Optimized Sharrow Usage

The term “sharrow” is a portmanteau of “shared lane marking arrow” or something like that. It’s a bike symbol and a couple of chevrons painted on a street intended to indicate the optimal place for a cyclist to ride.

Sharrow on Gano

It’s the weird looking thing in the foreground

Here’s what the Providence Bike Plan has to say about sharrows which it calls a “shared lane marking” or SLM for short:

The marking is intended to assist bicyclists with lateral positioning in a shared travel lane. The marking also encourages bicyclists to ride outside of the door zone of parked cars and to discourage wrong way riding. The marking also alerts road users to the lateral position bicyclists are likely to occupy in the travelled way. … SLMs can be used to connect short gaps between sections of bike lanes. SLMs can also be used in a right-turn only lane to assist bicyclists traveling straight through an intersection.

There was a time when I thought that sharrows were an interesting development, perhaps a new type of cycling infrastructure that could be successfully used as part of a city’s bike plan when full bike lanes weren’t possible. I even wrote a blog post when I saw the first ones in Providence over 3 years ago.

The Providence Bike Plan was released about a year ago. The best discussion I’ve seen about it is over at Greater City Providence in this post.  For various reasons, I did not participate in the discussion at the time the plan was released. Mostly because I was so disappointed in it and it seemed completely worthless to try to do anything about it. But now we are seeing the city implement the plan and it’s clear that all we are going to get is sharrows.

The first sharrows I saw in town were on Gano street back in 2011. But the first sharrows that appeared as part of the new, improved Providence Bike Plan (that I saw) were on Olney Street between North Main and Arlington Street.

Olney Street


It’s easy to separate Olney Street into the part that’s west of Hope Street (WOH), and the part that’s east of Hope Street (EOH). WOH Olney is a wide street with a handful of multi-family houses, plus a high school, church, medical office building and a large apartment complex. EOH Olney is narrower and there are more single-family houses plus another church and the grounds of a different high school. On EOH Olney the traffic is relatively slow and calm. WOH Olney serves as a connector between Hope Street and North Main. There’s more traffic on WOH Olney and it’s moving faster (mostly well above the 25 MPH speed limit). There’s one thing that both WOH Olney and EOH Olney have in common, free parking on both sides of the street, on the entire street. The big difference, there are many cars parked EOH Olney, but very few parked on WOH Olney. But both WOH Olney and EOH Olney have sharrows.

On EOH Olney, the sharrows kind of make sense. It’s a a quiet residential neighborhood and people are driving their cars at reasonable speeds. It’s not heavily traveled by bikes or cars, and it’s relatively narrow.. But it is simply idiotic to have sharrows on WOH Olney. It’s easy to see this when you look at a picture of where the sharrows were painted.


Green arrows point to the sharrows.

If you can make out the sharrows in the picture above, you’ll note that they are right where the cars are driving. This means that the city wants cyclists to ride way out there rather than at the side of the street.

What’s the city’s excuse for not installing bike lanes on WOH Olney Street? Did they want to preserve parking for the homes and businesses on the street? All of these places have their own off-street parking. I’ve been up and down Olney many times and there’s hardly anyone parked on WOH Olney. Because there’s no one parked on the street, it doesn’t even make sense for cyclists to use the sharrows. If a cyclist were to use the sharrows when there are no cars parked on the street, she would be putting herself in the middle of the lane, which many motorists will interpret as blocking “their way.” Motorists will pass to the right of the cyclist, or go around to the left, or try to intimidate the cyclist into moving to the right. I’ve seen motorists pass other people in cars on WOH Olney, treating it like a 4-lane road rather than a 2-lane street.  Instead of using the sharrows, most cyclists are going to ride close to the curb so the speeding motorists will pass them with plenty of room to spare. The city could have easily eliminated parking on this section of the street allowing for the creation of bike lanes in both directions. If they wanted  a more parking-friendly solution, they could have put a bike lane on the eastbound side of the street (uphill, where the cyclists are going slower) and put in sharrows and allowed parking on the westbound side of the street. I’ve seen this configuration on wider streets in Seattle that were on large hills. We don’t even have to go all the way to Seattle to find something similar, Alfred Stone Road (at the northern end of Blackstone Blvd.) has bike lanes eastbound and sharrows westbound.

The description of sharrows in the Providence Bike Plan includes “SLMs can be used to connect short gaps between sections of bike lanes.” These sharrows on Olney aren’t connecting anything. They are just a cheap way for the city to look like it is installing bike infrastructure, when really it’s doing nothing.

Olney street was a the first place where I saw the bike plan put into action and it’s nothing but a disappointment. In recent months, I’ve seen sharrows go in on Hope Street, Thayer Street and Broad Street. Here they are on Broad Street:

Broad Street Sharrows

Broad Street Sharrows

Hmm, what’s that to the right of the sharrow? It’s a completely unused parking lane!

If sharrows are meant to indicate where cyclists are supposed to ride, I suggest cyclists do exactly that – en masse. If the city wants to put in sharrows as part of their plan to encourage more cycling in the city, let’s show them what happens when many cyclists use this inferior cycling infrastructure at once. Let’s all ride on the sharrows as one big group and use them the way they were designed to be used.

I’m suggesting a semi-organized ride, along the lines of a critical mass, but with a few key differences. 1. We obey the letter of the law. No running lights, no riding two abreast. 2. We ride as safely as possible using the sharrows: stay out of the door zone, stay within the area defined by the sharrows. Are you interested in this? We could call it the “Sharrow Utilization Ride.” I’d call it the “Sharrow Appreciation Ride,” but I’m not sure if anyone would get the irony. I’m open to other suggestions for names.

[sidenote about the sharrows: it seems like they are all installed outside of the doorzone while the the Broadway bike lane is about 30-50% in the doorzone. What’s up with that?]

In a recent post, Transport PVD makes some interesting comparisons between the movement for marriage equality and the movement for safer bicycle infrastructure. In short, he argues that the State of Rhode Island is preventing Providence from installing better bike infrastructure. He says that much like San Francisco started issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples to force California into addressing marriage equality, cities should install proper protected bike infrastructure in order to force the state to get with the times on what cities around the world are discovering: that good bike infrastructure is a good investment.

Sometimes an important part of a movement is a little bit of civil disobedience. I’ve shied away from writing about this for a number of reasons. One of them: right now there’s a much more important protest movement going on, and I don’t know if there’s room in the Providence mindspace for anything else. And it’s hard to say that bike lanes are as important as protesting against racial discrimination in police practices (and that’s a mild way of framing that issue).

But I’m sick of this shitty bike plan. Cities like Pittsburgh and even Kansas City are starting to put in better bike infrastructure than we are. Providence has the bones to be a potentially great city for biking. We just need to make a few kind-of tough decisions. Well, no, not really. Just one tough decision: we need to say that bike infrastructure is more important than overly abundant, under-utilized free parking.

It’s been a mild winter so far, but the real cold weather is about to start, so I don’t think we could organize a sharrow ride any time soon. Is anyone else interested in a mass demonstration of how useless these things are?

5 responses to “Optimized Sharrow Usage

  1. Pingback: Holy S#!7 Sharrows! | Car-Free in PVD

  2. My husband thought that sharrows indicated that there was a bike lane ahead. He rides his bike to work via Broadway and his first encounter with sharrows was where Broadway was just repaved near the Service Road, there are sharrows leading to the bike lane there.

    When we later saw sharrows on Elmwood he asked, “where does the bike lane start?” Because he thought the sharrows indicated there was a bike lane starting further up the street.

    I think the City vs. State issue is not really as stark as people think. There are State roads rebuilt with State money where the State refuses to put in bike lanes for any number of lame reasons, but I don’t think the State is actually telling the City they cannot put bike lanes on their own roads.

    There are two reasons bike lanes are not going on City roads: 1. Even with the Road Bond, not many City roads are being rebuilt, they are simply being repaved. It actually is a little more than just paint to install the bike lanes, someone actually has to be paid to survey and draw out where the bike lanes would go, and in most instances, to make an ideal lane, there would need to be some re-engineering of the road geometry at some area to make them work well. 2. More importantly, is a lack of leadership on the issue at the very top. Cities that are making great strides in bike infrastructure such as Pittsburgh or New York or Chicago are doing so because the directive to do so is coming right out of the Mayor’s mouth. There is little more than lip-service from the corner office here.

    The good news is, we have a new Mayor…

    • If I read the bike plan correctly, your husband’s idea of the function of sharrows is kinda right – they should point you to where the bike lane starts, because they should connect two sections of roads that have bike lanes.

      I’ll admit that I’m somewhat ignorant about the complexity of everything that goes into installing a bike lane as you outline in reason 1. I’ll whole-heartedly agree with reason 2. I sometimes wonder if anyone at the city cares about this sort of thing. Let’s hope the new mayor takes a cue from Pittsburgh’s Mayor Bill Peduto

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