Sharrows are a Copout to Real Change in Increasing Bicycling Rates in San Diego

One of the goals of the Bicycle Master Plan for the City of San Diego is to create (emphasis mine)

“[e]nvironmental quality, public health, recreation and mobility benefits through increased bicycling”.

In the last year, San Diegans have seen an increasing number of shared-lane markings, also called “sharrows”. Sharrows are appearing everywhere: Adams Avenue, Park Boulevard, Broadway, El Cajon Boulevard, Grand Avenue, Voltaire Street, Chatsworth Boulevard, Hotel Circle South, Pacific Highway and more. However, these sharrows are being used as a cheap band-aid instead of implementing real change on our roadways that would increase the number of people riding their bicycle for transportation or recreation.

10 year old girl riding to school on Voltaire Street with drivers passing at over 30 mph. Are we prioritizing free vehicle curbside parking over child safety and health? Is this the best we can do?

For starters, San Diego’s Bicycle Master Plan recommends sharrows on roadways that are too narrow for bike lanes. Sharrows are recommended on roads that have a minimum width of 14 feet. Bike lanes are recommended on roads that have a minimum of 15-17 feet. El Cajon Boulevard, for example, has three travel lanes in each direction – it has more than enough room for a bike lane.

In an evaluation of sharrows in 2010 by the FHWA [pdf], the paper revealed that the percentage of riders (compared with other modes of transportation) didn’t increase with the presence of sharrows.

So how can the City of San Diego increase the percentage of people who ride a bicycle? A recent report [pdf] from the Mineta Transportation Institute, an institute that was established by Congress to research “multimodal surface transportation policy and management issues”, concluded that in order to attract a wide segment of the population, a bicycle network’s

most fundamental attribute should be low-stress connectivity, that is, providing routes between people’s origins and destinations that do not require cyclists to use links that exceed their tolerance for traffic stress, and that do not involve an undue level of detour.

The report revealed that in order to determine whether road segments provided low-stress connectivity, the evaluation criteria would be based on whether a segment of the road was suitable for children, based on Dutch bikeway design criteria and represented the traffic stress that most adults would tolerate.

Why Dutch bikeway design?

Dutch standards have been proven on a population basis to be acceptable to the mainstream population, since bikeways built according to those standards attract essentially equal male/female shares and high levels of bicycle use for all age groups. (By contrast, cycling in the U.S. is about 70 percent male, with very low participation rates by older people).

Installing a bicycle facility marking that has not demonstrated an ability to increase the number of bicycle riders on roads that foster speeding by motor vehicles is not an effective strategy to increase the number of riders.

If the City of San Diego is truly serious about making change that will get more people riding a bicycle, they’ve got to start implementing some real change in redesigning our streets. And sharrows are not the solution to redesigning our streets or increasing the number of people who can rediscover the joy of riding for both transportation and recreation.

Kinzie Street protected bike lane, Chicago, IL (photo courtesy of Chicago DOT)

Edit: I made an edit above regarding the the FHWA study that was referenced. The paper studied the effects of sharrows on driver behavior around bicycle riders which was included in the conclusions. The paper’s authors also counted the number of riders before the implementation of sharrows and after which revealed no statistically significant increase in mode share after sharrows were striped. I’ve contacted the authors of the study to inquire why they didn’t think to include the cyclist counts as part of their conclusion and will update this post if I learn more.