Road Worrier: Sharrows send a wordless message to cyclists and drivers

Lassiter Mill Road in Raleigh is marked with a bike lane near the intersection with Marlowe Road where Christopher C. Mangum was killed in a bicycle accident last year.
Lassiter Mill Road in Raleigh is marked with a bike lane near the intersection with Marlowe Road where Christopher C. Mangum was killed in a bicycle accident last year. 2013 NEWS & OBSERVER FILE PHOTO

Don’t be ashamed if you have not deciphered the sharrow, yet.

The sharrow (short for shared-lane arrow) is still a fairly new symbol of Raleigh’s effort to encourage peaceful coexistence between car drivers and bike riders. It’s a white-paint pavement marking that depicts a bicycle beneath twin chevrons that look like an Army corporal’s stripes.

For Raleigh cyclists and automobilists who have noticed these stenciled symbols, the sharrow sends a mix of messages.

“I think it does remind motorists that bikes are going to be using these streets,” said Kirk Port, 53, of Raleigh, a competitive cyclist who rides more than 200 miles a week.

And it provides guidance for cyclists, too. If the sharrow is painted near the right-hand side of the lane, that’s supposed to be a smart place to ride your bike. There should be room for cars to pass safely on the cyclist’s left, and little danger on the cyclist’s right.

And when the marking is in the center of the lane, that’s a suggestion for bike riders to travel near the center. This can cause consternation for impatient drivers, but there are plenty of situations where it’s safer for everybody.

Joe Burgess, 34, likes it when sharrows encourage cyclists to move a bit to the left. They’re more likely to be noticed by drivers pulling out from driveways and side streets, he said.

Take Clark Street or Hargett Street, where the sharrows are in the center. Both streets have parked cars on the right, so the cyclist needs to avoid getting whacked by a suddenly opened door. The travel lane is so narrow that there’s no room for cars to pass bikes easily. And traffic speeds often are slow enough for bikes to keep pace with cars, anyway.

“For the most part, sharrows are pretty good,” Burgess said. “They help educate you where to ride. You want to ride farther to the left so drivers can see you.”

‘Really helpful’

Raleigh had just four miles of bike lanes in 2010 when Jennifer Baldwin started work as the city’s bicycle and pedestrian coordinator. The first sharrows showed up on Northclift Drive in 2011. Now the city has 28 miles of sharrows and bike lanes.

“Sharrows are really helpful when there’s not enough space to provide a dedicated bike lane, so we use them to guide cyclists where to ride in the lane,” Baldwin said. The double chevrons also serve as directional arrows, a reminder for experienced bikers that they should ride with traffic on the right-hand side of the street.

“They also provide good marketing for drivers, to remind them they should expect to see cyclists,” Baldwin said.

Baldwin is overseeing the city’s plan to double the miles of streets with sharrows or bike lanes by the end of 2015. A few stretches will have “buffered” bike lanes, separated from automobile traffic by diagonal hash marks.

Dedicated bike lanes, usually 5 feet wide, offer some security for inexperienced cyclists who might not feel safe riding in traffic on busy streets.

But experienced cyclists disagree about whether bike lanes are a good idea.

“The bike lanes on Avent Ferry Road are always full of debris, so I would rather not use them,” Port said. “I would not ride in them because I don’t want to risk puncturing my tires.”

Burgess has the same concern.

“The bike lanes on Peace Street, it’s supper-skinny and it’s full of debris,” Burgess said. “It’s really kind of ridiculous to ride that far to the right, where you’re inches from the curb and there are storm drains.”

Cars are barred from bike lanes on most streets, but city ordinances are not entirely consistent.

Signs on Ridge Road tell drivers they can park their cars in the bike lane during certain hours. Parking also is allowed in the Anderson Street bike lanes, Baldwin said, even though there are no signs that mention this.

Baldwin and local cyclists say it’s hard to know whether drivers take heed from the sharrow’s wordless message. Lassiter Mill Road was well marked with sharrows on May 2, 2013, when a local cyclist was killed by a driver who turned left in front of him.

‘A waste of paint’

Cheryl J. Marcus, 59, notices sharrows when she travels Orange County and Chapel Hill roads on her bike and in her car.

“I don’t think drivers pay any attention to them,” Marcus said. “It doesn’t make them any more aware of bicycles. For the most part, drivers appear to believe that you are in their space and they have first rights to it – as opposed to believing cyclists have an equal right to be on the road.”

Gertrude Kappel, a long-time cyclist, sticks to the sidewalk when she rides on Lake Boone Trail – even though it now has stretches of sharrows and bike lanes.

“It is a scary place to ride,” Kappel said. “Painting sharrows on the street does not relieve my fear at all. Until most drivers and bike riders understand the meaning of sharrows and buy in, I think it is a waste of paint.”

Related stories from Raleigh News & Observer