Do sharrows make a difference?

A recent Grist article on “sharrows” got Eyes on the Street wondering just how much of an impact sharrows* – those white bicycle on top of two chevron symbols painted on some of Philly’s streets – make.

Sharrows are meant to guide cyclists away from parked cars and the dreaded “door zone.” They are also meant to remind drivers to share the road and to indicate where cyclists will be positioned. The Grist article questioned how much of an impact sharrows actually have, whether or not cities like Seattle are applying them indiscriminately and if they are used as a compromise in cases when installing a bike lane would cause too much of an uproar or be too expensive.

In Philadelphia, John Boyle research director at the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia said, “They do sort of work in certain situations, and they don’t work in others.”

“They really depend on the type of streets they’re put on,” Boyle said. “I think every case is really unique.”

For instance, the sharrows on 15th Street south of City Hall are painted in the left lane to guide cyclists away from cars parked on the right hand side of the road. Boyle said he has seen more riders on the left hand side since the sharrows went in.

Roads like 15th Street, where speeds are generally lower and there is a passing lane tend to be more conducive to sharrows than roads like Ridge Avenue in East Falls.

“If you’ve ever ridden on that section, the sharrows don’t really give cyclists much comfort at all,” Boyle said. “The traffic is aggressive.”

In Philadelphia sharrows are used when streets are not wide enough for a full bike lane, not, as the Grist article suggests, as a “politically easy” compromise option, Boyle said.

Sharrows, he said, are “really the only facility you can shoehorn in without dramatically changing the street.”

One local example of this is the 10th Street sharrow, which was installed after a bike lane through Chinatown was installed and then removed in favor of the shared use sharrow symbol.

Boyle said that as the City implements recommendations in the Philadelphia Bicycle and Pedestrian Plan, more sharrows will hopefully be added to Philadelphia streets. They will, ideally, be added strategically as part of a larger bicycle network.


*NOTE:  “Sharrow” is a word that combines “share” (as in, share the road) and “arrow” (for the double chevron symbol). It was added to the American Heritage Dictionary this year. 

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