03 January 2011

The Great Sharrow Debate

Sharrows are a sorry substitute, a poor compromise, and an illusion of safety and progress. Until the City starts taking bold action to create a functioning network of physically separated bike lanes, cyclists will continue to be second-class citizens.  And those who use bikes to ride on city streets must stop accepting unsafe and regressive pavement markings in place of safe and effective cycling infrastructure: we must shed ourselves of the defeatist attitude that something is better than nothing and advocate collectively for real change. A vision of Toronto as a true cycling city is not out of reach, but we must stop negotiating ourselves down to the point where we believe that separated lanes are unworkable and sharrows will push us in the right direction. If we want the City to be bold we must be bold ourselves!

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The City of Toronto will soon be holding a public consultation to discuss the relatively recent pilot project on College St. between Manning and Landsdowne that saw "sharrows" installed where College St. has been determined to be too narrow to accommodate the continuation of the College St. bike lane.  On-street car parking is allowed except during rush hour when the sharrows reveal themselves for cyclists.  Thursday January 20, 2011 will be an opportunity for us to tell City Hall that we won't accept second-rate gestures of progress and recognition any longer.  Come out and make your voice heard.

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"Sharrows" are "shared lane pavement markings," which look like bicycles with two chevrons in front.  They are becoming increasingly common on streets in North America as well as the UK and Australia.  In 2004 the City of San Francisco undertook a study of sharrows, which soon after saw them spread across the U.S.  For more information about sharrows generally take a look at the Wikipedia page and for more information about sharrows in Toronto you can read the FAQ on the city's website.

Sharrows are meant to do a number of things including: alert motorists to the presence of cyclists on the road, improve safety for cycists, and indicate the lateral position where cyclists should ride.  In Toronto we tend to have two types: sharrows placed to the right side of a curb lane where there is enough room for cyclists and motorists to ride side-by-side, and sharrows placed in the centre of the curb lane where there isn't. In the latter case, cyclists are encouraged by sharrows to "take the lane," as it were.

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There are several reasons why I believe that sharrows are bad for cyclists.

First, the psychological sense of improved safety on the road gained by sharrows is not a substitute for the real improvement in safety that would come with physically separated lanes, raised lanes, or bike pathways.  Sharrows don't provide much more security for children, older riders, less agile riders, or larger cargo bikes that could be used to transport kids.  Toronto continues to be a cycling city dominated by younger and more physically fit individuals. An inclusive method of transportation this does not make.

Sharrows tend to put cyclists between fast moving cars (and/or streetcars) and parked cars that leave cyclists vulnerable to both opened doors and cars changing lanes (despite any visibility improvement gained by the sharrow): The reality is that bikes are still placed in the middle.

Second, sharrows aren't all that usable. Most of the time sharrows sit under parked cars, or cars sitting in traffic. Turns out that they aren't all that visible under snow either.  Rush-hour sharrows are only operative for a few hours on weekdays and centre lane sharrows encourage unsafe riding practices - I for one would rather ride by the side of road than in the centre of a lane between cars, buses, and trucks all going 40km/hr faster than me.

Anecdotally, I have heard from drivers who find this practice of "taking the lane" to be incredibly frustrating and unsafe.  The effect is to pit cyclists against motorists when the intention is to encourage a polite sharing of the road space. The result, from a vocal car driving population, is a reasonable argument to get bikes off the roads entirely.

Third, sharrows reinforce the incorrect and detrimental belief that bikes are cars. Ontario has regretfully lumped both cars and bikes into the definition of "vehicle" under the Highway Traffic Act. This allows a bike to be on the road in Ontario, but has seemingly convinced everyone to treat bikes likes cars: the same traffic laws, the same traffic violation fines, arguments in favour of requiring bike licensing, and, for our purposes here, requiring bikes to share the road with cars.

Streetcars, for example, are not "vehicles" and it has been easier to develop streetcar-specific infrastructure including right-of-way lanes, traffic lights, etc.  A separate definition has provided the possibility of prioritization in some cases (such as specific and advance lights) and a broader debate about budgeting, policy, design, and engineering. "Pedestrian" is not defined in the Act, but I would venture a guess that we all think sidewalks are a good idea.

Sharrows are "infrastructure" that reinforce the false notion that bikes and cars should be treated the same and should share the road. If we start to think of bikes as a unique category of transportation, which they are - one more similar to pedestrians than cars - then the realization that it makes more sense to accommodate bikes by building separated infrastructure will follow.

Cities like Copenhagen, Stockholm, Amsterdam, and Bogotá have all been successful in creating some form of separated cycling infrastructure - whether it be separated lanes, raised lanes, off-road but networked paths, or bike paths integrated into sidewalks - that recognize bikes as a form of transportation unlike cars.

Forth, sharrows are a political step backwards and will make it harder to advocate for better cycling infrastructure in the future.  Each time we accept a new sharrow on the road we signal to City Hall that this is a reasonable compromise on safe infrastructure and that we are willing to settle for anything. We set a very low standard and a dangerous precedent for how Toronto should develop it's public road space.  Even though we have caught onto the idea of "complete streets" we still see a fragmented understanding of the space between buildings.    

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These arguments certainly raise many questions. There are undoubtedly legitimate concerns about money, political will, available road space, design and engineering standards, the legal status of bikes, and so on.  But if Toronto is ever to become a safe and enjoyable cycling city we need to at least start with a shared vision and framework of best standards, rather than worst.

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