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What's a Sharrow, anyway?

Sharrow: What is that cyclist doing lying in the street?

Just what the heck is a “Sharrow” anyway?

It's a valid question regarding something that seems to be quite a conundrum for cyclists and motorists alike. However, before I discuss the poor cyclist you’ve all seen flattened out in the middle of the pavement (don’t worry, it’s only paint), I feel an introduction is in order:

My name is Matt. I commute by bicycle. Every day. As I’ve transitioned from motorist to cyclist, I’ve found that there is an unacceptable lack of easily accessible resources or reporting related to cycling and cycling culture in New Orleans.

Don’t get me wrong; organizations such as BikeEasy continue to do a great job encouraging and facilitating all things cycling in the metropolitan area (more on them later). But, the more good information that is out there, the better for everyone. Thus, I feel compelled to share what experience and knowledge I can in an attempt to solve and satiate all of your quandaries and curiosities about cycling in the Crescent City.

But, enough about me. What is that cyclist doing lying in the street? Last week at NolaVie’s editorial meeting, as I proposed to cover local cycling culture, the conversation quickly turned to the various markings delineating safe or protected bikeways on some of our city’s streets. Particular intrigue was expressed with regard to the stylized symbol of a cyclist that is occasionally found stenciled on the pavement with either an arrow or two chevrons above it indicating the legal direction of travel.

“Sometimes it’s in a bike lane on the side. But, other times it’s in the middle of the street! What does that mean?” was the resounding question.

“Well, that’s a Sharrow,” I responded. But, as I began to elaborate, I realized I wasn’t sure enough of its meaning to confidently define it. At that moment it became apparent that there is a need for more clarity on the subject of cycling. And I had my first weekly topic.

To clear up the confusion I called Jamie Wine, Executive Director of local cycling advocacy outfit BikeEasy, who was kind enough to forward the official definition of Shared Lane Markings of the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD), 2009 Ed. as well as share BikeEasy’s opinion on the matter.

According to the MUTCD, Sharrows should be used in slow moving and/or narrow lanes and indicate the safe, legal direction of travel and lateral location for cyclists therein. Additionally, they function to encourage safe passing of cyclists as well as reduce the likelihood of a cyclist traveling in the wrong direction or impacting the open door of a parked car – receiving a “door prize,” as we say.

Thus, that poor cyclist, the Sharrow, flattened in the middle of the road, serves to minimize the chances of an actual cyclist lying there. Fitting.

Jamie did go on to clarify that, while Sharrows are a great tool for extending and connecting safe cycling networks, they are often over or misused on wide, high-speed roads in lieu of more appropriate markings such as a bicycle lane. When possible, a bicycle lane is preferred to a shared lane as it is safer for all road users and encourages cyclists who otherwise feel unsafe.

“But,” he said, “if [the lowly Sharrow is] all we can get, we’ll take it to raise awareness on the road among all users.”

Next week: Upcoming Bicycle Secondlines in conjunction with Gentilly and Po-Boy Festival