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Are Shared Lane Markings and Bike Boulevards a Distraction?

Transit Miami (via Next American City) posts:

Sharrows. Chevrons. Shared lane markings. Little painted bicycles on the street.

Like fungi after a spring rainfall, Miami has seen a rapid proliferation of these markings on her streets, designed to remind motorists to be aware of cyclists and their right to the lane. While the markings are a welcome improvement to our otherwise naked, auto-dominated streetscape, the sharrow boom is raising some concerns in Miami’s cycling community and beyond.

Has the sharrow obsession come at the expense of more substantial bicycling infrastructure?

The author also quotes Bike San Diego:

In the last year, San Diegans have seen an increasing number of shared-lane markings, also called “sharrows”. Sharrows are appearing everywhere: Adams Avenue, Park Boulevard, Broadway, El Cajon Boulevard, Grand Avenue, Voltaire Street, Chatsworth Boulevard, Hotel Circle South, Pacific Highway and more. However, these sharrows are being used as a cheap band-aid instead of implementing real change on our roadways that would increase the number of people riding their bicycle for transportation or recreation.

I echo these two authors. Shared lane markings are quickly becoming the default solution selected by agencies any time roadways don’t already have ample excess space to be used as dedicated bike lanes. Since roads with an extra 10′ (minimum) of unused space are rare (or if it does, it’s more a reflection that the roadway serves few useful destinations), shared lane markings are enjoying rapid popularity. It’s easy to see why shared lane markings are popular with agencies. Sharrows allow City Councils, engineers, and planners to implement bike infrastructure while avoiding the hard decisions (like removing trees, widening roadways, prohibiting parking, or removing lanes).

I don’t oppose the use of shared lane markings. They are a valuable and useful tool that agencies should consider, and sometimes shared lane markings are the right decision and the best alternative. However, they will never accomplish the goal of encouraging new cyclists in any substantial way. I wrote a post at Streets.mn about how I view shared lane markings more as educational tools or “training wheels” that may effectively teach cyclists how or where to ride on a roads without any bike infrastructure. I also think they potentially play an important role as wayfinding devices (though that is not really their intended purpose).

I feel similarly about bike boulevards (a.k.a. Neighborhood Greenways or “Bike Walk Streets” as the local advocacy group calls them). These types of facilities also have an important role to play in a complete and well-rounded bike network, and they should be developed. However, I am concerned that we are becoming over-reliant on this strategy, and that they can be a distraction from efforts to implement more substantial cycling infrastructure elsewhere.

Of course it is a judgement call that a bike lane on a major through route is “more substantial” than a bike boulevard or sharrows, and I’m sure some will disagree with this characterization. Even so, I would argue that even the most complete network of bike boulevards or sharrows can not be effective at encouraging cycling unless it is supported by a backbone of traditional bike lanes or off-street trails.

8 comments to Are Shared Lane Markings and Bike Boulevards a Distraction?

  • Could sharrows also teach motorists that there are cyclists around, and perhaps in the future they’ll see improved facilities? Could they be a way of testing a route for cyclists that may eventually become something more substantial? That’s my hope for some of the sharrows I see around town. Well, ok, maybe just one. La Salle Ave between Grant Street and Franklin. Weekly I “share” my hatred (hate-rrows?) for this underwhelming bike facility with whomever is listening as I ride by.

  • @brendon – Yes, I share your hope that sharrows can be precursors for improved facilities. I think this is a common hope among bike supporters, as sharrows are almost universally viewed as a second-best solution, except for among ardent vehicular cyclists who oppose designated bike lanes.

    It is frustrating, however, to watch cities choose sharrows during full-reconstruction scenarios, which is the most logical opportunity to provide dedicated bike lanes.

  • Boston Bikes’ Nicole Freedman agrees. In Boston’s recent cycling infrastructure boom she held sharrows off the table until all other options were deemed un-doable. They are still pretty sparing with sharrow use, and they use a modified staggered lane type marking. This approach requires a strong voice inside the system.

  • I find the Lasalle facility particularly annoying because there is a bike lane — but only on the I-94 bridge — then back to the sharrows. Or: just enough time to lose your place in traffic and have to merge back before you hit a parked car.

    I actually like a lot of shared lane facilities I’ve seen so far — particularly Bryant Ave. But it’s clear this only works in the alternate parallel route strategy. Doing it on Lyndale (which should be the street with the quality bike facility) would be infuriating to drivers and intimidating to cyclists. I really think we need to explore proper cycle tracks on major streets (like Lake Street, Hennepin Ave, Lyndale Ave) and try to get cyclists where they belong: on the same core arteries of our communities where cars and pedestrians are. I’m really struggling to think of a major commercial street outside of downtown that has a dedicated cycle facility.

  • I imagine folks on this blog would also appreciate this sharrow fail in Richfield, a sore spot in an otherwise pretty good bikeway that goes east-west across the municipality. On this portion, there are bumpouts for parking, and the sharrows helpfully go into the parking area as it bumps out. Glad we get to “share” the road with parked cars.

    • @Sean – where in Richfield is this photo?

    • This is 75th St, adjacent to Donaldson Park. Most of the route has concrete bike lanes and no parking — in addition to a shared-use path — but you’ll find this awkward little sharrow portion between Penn and Humboldt.

      • The contractors did something similar when they were installing sharrows on the block of 10th Ave N between Washington and 2nd St. They were quickly scraped off and repainted in the proper place. I guess Richfield doesn’t have the same quality control.

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