Cycling / Traffic safety

Sharrows: Major Step Forward or Evasive Side Step

Working as a Dutch bicycle engineer in the U.S. and Canada, people often ask me about the do’s and don’ts from the Netherlands. Lately, I got such a question regarding a so-called Sharrow (shared lane marking). This is not the first-time people have asked if they were a good idea, or should be thrown out with the trash.

Sharrows have been used in recent years in the U.S. and Canada to indicate that roads are not just for cars. The bicycle symbol with the double arrow on top; it has been slammed down on many roads, indicating the importance of the route in bicycle networks and alerting car drivers to the presence of bicyclists.
The success of these sharrows has been obvious: it’s a cheap and quick way of getting bicycle infrastructure in place. So, it is good, right? Wrong.

In practice, we often see this measure as a first and last resort in situations where protected bicycle paths or even bike lanes are too hard to realize, or too costly. In these scenarios, sharrows often appear and nothing else changes. The speed limit and road layout remain unchanged 99% of the time, which de facto means that it is actually just a car space, in which bicycles are supposed to ride. There is no change to the old situation, without sharrows, other than paint in the road to occasionally alert drivers to the presence of bicycles.

This approach does not provide protection for cyclists, nor does it fulfill the riding desires of those aged 8-80. It does not take the desires of the majority of the cyclists into account, because it does not recognize the basic needs of cycling, in terms of safety, comfort or attractiveness. It merely shows that road authorities are interested in cycling as a way of transportation.There are even risks involved: putting sharrows on a road can create a false sense of achievement for road authorities and/or politicians: “We said we were going to put bicycle infrastructure in place, and we did. What’s the big fuss about?”

The thing is, sharrows are not all bad. The fact that they highlight the position and possibility of bicycles on the road is a major benefit. In fact, in the Netherlands, often seen as the paradise for cycling, 80% of the urban roads are shared use, mixing bicyclists and cars. But there must be something good about sharing the road.

In the Netherlands however, mixing traffic modes is always viewed from a traffic safety perspective. The 30 km/h limit – mixing modes with higher speeds is deemed too unsafe and thus unethical – is key to shared space. With speed limits higher than that, separation is a must (at least a bike lane, preferably a protected cycle path).

Besides a lower speed limit being a necessity for shared space, another aspect comes into play. The design speed of roads must be in accordance with the speed limit. A wide road is unsuitable for a 30 km/h (20 mph) limit. In fact, a 30 km/h road must be so narrow that a car driver cannot overtake a cyclist when someone is coming from the opposite direction. The design stimulates the correct behaviour.

So, are sharrows bad? Not always. Using sharrows to accentuate the position of cyclists on the road can be recommendable, especially when the main culture is still car dominated. But using sharrows on a wide, high-speed route is not advisable. It is not making anything safer or easier. So, if you use sharrows, be sure to include a road diet, lower the speed limit and make overtaking difficult. Then you create a bike space where car drivers must learn to behave like guests.

Dick van Veen, Senior Advisor Traffic & Space

Dick van Veen

‘Great design of streets and public space must be realised together with all stakeholders. In addition to traffic safety, a living environment must be attractive. My solutions strike a balance between all users, not just motorists but the cyclists and pedestrians, residents and entrepreneurs, old and young. Public space is for everyone!’

Senior Advisor Traffic & Space
+31 (0)6 333 056 32