Sharrows, Sighs

Sharrows are starting to appear around Albany. Washington Avenue was the first sharrowed street in Albany. The sharrows there look like this.

A sharrow is an on street marker indicating to road users that people in cars and people on bicycles are supposed to share the road. I liked sharrows before I thought much about them. Now that they are in place, sometimes out of place, I believe sharrows are redundant (the law already dictates the result, as does common courtesy), confusing (you might be surprised that you don’t know exactly what sharing means in this context), wasteful (they cost money to place and come up as fast as they are placed) and at times counterproductive (they can make roads more dangerous when they are misplaced and/or not coupled with education, as explained below).

Albany’s Washington Avenue sharrow installation suffers from two major deficits: we don’t know how to react when seeing sharrows and they were placed too close to the curb.

Education first. Sharrows seem to be giving a simple direction, but oversimplification of the concepts (or an outright failure to educate road users) is a mistake. Our sharrows showed up with no public advisories as to their meaning. A website with general road sharing tips was eventually put up, but sharrows were not mentioned (despite the fact that I suggested that guidance on sharrows be added within days of the site’s launch). Now, months later, I see there is a FAQ on sharrows, but I didn’t find it until I searched for the term. Having read it, I fear it will do more harm than good.

I’ll discuss the FAQ in detail below, but in case I lose you along the way, let me share now what I believe to be the right way to share lanes marked with sharrows. Sharrows are typically placed in narrow lanes, so sharing should involve all road users traveling in a single file line. If any user wants to pass, they need to wait until it is safe to move into another lane to pass. No side by side sharing. If the FAQ said this, I would have been able to link to it rather than write this post.

Please let me explain my ideas. There are two ways to share a lane. Think of a lane as a blanket. To share a very small blanket, one person would use it one night and another the next. When sharing a large blanket, it is possible for two to use it side by side at the same time. Nice, but the blanket needs to be big enough that both users feel comfortable sharing. If either user is uncomfortable they shouldn’t be sharing.

Apply this to lanes. Narrow lanes first. Sharing a narrow lane requires all users to travel in a line, one after the other, like users of a small blanket crawling under it one at a time. Pretty easy for cars to get this message, as they are roughly the width of the lane and it is tough to do otherwise. Bicycles are temptingly narrow and non-threatening, though, so too often cars try to squeeze by in our lane. A bicyclist must communicate to other road users her conclusion that the blanket is too small by her road position. A bicyclist should move left into the lane, maybe to the center of the lane, to communicate that she isn’t comfortable sharing the lane side by side.

People behind a lane holding bicyclist must accept the bicyclists determination that the lane is too narrow to share. The pedaler may be experienced and reasonable in her conclusion that two users cannot travel side by side with a three foot minimum buffer zone. The pedaler may see road debris on the right hand side of the road that users in cars can’t see (or wouldn’t consider a hazard). The pedaler may be insecure and simply need more space to feel safe. In any event, the pedaler needs to decide, not other users. If the pedaler is wrong, taking the lane when it would be safe for them to move right, the only remedy other road users have is to let the police give a ticket to the pedaler. Police decide when we do things wrong. Not other road users. Honking, yelling and close passing are mean, dangerous and often illegal. Behave!

Now wide lanes. If a lane is wide, wide enough for a motor vehicle and a bicycle to travel side by side with at least three feet separating the two, only then can sharing involve the two users traveling side by side, like two under a big blanket at the same time. Big blankets sharing can be nice, but both users need to think the blanket is big enough. One doesn’t decide for the other. If pedalers don’t convey to the other users their small blanket feelings, people may try to climb under the blanket with them. Communicate! If you feel insecure, move left until it is safe to move right.

Sharrows are usually placed in narrow lanes. When they are, the share in sharrow has to be the little blanket, one after the other, kind of sharing. Not the big blanket, two side by side, kind of sharing. Users should assume that when they see a sharrow that the department of roads has determined that a lane is too narrow for a motor vehicle and a bicycle to travel side by side with a safe buffer between. Bicyclists should take the whole lane, but even when bicyclists stay to the right, motorists should give the bicyclist the full lane, travel a safe distance behind, be patient and be quiet (don’t honk). We know you are there and we will move over when it is safe for us to do so. When we let you know it is safe to pass, please know that safe passes don’t involve accelerating rapidly or exceeding the speed limit. The New York Law was just amended to allow you to use the other lane, even cross over double yellow, to pass a bicyclist. You will rarely be required to wait more than 10 seconds. Ten seconds might feel like a long time in the moment, but if you cannot spare ten seconds to safeguard your neighbors safety, well, I shouldn’t say.

Sharrows are not typically placed in wide lanes. If the lane is wide enough for a motor vehicle and a bicycle to travel side by side with a safe buffer zone, a marked bicycle lane is the better solution. Even without a marked bicycle lane, when the lane is wide you should be able to figure it out without signs.

That wasn’t so complicated. What went wrong with the FAQ? In the first response we are told that sharrows are “intended to show where cyclists can ride on the street without being hit by a suddenly opened car door.” First half of the sentence first. Official guidance does indicate that sharrows can be placed to show cyclists where to ride, but the official guidance is oversimplified. Riding on sharrows is only advisable when (a) the sharrows are placed properly and (b) no other special circumstances exist (the sharrow is blacked by road debris, a pothole, or an improperly parked car). When the sharrows are placed too near the curb and/or you encounter special circumstances, you have every right to leave the sharrows. Because it is smart to ride predictably, which means in a straight line, it might be better to not ride on the sharrows at all for blocks at a time. You need to decide for yourself.

Follow the advice in the response to the first FAQ while pedaling on Washington Avenue and you will be inviting motorists to pass in your lane. That is a dangerous result as the lanes on Washington Avenue are too narrow for this side by side kind of sharing. We could sometimes follow the advice in the response to the first FAQ if the sharrows were properly placed, but they have been placed with the center three feet from the curb. Should be four feet minimum where there is no curbside parking and 11 feet minimum with parking.

The foot or more outset that this placement is short would make a big difference. If a cyclist on Washington Avenue pedals on the sharrow, she will be too close to the curb, leaving too little space for the pedaler to move right. When cars pass without changing lanes, they pass within inches of the cyclist. These lane sharing passes are both unsafe and, beginning on November 1, 2010, illegal in New York State.

On August 16, 2010, New York’s Governor signed a safe passing law (which law becomes effective November 1, 2010). The new law does not require a three foot buffer zone, as is required in many states. Instead, the law requires the passing vehicle to pass a safe distance from the pedaler. If you search the legislative history you will find a note indicating that three feet is considered safe unless conditions dictate a greater distance. The three feet bright line rule might have been easier for some to understand and apply, but the law is an improvement. As worded, a judge could conclude that three feet was not enough when, for example, three feet becomes zero as a cyclist is forced to swerve to avoid a three foot pothole. First a ticket needs to be written. I am not holding my breath. This law is the classic blind and toothless tiger safely caged in a zoo. If it ever gums a motorist, the bruises will go mostly unnoticed.

Don’t take comfort in the law. It won’t protect you. Take the lane when you must. Passing motorists will be forced to wait until they can move into another lane. If they still pass closely (you saw it coming in your helmet mirror, right?), you have left yourself room to move right to create the buffer zone the motorist did not.

I had a friend drive beside me on Washington Avenue as I pedaled on the sharrow. Despite the small size of his car, it is easy to see there there is less than three feet separating us. This picture was staged, but if you pedal on the sharrow it will happen for real all the time.

I typically ride a foot or more further out. Want a picture I didn’t stage?  Here I am waiting for my friend to turn the corner and take the staged picture.  I could have reached out and shook the passenger’s hand.  Way too close.  Delight in the delicious irony of the livestrong bracelet on the passenger’s wrist!

Other useful but off topic tips include the following. I generally take the lane at intersections to prevent people from passing and turning right in front of me. I never pass cars on the right at stop lights. Instead, I wait in line for my turn at the lane. This way, cars only have to pass me once. It is only fair and it makes my actions much more predictable. I am behaving like a car. Motor vehicle users seem to get that and respect it. Works for me.

A couple of very experienced pedalers rolled up as we were taking pictures. They were riding on the outside edge of the sharrows. Said they always do. Smart. Don’t ride on the center of misplaced sharrows!

Since I had the yardstick with me to check the placement of the sharrows, I tried an experiment. I rode with the yardstick in my left hand projecting out into traffic. Even though about three inches of it were in my hand, both Lacey and I laughed at the luxurious amount of space three feet really is. We had no idea. I think I was estimating close passes at something under two feet. Motor vehicles that passed me with the yardstick gave me about four feet or more. I was in heaven. I had no idea. Unfortunately, I doubt motorists can judge three feet either. Maybe I need to ride with a yardstick more often!

Back to sharrows. I think it is a huge error to use sharrows as markers of where road users are supposed to be, especially when the sharrows are too near the curb. This encourages the big blanket kind of sharing, sharing the lane side by side, when you have only a little blanket. With sharrows and narrow lanes, we have to use only the one after the other, small blanket, sharing. Faster user needs to yield behind the slower user until the faster user has a safe opportunity to pass. Passing can be safe and easy on Washington Avenue since there are two lanes of traffic in each direction.

I was surprised to receive the image set forth below from an extremely knowledgeable and capable local transportation cyclist. It unfortunately perpetuates exactly the wrong message. We can ride wherever in the lane we need to ride to be safe. Keep as far right as we safely can (that’s the law), but leave the right side and leave the sharrow when we need to do so (that’s also the law). The image was offered as a good direction because it is short and simple, but riding in traffic is never simple.

The message that a lane should be shared in a single file line rather than side by side becomes so much more clear when you place the sharrow in the middle of the lane. The DOT guidance allows this (the outset guidelines provide minimum outsets, not maximum outsets). With the sharrow in the middle of the lane, bicyclists would know they could take the lane when necessary and cars would know to look for us out there. Here is a well placed one (in another city). [Photo from here]. Why don’t we do this in Albany? It doesn’t cost any more and the benefits are huge.

Again I digress. Back to the first FAQ, second half of the sentence, which tells us that riding on the sharrow will prevent us from getting doored. This assumes way too much. To get that result, the sharrow must be well placed, all vehicles must be well parked and the pedaler must be riding a straight line. Too many assumptions for my comfort. Don’t want to get doored? Ride at least four feet from all parked cars all the time. Don’t waste attention trying to figure out which doors are about to be opened. Just stay four feet away. Sharrows can’t effectively and consistently keep you from getting doored.

More importantly, why open with this? Why not hit the big issue first? Sharing! Maybe we’ll get better advice on the point in the second response in the FAQ. Sorry! We are told in the second response that cyclists can move left and even use the whole lane when conditions require it. Absolutely right and very important, but this has nothing to do with sharrows. This is the law on every road, sharrow or no. Rather than simply say pedalers can move left, they should have said pedalers can move left of the sharrow when necessary to be safe.

Third response in the FAQ. We are told cyclists cannot safely check all parked vehicles for exiting motorists so that motorists should check their mirror before opening their doors. Good advice to motorists, but why are we talking about dooring again? This is just getting in the way of delivering the important points on sharrow application. Moreover, cyclists should never be encouraged to trust motorists to look out for them. I have a hard time remembering to look when I open my car door. I drive. I am human. I remember this when I pedal. I take full responsibility for my safety. Pedal four feet from parked cars. End of analysis.

Fourth response in the FAQ. Finally we are told that lanes with sharrows are to be shared. How many readers made it this far in the FAQ (or in this post)? Even if the reader made it this far in the FAQ, the FAQs taken all together don’t effectively convey to the reader what it means to share. The FAQs should have said clearly and up front what I said up front. Sharrows mean narrow lanes. Too narrow for users to share side by side. Share these narrow lanes one after the other, in single file.

Fifth response in the FAQ. We are told that people can pedal on streets which are not marked with sharrows. No kidding?! To be fair, this is a question that will come up for some once they encounter sharrows and try to deduce their meaning. This is another problem with sharrows sans education. I am glad this FAQ response made it in there.

The FAQ goes on to list the proper positioning of sharrows, which I have shown Albany got wrong on Washington Avenue, but they’ll get another chance. The sharrows are coming up quickly. I heard the wrong glue was used, but I suspect it is the snow plows. My favorite deteriorating sharrows are those with just the head of the bicyclist missing. So comforting.

The FAQ does score one home run, at the very end, and I quote:

A “Bicycles May Use Full Lane” sign may be used in addition to or instead of the
Shared Lane Marking to inform road users that bicyclists might occupy the travel lane.

[Picture from here.]

Yes! I have recommended use of these signs to the New York State Bicycle Coalition and to various other bicycle activists to no avail.  These signs would be much more effective than sharrows. The signs clearly convey the important  concept.  No need for a separate educational campaign. The signs would still suffer from one shortcoming suffered by sharrows–some motorists will conclude the signs must be present for bicyclists to have the right to use the full lane. That is the rule on every road. We can always use the full lane. We only need to stay right when it is safe for us to do so. Even then, we only need to stay as far right as is safe.

If Albany wants to make the city more inviting and feels it must use sharrows, place the sharrow in the middle of the lane and give us better direction as to how we should share.

If you care about this issue and others relating to safe road sharing, please read John Forester. He taught me everything I know about pedaling in traffic. Much of his advice shows up in this post. Most of all, be safe!


8 responses to “Sharrows, Sighs

  1. Nice Work! Sharrows and Share the Road issues are a complicated subject unless we take the time to educate ourselves. Nice critique on my picture of the Sharrows in San Francisco. I should have thought more carefully about sharing the image. I liked the fact that the bicyclist was outside the door zone but I also thought (obviously briefly) like you that it gave the impression that a bicyclist had to ride on the center of the Sharrow. Thanks for pointing out the weaknesses of the image. I love your clear writing style. So easy to read and understand.

    • Thank you for the compliment and the reassurance. I was 99% sure you wouldn’t be bothered by another viewpoint, but it is great to hear from you so that I can be 100% sure. Thanks also for reading my tome. I promise to keep future posts well under 1,000 words. Crazy!

  2. Randy,
    I probably don’t ride the streets of Albany quite as much as you, but I do bike commute to work a couple of times a week & usually get in an additional ride or two around town. I have to say, I have absolutely zero interest in riding in the middle of the lane. The pics above showing cars passing you on Washington Ave (just a few blocks from my house btw) seem perfectly reasonable to me. I just don’t see a problem there. In fact, the driver of the Acura in the non-staged photo clearly has moved over to the very left of his lane to provide a little extra room for you. If I was on my bike in your spot, I’d feel totally comfortable (although probably a bit closer to the curb). If I was driving the Acura, I wouldn’t think for a second that I was too close. Maybe I’m the only one, but the situation in that photo looks 100 times safer to me than a rider in the middle of a lane with 30 pissed off drivers backed up behind them. I’m not saying that I don’t experience a LOT of dangerous car encounters and a lot of drivers seriously in need of some re-education (or possibly even a U-lock to the temple), but I’m not going to be asserting my right to ride in the middle of Western Ave at rush hour anytime soon to try to remedy that. I actually kind of think that pursuing this somewhat Utopian vision of being able to ride everywhere with 3 or 4 feet of no-fly zone on both sides of you is at best pointless and at worst maybe even counter-productive. If every road in Albany just had as much space along the edge to ride in as that section of Washington does, and if the APD actually enforced those long standing laws related to speed limits, stop signs & red lights, I think I’d actually be pretty satisfied. I don’t know, maybe I’ve just been brain-washed by Rock n Roll songs about cars and by my suburban upbringing… or quite possibly the Wolaver’s IPA is diluting my revolutionary spirit, but that’s how I see it.
    ps – congrats on throwing the 64. I assume at Joralemon? We’ll have to play again soon…. But I’m not riding my KHS down the middle of Rte 32 to get there 🙂

    • Thanks for writing! Your feedback is useful.

      When we are talking about safety, I should note that getting hit by an overtaking vehicle is statistically at the bottom of the list of accidents you are likely to encounter, so your lack of discomfort riding in the gutter is rational. Getting hit by a left turning vehicle is the top danger. Even so, close passes are scary to me. I want as much space between me and other users as possible. When there are two lanes in the same direction, I see no reason that other users should pass in my lane at all, let alone within two feet or less.

      You are right that the passes in the pictures were by some measure safe–they happened and no one was hurt– but that should not be the standard. Things can go wrong quickly when a vehicle passes closely and one or the other operator needs to change course. Because pedalers are not well protected, people are starting to wake up to the importance of giving more space when passing. We are the 17th or 18th state to pass a safe passing law. Others will follow.

      Your comments also help me realize I should have emphasized the importance when taking a lane of moving right as soon as possible to let motorists pass. I do not want to anger anyone by keeping them behind me for long periods of time. When I need to take a lane, I pull right at the first opportunity to let drivers pass. It would be very rare that a motorist would be delayed for more than ten seconds. If there are more cars than can get past me, I have stopped to let them all go and then resume when the road is clear.

      If cars are too close to my tail I turn my head to look at them and give a back off hand signal (push the air horizontally) or slow down hand signal (push the air down). Works amazingly well. I think communication and a look wakes them up to the fact that they are interacting with a human, maybe their neighbor. After the direction to slow down, I quickly find a place to pull right and let them pass.

      I couldn’t do any of this without my helmet mirror. I am constantly checking. It is usually easy to see how the driver directly behind me (the one about which I am most concerned when taking a lane) is reacting to my lane position. Some get it and stay a safe distance behind. A few get upset quickly. They tailgate and sometimes moisten the insides of their windows with hot screams and spit. I let everyone pass me at the first opportunity, but its good to know when I have a hot one on my tail. That said, the mirror does have a downside. I think it makes me more upset about close passes. I can see them coming, see that they have room to move over more, yet they don’t. Also, because passing is less dangerous than people left turning into my path, I need to look forward more than back.

      Another issue with the mirror. Because I can check behind without turning my head, my head is facing the front more than the head of a pedaler without a mirror. Motorists might not know I am aware of their presence. Easy to fix. As I said before, if a motorist is exhibiting impatience I turn my head to look back simply to let them know I see them before they yell, honk or rev their motor.

      Taking the lane when needed is a technique that works for me and many others. It is endorsed and taught by the League of American Bicyclists. If you are comfortable on the right, by all means stay there. I think it is less safe, but we all have to do our own math. That said, if you haven’t taken a safety class from a League certified instructor, you should. I had been riding and reading about safety for decades and still learned a lot when I took the course. We are lucky to have excellent local instructors. They are very dedicated transportation riders with decades of experience. You can read about the classes and get their contact info here.

      My utopian vision consists of road users with compassion and patience. I think education is the key to improving the situation. My lane position is an effective educational tool when used properly, but I wish I didn’t have to do it. If we are talking utopian visions, mine would include mandatory League safety classes as a prerequisite to pedaling on the streets. The main concepts would be taught in drivers education, too. I believe knowledge reduces friction among road users. I’ll never see the end of angry road users, but education helps.

      Thanks again for you note. I’ll throw discs anytime. Drop me a line!

      Be safe and have fun.

  3. This was an interesting read, especially after my recent experience with the police after a car hit my friend’s bicycle while passing us too closely. I am still thinking about it all and what to do in a similar situation next time. After all, safe passing laws are only helpful if they are upheld.

  4. Thank you for writing! I just read your article and posted a comment about a similar situation I experienced.

    Safe passing laws make close passing a ticketable offense, but typically require the officer to see the offense to write the ticket. The planets need to line up, so few tickets will be written. Other tickets could have been written in our situations, but in the end a ticket coupled with a fine of a few hundred dollars is hardly a sufficient lesson in light of the driver’s actions.

    Even so, I am glad you called the police. It may have woken up the driver. They were able to meet you and have a better chance of seeing that you are people with feelings and rights. Maybe later they’ll picture themselves in your shoes, on your bicycle and understand how important it is to exercise increased caution around vulnerable road users.

  5. Pingback: Steps | Randal Putnam Loves to Pedal

  6. Pingback: Increments | Randal Putnam Loves to Pedal

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