Last year, Delaware got a tiny taste of the new, MUTCD-approved “sharrow” marking. In 2011, however, we hope to see sharrows sprouting like mushrooms in more places, including the rest of Market Street in Wilmington and on Main Street in Newark.
But not everywhere. The sharrow marking tells both bicyclists and motorists that it is permissible for cyclists to “take the lane”. But it is important to keep in mind that the Delaware General Code also requires (except in special circumstances) that any “person operating a bicycle upon a roadway at less than the normal speed of traffic at the time and place and under the conditions then existing shall ride as close as practicable to the right-hand edge of the roadway.” Thus, there is a presumption in Delaware law that sharrows should not be used where bicyclists can not, or are unlikely to, travel at the normal speed of motorized vehicles.
But that’s the law. There is also a far more important common-sense restriction on placing sharrows on, for example, major arterial roads where cyclists will almost never bike in a travel lane, no matter how many sharrows tell them that it’s legal for them to do so. This kind of inappropriate application of the sharrow will bring the marking into contempt and degrade its usefulness in places where we really want to use it.
So, where should we use sharrows? The MUTCD guidance is notably unhelpful but, fortunately, Mia Birk (the former bicycle coordinator in Portland) has given some much more specific and helpful guidance. Specifically, she recommends these four uses for this new tool:
1) Gap closure between other bikeway infrastructure, where the gap is no more than 1/2 mile
2) To mark bicycle boulevards (great video of how they do this in Portland HERE)
3) On a street going downhill, where a bike lane on the other side going uphill exists
4) Streets where cyclists can keep up with traffic (rule of thumb: 15 mph speed limit or less)
If all you have is a hammer, then every problem can start to look like a nail. The sharrow is a great new tool, but it should be used intelligently. We should be prudent about using this new option so that it continues to be a sharp tool in our bikeway toolbox.