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News and commentary from the world of biking and walking.

Bicycling Magazine asks: what are sharrows? Do they work? Do we need them?

Since they first appeared in the 90s, “sharrows” have been a contentious topic for bicyclists. They’re those icons painted on roads that depict a bicycle beneath chevrons. They aren’t bike lanes. In fact, most people don’t know what they are. Bicycling Magazine published a new article that tries to explain them.

You can read it here: “What Is a Sharrow? Our Guide to the Notorious Shared Lane Marking”.

I have several problems with sharrows. My main problem is the first one highlighted by the article: the public does not know what they mean. Unless you have signs that people can understand, then the signage is useless.

That brings us to my second problem: what do they mean? The issue is that there isn’t a clear answer. Other markings on the road have specific legal meanings, such as “park here” or “don’t cross here.” Violating those markings invites consequences from law enforcement. Sharrows are different.

Sharrows are just suggestions. They say, “hey drivers, maybe you should pay attention to bicycles,” and “hey bicycle riders, maybe it’s a good idea to ride in this spot.” Unlike bike lanes, drivers are free to drive on sharrows as much as bicycles are free to ride outside them.

As far as I know, the presence of sharrows doesn’t even affect the legal consequences in case of a crash, although a lawyer may correct me on that.

Bicycling Magazine goes into more detail with the pros and cons. Their conclusion is that sharrows can sometimes make people on bicycles safer, but only if they’re used effectively. Often, perhaps most of the time, they aren’t effective. My takeaway is that suggestions which maybe-sometimes-kinda might help, but which also may make things worse, are best avoided completely.