My post on the new downtown bike lanes, shortly after the work was completed in fall 2012, had some mild criticism of the placement of sharrows. After many months of riding on these particular streets, and observing how bicyclists and motor vehicle drivers respond to their placement on the roadway, I am now prepared to criticize the sharrow placement more strongly.
The California MUTCD section 9C.07 specifies that shared lane markings (commonly called sharrows) must be at least 11 feet from the curb where parking is present. Either traffic engineers or paint crews, not sure which, are taking this to mean that the sharrows should be placed exactly 11 feet from the curb, as many of those in the recent Sacramento project were. The NACTO Urban Bikeway Design Guide has a better recommendation, “On streets with posted 25 mph speeds or slower, preferred placement is in the center of the travel lane to minimize wear and encourage bicyclists to occupy the full travel lane.” However, the NACTO guide has not been recognized or adopted by either the state or Sacramento, and in fact some vehicular cyclists are opposed to the NACTO guide because it promotes separate facilities over riding in traffic, but that is a conversation for another post.
One of the purposes of the sharrows is to guide bicyclists about the best place to ride in situations where bike lanes are not present and the lane is too narrow to share, 14 feet or less. When sharrows are placed to the side of the travel lane, they are too close to parked vehicles and their car doors. Doors on some two-door vehicles come out an amazing 54 inches from the side of the car. So if the side of a parked car is 7 feet from the curb, the door comes out 11.5 feet, more than the minimum specified in the MUTCD, and that does not even count handlebar width and shy distance. Eleven feet is not a safe placement. Many bicyclists know that this is not safe, and therefore ride in the middle of the travel lane, but since they are no longer riding on the sharrows, motor vehicle drivers think that they are riding in an illegal fashion and do the typical immature driver things: yelling, honking, following too close, and intimidation through close passing. Yet if the bicyclist is riding on the sharrows, then many motor vehicle drivers feel that there is room to squeeze by in the same lane, thereby coming much too close to the bicyclist and endangering them. The only safe place for the bicyclist to be is in the middle of the travel lane, and that is where the sharrows should be.
As part of a recent repaving project, now mostly complete, bike lanes were added to several streets in the downtown area, sometimes by converting three travel lanes to two, and sometimes just by narrowing the travel lanes. As an example, 9th Street (one-way southbound) and 10th Street (one-way northbound) were converted from three lanes to two, which freed up space for bike lanes. 10th Street is shown at right. A reduction in the number of travel lanes is sometimes referred to as a road diet. However, the amount of right of way is the same, it has just been shifted to serve all modes of travel more effectively. The reduction in motor vehicle lanes reduces the motor vehicle road capacity slightly, but far less than many people think it will. In fact, with more space for bicycles, more people will bicycle and the motor vehicle traffic drops somewhat, lessening congestion for everyone.
Sharrows (shared lane markings) were also used liberally throughout, particularly on east-west streets. Along I Street westbound, bike lanes are present in some blocks and sharrows in others. The photo at right shows the sharrows placed within a time restricted travel lane in front of the courthouse on I Street. When parking is allowed, the sharrows form a defacto bike lane adjacent to parked cars. This lane is a bit wider than it was before. During no-parking times, the sharrows define their usual meaning, that “Bikes Can Use Full Lane”. The MUTCD R4-11 sign is used at times to provide the same indication. Sharrows are placed in lanes which are too narrow for a motor vehicle and a bicycle to share side by side, which is less than 14 feet. In any lane narrower than 14 feet, the bicycle not only can be should occupy the middle of the lane to prevent motor vehicles from passing too closely.
Some criticisms of the project:
Sharrows are placed inconsistently within the travel lanes. They should always be centered in the travel lane, but it looks like in some cases they were placed a certain distance out from the curb. Placement too far to the right encourages motor vehicle drivers to try to squeeze by, which is what creates the hazard.
The alternating of bike lanes when there is space with sharrows when there is not space is an understandable effort to create the best solution to a challenging situation, but in my mind, it fails. Regular bicyclists often take the travel lane anyway, in order to create the necessary distance from parking cars and their dooring hazard, to bypass slow traffic, and to prepare for left turns. It is the less confident bicyclists who would benefit most from the new bike lanes, but I think they will be quite confused with the change back and forth between bike lanes and sharrows.
I think that all three lane streets in downtown should be converted to two lanes. Three lane streets encourage high vehicle speeds. It is not unusual during non-congested times to see vehicles going 40 mph on these streets, where the posted speed limit is 25. An opportunity was missed to make these conversions.
I also think that one-way streets should be converted to two-way streets. Again, one-way streets encourage high vehicle speeds, and in fact they are designed to do this, to flush cars in and out of downtown twice a day. They are called traffic sewers for a reason. Two-way streets create an environment where drivers are much less likely to speed. Of course once a street has been road dieted to two travel lanes, a conversion to two-way is much easier.
Despite these criticisms, though, I am pleased to see the new bike lanes freshly painted. I suspect this project has doubled the number of sharrows in Sacramento, and as people see them used more and more, they will become more effective. It was a pleasure riding on Sunday from my residence in midtown south to the farmers marked on 9th Street, and then back north on 10th Street.