you can do it during a chip seal, but that is still on the order of 15-20 years given current resources.

    So, instead why not install Sharrows to indicate that it is expected to see cyclists on a roadway as a medium-term solution?  They cost $120, can last for 2-5 years (depending on location), don’t require overlay and, in most cases, don’t require significant public process because they don’t change traffic patterns.  They can connect vital cycling pathways, create an internationally recognizeable expectation about how to cycle properly and send the very clear message that cyclists are an expected and valuable part of the transportation network of a community. They do this without expensive treatments or changes in traffic patterns and reinforce the message of a shared road in a way that bike lanes do not (ie, MY bicycle ‘lane’, YOUR road).

    A series of Sharrows (dare I call it a “Shareway”?) can be implemented with minimum inconvenience to overworked city staff or the community, on long or short stretches, and at a comparatively low cost when full overlay is years away.  In addition, it sends the clear message that the community supports cycling and cyclists, creating a more repetitive and impactful reminder that it is everyone’s responsibility to share the road, cyclists and drivers alike. 

    So, I would agree–don’t use it as an excuse to create overwide roads.  Don’t use it when you are overlaying a road or can afford to install bike lanes. Don’t use it as a permanent replacement for bike lanes. But in my opinion I think it could be used MORE often as a tool and as part of an integrated, medium-term and cost-effective symbol that cyclists are welcome. Because it is all our responsibility to share the road and in Colorado Springs, we should do it the Shareway.

  2. It seems that municipalities are reluctant to reduce the travelway width too much because they receive lots of complaints from the car driving community. Case in point – the City of Centennial received over 50 complaints in one month from concerned citizens after they installed their bike lanes with comments ranging from “the road is too narrow and will cause head-on collisions” to “the bike lanes are ugly”.

    In places where the roadway was “too narrow for bike lanes”, the city used sharrows to mark the bike routes. In cases where this argument is valid, I feel that the sharrows are very useful for bicyclist way-finding in the suburban environment where the bike route has to follow curvilinear roadways and make turns to make a continuous system. Of course there are also plenty of locations where the on-street parking is extremely underutilized and the City could have easily striped parking on one side in order to provide bike lanes, but that is a whole other issue because constituents feel that the parking in front of their house is “theirs” and would be up in arms if the City took away “their parking spot”.

  3. Thank you both for your comments. It is extremely helpful to have multiple perspectives on this, of which I believe that we are pretty close to full agreement, (Sorry Nick, I agree with your comment aside from the 50% statement).

    Very good perspective Nick regarding the overall cost of installing a bike lane vs. the cost of adding sharrows to the street. I had not considered this and you are absolutely correct. I’m glad to hear that we are in agreement in times of repaving/ re-striping, etc.

    Great insight from you as well Brian. You might be aware that the City of Colorado Springs received major backlash from the neighbors around Old Colorado City for adding sharrows to West Colorado Avenue as well. That is to simply add a reminder that the road is to be shared with bicyclists, not just motorized vehicles.

    1. The cost of the sharrow is tough to quantify. A template or mold is needed for the first sharrow marking, beyond that it is primarily the cost of labor. Signage should also be included initially until a community understands what the marking means.
      Of course, there could be the community process, etc that goes into the costs. Good question, I would be interested to hear input from those who may have been involved on the gov’t side of putting them in place.

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