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Spokane, Meet Sharrow 

Do these new bike paths signal an urban renaissance or a city that still doesn't get it?

click to enlarge A sharrow marking on Spokane Falls Boulevard - STEPHEN SCHLANGE
  • Stephen Schlange
  • A sharrow marking on Spokane Falls Boulevard

You know what a bike lane is. You’ve seen them in other cities, in other parts of Spokane, and now due to a federally funded $600,000 project just coming to fruition you’re starting to see them more downtown.

But what do you make of that other pavement marking suddenly appearing on downtown streets the white bike with the little arrows on top? Is that a bike lane, too? Do I have to ride there? Can I drive in it?

Don’t worry if you’re confused. You’re not the only one.

Sharrow 101

The “sharrow” marking is a relatively new tool in the city planner’s toolbox. (Literally it only appeared in the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices last year.) Used in narrow car lanes or where bike lanes aren’t really feasible, the sharrow is designed to encourage cyclists to follow certain vetted routes through the city, to show them where in the lane to ride and alert motorists that bikes will be passing through.

It’s not a bike lane. Motorists can still use it. And cyclists can still choose to ride in any other lane.

What sharrows are good for

Creating some breathing room for (and awareness of) cyclists in high-traffic areas. Also, says Eileen Hyatt, who regularly coaches cyclists in urban riding via the Bike Buddies program, “They can help show a continuous route through a difficult area to make connections around town.”

What they’re not so good for

“Sharrows have almost no ability to help mode shift,” says Jon Snyder, a hardcore cyclist and Spokane City Councilman. “If you don’t ride your bike now because you’re concerned about not having a bike lane, a sharrow isn’t going to push you over the edge.”

Where they’re working so far

On Riverside Avenue, in front of the post office, says Bob Lutz, former chair of the city’s volunteer Bicycle Advisory Board. The marking is smack in the middle of the center lane, encouraging cyclists to take the whole lane and discouraging motorists from making a dangerous squeeze-past.

Where they’re really not

Pretty much everywhere but Riverside, says Lutz. On Spokane Falls Boulevard, the markings are in the path of cars’ right wheel wells (this is industry-standard), encouraging the squeeze-past and sowing confusion about who’s supposed to ride/drive where. Plus, the markings are far-flung (the traffic manual stipulates they be separated by no more than 250 feet), and at the confusing intersection with Monroe and Main, they seem to encourage the cyclist to make a diagonal move across a lane of traffic.

Lutz says the DKS consultants who planned the $600,000 rectangle of bike paths being painted across downtown recommended bike lanes (see map above) for Spokane Falls, not sharrows. “But because of the political challenges of putting in bike lanes [and eliminating car lanes], they’ll put a sharrow in,” he says. “That’s not quite right.”

Where they should’ve gone

Riverside and Howard, the northwest corner of the bike rectangle. The new bike lanes here look great this is one of Spokane’s most picturesque streets. But with Inlander HQ, the Masonic Temple, Our Lady of Lourdes and numerous other offices, it’s also a busy parking street and the new bike lane (though it exceeds the standard minimum width) puts passing cyclists right in the dreaded “door zone.”

“Here, maybe sharrows would’ve made more sense,” says bike blogger John Speare. “Bike lanes are really for cyclists that are starting out and not comfortable in traffic. They’ll get in those bike lanes and ride right to the right. [To main fourth stay away from swinging doors], you should be riding to the left of that lane.”

A well-placed sharrow along this stretch might’ve slowed traffic here while keeping cyclists out of harm’s reach.

Where they probably shouldn’t go

Second Avenue. While cyclists have been battling for months to get bike facilities baked into Second while it’s still torn up, the current solution on the table a sharrow might not be the most prudent.

“The speed and the congestion make Second a viable route for bike lanes but not for sharrows,” says Lutz, noting that they would cause even worse problems than on Spokane Falls Boulevard with tension, congestion and confusion. “That’s just a nightmare.”

Lutz and John Speare suggest that encouraging newbies to mix with high-speed traffic via a sharrow could be a case of leading lambs to the slaughter.

“If we throw down a bunch of stuff that isn’t well thought-out from a cyclist’s perspective, that may backfire, in terms of putting people at risk,” says Speare. “I would rather see nothing than sharrows on Second.”

Where to go from here

This, from a guy who would love to see Second Avenue become a crucial east-west route (which is currently missing from the rectangle plan), as well as a bridge between the South Hill’s Ben Burr Trail and the Fish Lake Trail to Cheney.

But making it all work might take more than just some thermal plastic on the pavement.

“All these couplets and one-ways are very intimidating for people who don’t ride bikes a lot,” says Jon Snyder. “Do we want a downtown that people go through, or a downtown that people come to?”

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