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Nobody wants sharrows. Why do they exist?

“Sharrows” are those painted arrows with bicycle symbols we see on some streets. Many bicyclists dislike sharrows and ignore them. Most drivers have no idea what sharrows are and ignore them. Why are they so misunderstood? And what are they really for?

I flipped through my copy of the Georgia Bicyclist Pocket Guide to see if there was any mention of them. Here’s what it says:

Sharrows: While not a facility, sharrows are on-street pavement markings that indicate a preferred bike route and alert motorists to the presence and typical lane position of bicyclists on the roadway.

They can be effective wayfinding signage and can raise awareness of bicyclists to low volume, low speed roads.

When riding on a roadway with sharrows, you are not required to ride in the space designated by the sharrow.

So they’re mainly wayfinding tools, like signs. Why not use a sign? Either way, it’s notable that they’re misunderstood enough that the guide needs to explain what they aren’t for in a bolded paragraph.

But this wayfinding feature does check out with how I commonly see them. Sharrows are often on roads that connect bike lanes or trails. Again, why not have a sign?

Tom MacWright posted this on his blog recently, which I found enlightening: Sharrows, the bicycle infrastructure that doesn’t work and nobody wants.

The purpose of a sharrow is to encourage good bicyclist and driver behavior. Sharrows don’t increase legal penalties for drivers or cyclists. They encourage cyclists to take the lane, but cyclists are permitted to do that anyway, on any narrow street. Sharrows are supposed to make motorists aware of cyclists. When drivers kill people in sharrows, there aren’t any additional consequences. The consequences for hitting people with cars are minimal.

Sharrows do constitute class III bikeways, which bring with them higher penalties for illegal parking.

Their purpose is to “encourage” good behavior without any actual enforcement. Considering that most bicyclists and drivers have no idea what sharrows are supposed to mean, I suspect that little encouragement is happening. In fact, sharrows are more likely to be the butt of jokes.

MacWright notes the Federal Highway Administration’s official purpose for sharrows:

  1. Assist bicyclists with lateral positioning in a shared lane with on-street parallel parking in order to reduce the chance of a bicyclist’s impacting the open door of a parked vehicle.
  2. Assist bicyclists with lateral positioning in lanes that are too narrow for a motor vehicle and a bicycle to travel side by side within the same traffic lane.
  3. Alert road users of the lateral location bicylists are likely to occupy within the traveled way.
  4. Encourage safe passing of bicyclists by motorists, and
  5. Reduce the incidence of wrong-way bicycling.

I consider myself fairly fluent with pointless bicycle terminology, and I have never heard of “lateral positioning” before. Apparently it refers to riding away from the “door zone,” the area where parked car doors swing open and hit bicyclists (“dooring”). Now that I know this about sharrows, they actually make more sense to me. However, sharrows in my city are usually in areas with no on-street parking, so this issue never comes up. Which leads us back to the original question: why have sharrows at all?

MacWright’s post includes some quotes from actual research into how effective sharrows are. I won’t reiterate it all, but the data indicates what every road user already knows, that sharrows don’t do anything.

Sharrows exist because our streets are so starved for bicycle infrastructure that we’re willing to accept anything, even non-solutions. Sharrows are something that committees can use as a compromise between doing nothing and doing something useful, but they’re just as good as nothing. Meanwhile, drivers are still free to hit, honk at, and verbally harass bicyclists.