Friday Musings: Your thoughts on “sharrows”?

Many of my bike buddies have heard me go on and on about sharrows for a few years now. I’m sure our Facebook followers have heard me mention my concerns about sharrows from time to time, too.

For those of you who may have missed it, here are some of my thoughts on them: while I think they can be a useful tool in the arsenal of bike-friendly infrastructure, I am very concerned that many cyclists and motorists both don’t really understand what they represent. Neither group is particularly good about “sharing” the road (the operative part of “sharrow”) at times. I’ve seen cyclists treat road with sharrows as a full-width “bike lane”, despite cars backing up behind them. I’ve also seen motorists crowd riders against parked cars when sharrows are present. Further, I’m afraid that some cities use sharrows as a quick pacifier; slap some down on the pavement and then tell cyclists, “yeah, we’re building bike infrastructure…what more do you want?”


It’s my belief that when a city chooses to add sharrows to a road surface, that MUST come with an advertising campaign or some other method to get the word out to road users — so that everyone knows what those mysterious chevrons represent and to remind folks that yes, we must all actually share the road. We all know that there is far more to bicycle infrastructure than simply putting up some signs, or spreading some paint onto the roadway…a lot of planning, logistics and study must come with it in order for all that effort to be of value to road users.

So, I was a bit surprised to read the following article, which appeared in the Edmonton Journal the other day:

A new study out of British Columbia suggests the use of shared bike-car lanes on major roads doesn’t actually increase safety for cyclists and may pose a greater risk if they add confusion to the streets…

…The shared bike-car lanes, called sharrows, are seen as a simple solution when the city, neighbourhood residents or local businesses don’t want to remove parking or a lane currently used for vehicle traffic. They consist of a painted bike with arrows on the pavement, and signs along the side of the road.

When researchers at the University of British Columbia looked at 690 cyclist collisions serious enough to land a cyclist in the hospital, they found the only bike infrastructure that significantly reduces risk is having a separate route for bikes.

Please read the rest of this enlightening article by visiting the Edmonton Journal page.

I’d love to hear our readers thoughts on sharrows: do you love them? Hate them? Are you indifferent to them? Do you find them effective and well-placed, or see them as an “easy out” for cities who don’t want to spend much on improved bicycle infrastructure? Please leave your comments below.


  1. Neil Warner October 26, 2012 3:29 am 

    All of the above. I am a great believer that as a great number of road users have no idea how wide their vehicle is, white lines are only as good as the road user. A town local to me has a 2 foot wide “cycle lane” right the way through it. Ignoring the cars that are parked in the majority of it, in many places the road isn’t two cars and two bikes wide. Frustrating for all but the council has ticked its “Provision” box.
    On a personal note many riders seem to abrogate their personal safety because they’re “In the lane” seemingly in a happy bubble away from their surroundings. I’m much happier integrating with other road users, even as uncomfortable as that can be.
    In some cases white lines are as effective as those No Smoking areas that used to be so popular in restaurants until people realised the smoke ignored the demarcation lines.

  2. itmaybejj October 26, 2012 3:30 am 

    They added them this year in my town. I love them….not for safety reasons but because they seem to have transferred the roadhogs’ rage from me to the town council. The letters to the editor were pretty vile for a while, but on the roads with sharrows people now just pass me. No honking/cursing. I like that.

  3. Ghost Rider October 26, 2012 3:59 am 

    @Neil — I am amazed (and more than a little alarmed) at some cyclists’ ability to see a simple painted stripe as an impenetrable “safety zone”…as we mentioned earlier, it takes more than some paint to make truly safe and effective infrastructure.

    @itmaybejj — did you notice any sort of media campaign when the town council added sharrows? It sounds like the folks in your area are aware of how the sharrows “work”, at least.

  4. Keyser Soze October 26, 2012 5:33 am 

    They are great. First, the whole lane is mine. I like that massive safety zone. If they want to pass, they can use the other lane, just like passing any other vehicle. That’s as safe as it gets. It’s share the road, not share the lane…. I’m not sure why people don’t understand this.

  5. bg October 26, 2012 5:41 am 

    Corporal “BIke” Sharrow?

  6. Ghost Rider October 26, 2012 6:00 am 

    @Keyser Sose — your comments illustrate my concerns about sharrows perfectly:

    1)a sharrow does NOT give a cyclist full and exclusive use of a such-marked lane. Most municipalities specify that cyclists must ride “as far to the right as practicable”. Nor does the sharrow give motorists exclusive use of the lane. Sharrows mostly serve as visual assistance for lane-positioning for cyclists…somewhat to the right of the lane, but far enough out to avoid the “door zone” and parked cars along the way. Think of it as a bike lane of sorts without the striped lefthand boundary.

    2)Not all sharrow-marked streets have multiple travel lanes — in cases where there is only one lane in either travel direction, it DOES mean “share the lane”. Roadhogging “just because you think you can” is poor practice for both cyclists and motorists alike.

    It’s clear to me that a lot of people simply do not understand what these sharrows mean — some are poorly-placed or ineffective, but mostly they are not common enough or advertised enough to have become a regular part of the road experience.

  7. itmaybejj October 26, 2012 6:05 am 

    @ghost rider: not much. The local papers talked about it. But a lot of the traffic on these roads aren’t from our town, so…

    Their predecessors were little share the road signs the size of parking meter regulations notifications. Even the bikers didn’t see those.

  8. Graham October 26, 2012 6:34 am 

    GR – I find your explanation in the comments above about the proper use of sharrows amusing. Apparently, even the folks painting the symbols don’t know what they’re for because all of the sharrow markings in my town are right in the middle of the lane. Naturally, that’s where I ride on those roads (which tend to be narrow side streets with parking on both sides).

    Honestly, sharrows markings don’t seem to accomplish much in this town. People ride and drive much as they always have, except now we have spots of slippery white paint in the lane.

  9. Ghost Rider October 26, 2012 7:47 am 

    @Graham — another example of the misuse of sharrows. Simply painting them on is no way to create infrastructure — there are standard stencil sizes and positioning guidelines published at the national transportation level for these things!

  10. BluesCat October 26, 2012 7:57 am 

    I’m really suspicious of the effectiveness of sharrows. Without a line painted on the pavement to clearly show what is for bikes and what is for cars, I think sharrows are no better than what might be called a Contest Lane. The bike lane in that picture is great … until about three or four car lengths before the intersection when the painted line ends. It then becomes a Contest Lane for bicyclists going straight and automobiles making right turns at that nice, wide single lane at the intersection.
    Knowing that automobiles will always win the Contest Lane, I will usually retreat to the sidewalk at this intersection when a car and I reach the end of that bike lane line at the same time. Luckily, at this particular intersection, the sidewalk has a roll curb which facilitates that move. However, further on down this road the curb changes to a vertical curb and a move to the sidewalk becomes much more problematic: I need to time it just right at a driveway opening because I can’t bunny-hop my recumbent!

  11. RANTWICK October 26, 2012 9:10 am 

    I think I’m going to be in a pretty bad minority on this one… I have come to really like sharrows and dislike most other bike infrastructure.

    I like sharrows BECAUSE they are vague and poorly understood, yet clearly mean that bikes belong on the road. I find just about all other attempts at bike infrastructure too inflexible and aimed at divided rather than shared use. Of course, poorly positioned sharrows suck, but at least they aren’t as bad as solid lines (often also poorly placed) making motorists and cyclists alike think that there are, as you put it, “inpenetrable safety zones”

    Oh, and @bg – Not “corporal bike”… Captain Jack!

  12. Ghost Rider October 26, 2012 10:40 am 

    Ranty — you’re not afraid to be contrary, and that’s one of the many things we like about you: sometimes crazy ideas make a lot of sense! 😉

    Seriously, good points — I much prefer the ideal of shared-use rather than rigidly-separated infrastructure. I mean, separated lanes and paths are cool and all and certainly have their place, but I want to be able to go exactly where I want to go, and often those separated facilities don’t get me there.

    Further, those divided facilities reinforce the “roads are for cars, paths are for you hippies on two wheels” mentality so prevalent in the U.S. motoring population.

    My utopian vision is a place where cars and bikes share, everyone gets where they’re going efficiently and courteously and no blood is spilled. Pipe dream, I know. Thanks for providing an alternate way of looking at sharrows!

  13. dangerGator October 26, 2012 10:56 am 

    Sharrows are there to let motorists know that the street is frequently used by cyclists.

    Like Keyser Soze – I will use the full “sharrow lane” IF there are parked cars, because if I ride close to the parked cars there is a significant chance I will get doored AND cars will try and squeeze by me in the lane and I’ve had one too many rear view mirrors graze my arm, so I take the lane. As soon as is safe for me to move over onto the shoulder I will.

    Best thing are seperated bike lanes, but good luck with that.

  14. Iron_Man October 26, 2012 1:42 pm 

    I’m in agreement with Rantwick. I like sharrows just fine. They are a great, low cost solution for a town like mine (Springfield, MO). My only beef with them is that they essentially look the same as the bicycle only graphics that are in the bike lanes. So when they just pop up around town the public is just a tad confused as to what the symbols mean. Some drivers, bless their hearts, actually thought the symbols were the same and meant those roads had become bicycle only. :)

  15. Brian Gee October 26, 2012 2:58 pm 

    Ghost Rider, I hear you, but you’re just plain wrong about the purpose of sharrows. The whole point of the sharrow is to tell people where to ride when the lane is _too narrow to share_. Here, look, I’m not just making that up:

    If the lane is wide enough to share (14′, usually), then it’s wide enough for a striped lane. If not, the cyclist should be in the center. So, I like sharrows as long as they’re placed in the center of the lane (unlike a few I’ve seen in Cambridge, MA, which are placed in the door zone).

  16. Ghost Rider October 26, 2012 4:26 pm 

    Brian — I looked at those guidelines. Your statement applies IF the lane the sharrow is placed in is “substandard width” (generally less than 14′, as you mentioned). I’ve seen plenty of marked streets that are adequate width; however, the sharrow is offset toward the right side rather than centered as positioning guidance for cyclists.

    No matter where they are, cyclists are still often constrained by the code language of “as far to the right as practicable”…which is difficult to enforce and is open to much interpretation by users. Sometimes, “as far as practicable” means smack-dab in the middle of the lane. Regardless, the element of “sharing” is still key — as I said earlier, just because we can (or think we can) hog the entire lane does not make that a good practice.

    Also remember that cities don’t often follow the guidelines when applying sharrows. Even on proper-width lanes, a lot of cities would rather slap down some sharrows than re-engineer and go to the extra expense of a marked/striped bike lane. I suspect that’s why we see sharrows all over the place: way out in the lane, too close to parked cars on the edge, etc.

  17. Derek October 26, 2012 5:51 pm 

    If cars are backing up behind a bicyclist in a do-not-pass zone, then it’s because of one of two reasons:

    1. There is no good place for the bicyclist to pull over to allow traffic to pass.

    2. There are places for the bicyclist to pull over, but the bicyclist doesn’t.

    In the first case, there’s nothing that can be done without doing a more extensive street redesign than the city was willing to do.

    The second case is illegal and should be prosecuted.

    Therefore, neither case is the fault of sharrows, and so sharrows are still better than nothing.

    As for the study, the most dangerous street it found was a street with parked cars but no bike infrastructure. Painting sharrows would improve that street, as would improving bicyclist education to avoid the door zone and avoid swerving in and out of traffic to both hug the curb and avoid parked cars.

    I hope that settles the matter.

  18. Max Power October 26, 2012 6:43 pm 

    If sharrows are intended to keep cyclists to the right of “real” traffic, they’re pointless – FTR rules already do that. If sharrows are supposed to indicate something that requires a marking, they should be used as the on-pavement alternative to the “cyclists may use full lane” signs posted to encourage cyclists to take the lane to prevent unsafe passing.

    “Sharing the road” doesn’t necessarily mean operating bicycles side-by-side with motor vehicles. “Sharing the road” means that all road users have equal right to the use of that public space – first-come, first-served. No road user has a legal right to be ahead of another user, however impatient he is. There are traffic regulations regarding “impeding traffic,” but a vehicle moving at the expected speed for that type of vehicle is not impeding traffic (most commonly cited via the Selz case)

  19. Mir.I.Am October 26, 2012 9:32 pm 

    I’m suspect about sharrows…. I ride on roads with sharrows as if they weren’t even there: take the full lane when it is too narrow for a car and rider to both ride side by side, and allow cars to pass safely as much as possible to avoid holding up the line. I think of sharrows as a compromise, a lot of times there will be a battle to install a bike lane, and instead they put sharrows (like a big campaign Cycle Manoa club and University of Hawaii last year). Apparently it’s a lot cheaper to stencil than paint a line. And less offensive to cars, if said bike lane were to take the place of, say, on street parallel parking spots! I wonder if drivers even notice sharrows?! Ask your non-cycling friends if they even see them on the road.

  20. Ian Brett Cooper October 26, 2012 11:47 pm 

    Erm… sharrows are intended to notify motorists specifically that a bicyclist is permitted full use of the lane. They are supposed to be painted in the center of the useable part of the right hand lane. As for “as far right as practicable”, that does not mean ‘far right’ and it can certainly mean the center of the right hand lane. In Maryland, the wording is ‘as far right as practicable and safe’.

  21. Ian Brett Cooper October 26, 2012 11:49 pm 

    And the Maryland Driver’s Manual states “…often the safest place for a bicyclist to ride is in the center of the lane. In Maryland, a bicyclist may use the full lane even while traveling substantially below the speed of traffic if the lane is too narrow for a car to safely pass a bicycle within the lane).”

  22. JeffS October 28, 2012 12:37 pm 

    Nice. Another anti-cyclist rant given by a cyclist.

    Some of you just can’t make up your mind. We are either legally allowed to use the road or we’re not. Stop trying to regulate courtesy. When’s the last time a motorist blog proposed making driving while an asshole illegal? Never.

    That, however, seems to be the SOP for a so-called cycling advocate.

  23. Ghost Rider October 28, 2012 1:06 pm 

    @JeffS — if you’ll read the comments in the article carefully, you’ll notice I give equal grief to cyclists and motorists alike. It cannot be denied that BOTH groups could do a much better job of getting along on our nation’s roadways. No one’s trying to “regulate courtesy”…but the fact remains that sometimes being courteous is the right thing to do out there.

    Thanks to those of you who mentions the NACTO guidelines/local ordinances. It seems pretty clear that in some cases, those guidelines were not followed when applying shared-lane markings. A simple Google image search of “sharrow” illustrates this better than I can describe; there are myriad styles of markings in places all over the pavement. Some work, perhaps just as many do not.

  24. holly October 29, 2012 12:56 pm 

    In thinking over what I like and do not like about the sharrows on my commute, the one section of sharrow that I do not like is different from the others in that it occurs in a wider street section (though not a wider lane – a right hand turn lane replaces the bike lane area at this point and the sharrow is added). Many drivers would seem to prefer that I move forward and to the right, rather than take up a fraction of a car length in the flow (especially when the light is red). Other than that intersection, the sharrows on my commute are pre- and post-intersection on narrow streets where there really is no room for bike lanes at the corners and drivers seem to be okay with sharing in these sections.

    I do think some public campaign could have been useful, however. There were articles on the local bike blog when the sharrows were added with usage explanations, but I haven’t seen anything for motorists.

  25. Ben October 30, 2012 8:58 pm 

    I have mixed feelings about sharrows. I personally ignore them and just do what I normally would have done on that road, but they can be helpful in helping the novice cyclist decide where in the lane to ride.

    As far as sharrows and cars go, I think sharrows are great when they are in the middle of a lane because it shows governmental support for the cyclist to take the lane and thus tempers the temper (no pun intended) of the angry motorist, but I’ve also been in situations where I’ve had to take the lane despite the sharrows being at the right edge and I’ve been yelled at. It seems motorists have trouble distinguishing between a marked, separated bike lane and a line or sharrows inside the edge of their own lane.

  26. Ben October 30, 2012 9:00 pm 

    “a line OF sharrows,” sorry.

  27. Matt November 1, 2012 7:30 pm 

    Chiming in late… I kinda like sharrows in certain applications – namely cases where the roads are substandard width and there’s enough traffic that a bicyclist might otherwise get pushed to the side. I agree that they’re often misused, and often don’t come with enough explanation/publicity to explain what they are. However, they can send a strong message.

  28. Peter March 28, 2013 8:56 pm 

    OK, so I am waaaaay late on this one, but in NYC where I frequently commute, we have sharrows in some stretches of the avenues. You have the sharrow to the right of the lane, out of the door zone, and solid striped lines on either side, as opposed to dotted lines that usually divide lanes, as well as signage that says “Shared lane, Do Not Pass”. Am I safe to assume that I can take the lane there and that the cars behind me have to wait, or change lanes?

  29. John Magee February 24, 2015 4:32 pm 

    We dont have these in Australia. We have green bike lanes instead. They work pretty well, but sharrows would be a good idea.. Because the bike lanes, nobody really knows which way you are suppose to ride

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