View From the Saddle: A ‘Sharrow’ story

Something else you may have noticed about Beach Drive is that there are some fairly new markings painted on the roadway; these identify "sharrows."

Published January 22, 2007 by West Seattle Herald 
By Dave Kannas

I think we can all agree on these points whether driving a car or riding a bicycle: smooth is better than rough, no pot hole is better than pot hole and a flat tire is a serious pain.

OK, since we have that settled, let's move on. One of the routes I frequently travel by bicycle is along Beach Drive in West Seattle. Those of you who know and love Beach Drive as do I, will agree that it is, to a great degree, not smooth, is littered with pot holes and has been the cause of many of my bicycle flats. While you may not know that it's been the cause of many of my flats; you'll have to trust me on that one.

Something else you may have noticed about Beach Drive is that there are some fairly new markings painted on the roadway; these identify "sharrows." The markings consist of the shape of a bicycle with two chevrons above that point in the direction of travel. They also seem to be the cause of some confusion. I'll attempt in the this space to tell you a little about the sharrow and what it means. I'll also attempt to relate why I think that sharrows on Beach Drive are a little premature.

The sharrow markings, according to the Seattle Bicycle Master Plan, "… provide a visible cue to bicyclists and motorists that bicycles are expected and welcomed on the roadway." The operative word for me here is "welcomed." I say that because bicyclists should be expected on all streets in the city and elsewhere except where expressly prohibited. So, motorists, welcome me to your world and expect to see me wherever you happen to be driving, except on the West Seattle Bridge and other similarly unwelcoming places.

The sharrow also "…indicates the most appropriate location to ride on the roadway with respect to moving traffic and parked cars." There's little that's more unpleasant while on a bicycle than to be confronted by a car door that suddenly opens in your pathway (also known as being "doored."). That's why I always ride outside the arc of opening car doors. It not only reduces my dental bills, it saves wear and tear on your car's door upholstery; a win-win situation. The sharrow helps the bicyclist identify where this safe area is. The Seattle Bicycle Master Plan goes on to note that sharrows "…can be used on roadways where there is not enough space for standard width bicycle lanes." I think we can agree that Beach Drive fits this description with exception of a section that is both smooth and wide. The rest of Beach Drive is a perfect storm of bicycle traps in addition to being narrow, the perfect road to apply the sharrow markings, you might think. Wait for my thoughts on that.

The sharrow is an idea that had its start in the United States in San Francisco. I was an avid bicyclist while living in San Francisco prior to the days of the sharrow. It was a good city in which to bike, but it, like most large cities, needed improvement. To its credit, San Francisco and many other large and some not so large cities have improved and continue to do so. The sharrow marking is one visible cue to that change.

Seattle has embraced the sharrow and many more of those visible cues. Which brings us back to Beach Drive.

You'll recall that the favorite of my five bicycles is a Bianchi painted celeste. This bicycle is all steel and very stiff. It has friction shifters on the down tube. (There'll be a quiz on terminology at some point.)

With or without sharrows on Beach Drive, riding this bicycle there has its issues. The bike chatters a lot, and shifting requires taking a hand off the bars, which, under Beach Drive conditions, can be a challenge. While I take certain comfort from the presence of the sharrow markings on Beach Drive, I would take even more from patching of the holes and cracks on the roadway on which the sharrows are painted.

While the two don't have to be mutually exclusive, if a choice has to be made for economic reasons as seems to be case, I'll go with the patch. Don't misunderstand me, efforts made by the city are admirable and much appreciated, it's just that Beach Drive needs help.

Ride safely both on and off Beach Drive.

Dave Kannas may be reached via