New Debate: Can Cyclists Fix Sharrows Pilot without Killing It

7_7_10_lacbc.jpgThe first Sharrows on Fountain in Hollywood…Photo: LACBC/Flickr

Last month, when the City of Los Angeles finally began placing Sharrows on the streets of L.A., there were a chorus of cheers from the biking community.  The Los Angeles County Bike Coalition has fought hard, for years, for these Shared Lane Markings to be placed on the streets tweeted the news immediately and cyclists throughout the city celebrated.  But almost as quickly, complaints about the program began surfacing.  First at the blog Soap Box, written by activist Stephen Box, and then other places.  The charge?  That by placing the Sharrows a consistent 12 feet from the curb, instead of placing the Sharrows an equi-distance from the center-line, that the Sharrows are mis-placed and perhaps more dangerous than helpful.

As issues with the placement of the Sharrows has become accepted one within the community.  Even the LACBC, who has been the chief supporters of the project, have written to the LADOT asking for better care in placing these markings so as not to direct cyclists to drive in an uneven pattern or even to ride within the "door zone."

But this realization has led to a new debate: is criticizing the Sharrows project going to lead to LADOT scrapping the entire endeavor.  Remember, these six streets that have been selected for Sharrows are part of a pilot program.  In other words, if the LADOT decides the project is a failure, it could mean not only that more Sharrows aren’t painted, but that the current ones are removed.  In other words, negative feedback from cyclists, even if it’s just related to the city’s failure to place the Sharrows correctly, could end up being a determining factor in the cancellation of the program.  Of course, given that the guerrilla Sharrows in Northeast L.A. are still there, five months after LADOT promised they would be removed; it’s unlikely any paint is actually going to be taken off the road anytime soon.

As you would expect, the position that a bungled Sharrows program is worse than no program at all has been championed by Box.  Last week he attended the National Committee of Uniform Traffic Control Devices (NCUTCD) and he quotes the chair of their bicycle committee as saying:

"…the unintended consequences of an ill-advised and poorly executed Sharrows campaign are costly and dangerous."

7_7_10_lacm.jpgBy placing Sharrows from the curb, LADOT is actually asking cyclists to merge in and out of traffic as seen on 4th Street. Photo: LosAngelesCM/twitter

According to Box, the conference took a dim view of the implementation of L.A.’s Sharrows program in general.  Given that LADOT Assistant General Manager John Fisher attended the conference, it will be interesting to see if any of the complaints made by Box and echoed at the NCUTCD Conference make their way to the streets for the rest of the Sharrows in the pilot program.  Six streets are part of the program.  Three have been painted.

The other position, that while cyclists should work to improve the program they should also be careful to not wound the program was best written by former LACBC Board Member Alex Kenefik at the LACBC Blog’s comments section.

This is the first time I’ve seen a thank you. As much as I feel that
LADOT is trying to kill me out there when I’m riding on the roads, I
want to thank them for the sharrows. Placement problems aside, I really
do like riding down 4SBB and feeling those cars give me extra room.

One final thought. With a bicycle network as underdeveloped as the
one in Los Angeles, we don’t need to be careful. LADOT doesn’t need to
be careful. We all need to throw everything at the wall and see what
sticks. We are finally into the Petri dish stage; let’s run some
experiments.

So what say you?  Is now the time to push the LADOT to do the Sharrows according to national standards or not-at-all, or should cyclists just push the LADOT to do something, ANYTHING, to make the streets safer?  Leave your comments below.  I’ll post my thoughts later in the day.

  • The situation on our streets is miserable. If the LADOT can’t get sharrows right, then it is our obligation to tell them they screwed up.

    I reserve the right to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

    Taking our problems to the LADOT has worked! With no angry crowds in City Hall, with no op-ed articles, with no anti-LADOT rhetoric, we wouldn’t be where we are now.

    If they screw up and we don’t collectively call them on it, then how will we get them to do it right? Quiet unpublished observation? Come on.

  • D. X. Blink

    When “throw everything at the wall and see what sticks” means I get hit by a car … no, sir, we DO need to be careful.

    There are things you can experiment with, and then there are things that have an already-proven safety standard. Experiment with road diets and which streets get markings — don’t experiment with putting me in a place where I’m much more likely to get injured or killed.

  • en4ne1

    i recently rode down the 4SBB for the first time and was very disappointed. i did not feel safe riding on the sharrow marks, and at one point a car opened its door and the sharrow was completely within the door zone.

    we should not accept this sort of complete failure out of fear that it will kill the project. these are not sharrows, they’re simply a big “fuck you” from LADOT.

    what would you say to a cyclist who gets doored while riding in these supposed sharrows? “well, they’re SUPPOSED to keep you in the correct riding position, but it’s complicated.”

    a dangerous bike lane by any other name is still bad for LA. they must go!

  • @Blink I agree. Throwing things at the wall in the blind hope that something sticks costs money, time, and energy that could be better spent developing tried and tested safety measures on the streets of Los Angeles. This isn’t the 19th century. Bikes aren’t some recent development. Cyclists have been around long enough that studies have already been conducted, and standards for sharrows, and other roadway markings, have been established. It’s time we started paying attention to those.

  • Bobby

    So have the sharrows on Fountain Ave been relocated? I’ve ridden that stretch of Fountain no fewer than a dozen times since the big stink was made and still have yet to find a spot where it feels like I’m riding in the door zone.

  • If LADOT can do them wrong they can do them right. In a very similar situation, Box rightly complained about the sunset bike lane and ladot fixed it.

    Better is not good enough. It needs to be right. If this is a “pilot” sharrow placement should be on the table in terms of not just weather sharrows help or not. But also if DOTs implementation can be improved.

    I won’t quibble about sharrows being a few inches further to the right than I prefer but measuring and placing sharrows strictly based on curb distance rather than following the center lane of the road is insane! So far I have seen 2 extreme examples (one on fountain and one on 4th) and they present a very hazardous situation. With bikes being expected to suddenly merge left because the road narrows quickly.

    Its nothing that threatens the program, its just something that needs to be fixed.

    If they put them down wrong, they can put them down right.

  • I believe the “throw everything at the wall and see if it sticks” comment refers back to Janette Sadik-Khans comments earlier this year that paint is cheap, and rather than endlessly debating what will work, we should just try something. And if it doesn’t work, just move on and try something else.

    At this point, I can only take LADOT at their word that this is a pilot project to see how local riders and drivers respond to sharrows — though why they wouldn’t adhere to established standards is beyond me. It would appear that they are unwilling to learn from the experiences of other cities, and are trying to establish a uniquely L.A. standard.

    Or maybe they’re just unwilling to risk the wrath of drivers, and timidly dipping a toe in the water.

    I can only hope that after the trial phase — however long that is scheduled to be — they consider the objections from cyclists and make the necessary corrections. Clearly, local riders love sharrows; we just don’t love the way LADOT has done them so far.

  • Brent

    One hopes that the DOT’s basic policy is bicycle accomodation rather than appeasement. If it’s appeasement, then cyclists might have reason to worry the sharrows will be removed — it’s “this-or-else-nothing” infrastructure. If, however, the policy is accomodation, then sharrows should be the first step of many, and the criticism will be helpful. Accomodation isn’t about building a lane or painting a sharrow — it’s about implementing policies that foster and improve bicycle usage within our city.

  • It seems like the main problem with sharrows is that it is supposed to be pointing out the ideal line to ride on the street – well outside of the door zone, but not too far to the left. The problem is that the parked cars you are avoiding move around! A giant SUV parked 1 foot away from the curb means you need to move farther to the left, and a tiny car hugging the curb means you have more room to maneuver. I guess they just need to be placed such that they generally avoid that worst case scenario of the big SUV. Obviously, you still have to pay attention to the actual street environment, and not just focus on riding right exactly in the middle of the sharrow chevrons. I perceive their primary message to be that bikes should take the line.

  • Cory

    The minimum standard for placement of sharrows is actually 12 feet when a curb is present (11 feet without the curb). The standard measures from the curb, so LADOT measured from the curb. The current sharrows actually meet the established minimum standard (except for a few locations where it was measured incorrectly). But just like a 4 foot sidewalk is the minimum standard that doesn’t mean that it is ideal. In Los Angeles we get the minimum, the bar has been set at the bottom. If we are quiet thats where the bar will remain. I will say this, the presense of the sharrows will not dictate where I as a cyclist safely position myself in the lane. The law provides full use of the lane. But the sharrows are half effective in that they remind and alert motorists to the presense of cyclists. So there you have it, the bar is set low and the sharrows are half effective… welcome to Los Angeles.

  • I’ve always thought that regardless of the circumstances, government projects need to be judged objectively on whether or not they accomplish their goal. The purpose of Sharrows, as stated by the State of California’s CTDC (http://www.dot.ca.gov/hq/traffops/signtech/newtech/minutes/textMin081204.txt) is to:

    a) To position cyclists out of the door zone.

    b) To position cyclists in a lane control position on a non-sharable street.

    c) To clearly communicate to road users the correct lane control position for cyclists.

    It seems that for the most part, the Sharrows on 4th and Fountain accomplish objective a, but if they’re having cyclists weave in and out of traffic to follow them, well they’re missing on b and c. To point that out, however it’s being done, is a worthwhile endeavor.

    Also, as a second note; I had a conversation with Stephen today where he chided me for creating a “false dichomtomy” in this piece of “bad Sharrows” or “no Sharrows.” I didn’t think I was doing this, but re-reading the piece I see where he got that idea. For the record, I don’t believe Stephen or the LACBC are advocating for “no Sharrows.” They’re doing all this work to try and get L.A. world-class Sharrows and that’s what we all really want in the first place.

  • Exactly, we are hoping that our criticism will only work to improve on the current sharrows and that we do continue to raise the bar and not set low standards. It seems there are already plans for incorporating sharrows on our streets in the future – primarily on streets designated as Bike Routes in the Bike Plan. I think the issue is holding LADOT accountable for the correct implementation of future sharrows, bike lanes and any other bike facility.

    Considering that this was a “study”, implies that LADOT needs to see what worked and what did not, not sharrows or no sharrows. They need to take public comment into consideration, as we are the folks out there riding the streets. What they will find is that using a one-size-fits-all approach just does not work. Taking safety concerns into considerations should be number 1 priority when placing a marking on the streets.

  • Joe

    I see a false dichotomy as well. We shouldn’t choose between “do it right or don’t do it” and “just give us something, anything” as you propose. Instead we should require that they “Do it, and do it right. It’s not rocket science.”

  • The LADOT Bikeways Departent has revealed its “Ride to the Right” bias, at the expense of the safer and legally mandated “Ride where it’s Right.”

    The LADOT Bikeways Department refers to The Sharrows program as a “Pilot Project” but that doesn’t make it true. Pilot Projects come with federal oversight, CTCDC approval and design immunity. This is not a pilot project.

    The LADOT Bikewsys Department also refers to the Sharrows program as a study. Paint is for studies, Thermoplastic is forever. The only study is of public gullibility and tolerance for sub-standard performance.

    There are national standards, there are state standards, there is simple common sense, there are accepted bicycling skills, and the LADOT Bikeways Department has failed on all levels to implent a Sharrows program that demonstrates any understanding of urban cycling.

    Los Angeles deserves better!

  • I’m getting my wife a thermoplastic sharrow as an anniversary gift.

  • It does look as though LADOT is setting up the project fail, since I have noticed that the sharrows on 4th at least tend to meander in a way that makes no sense from a vehicular point of view.

    We can’t let it pass that the LADOT markings do no meet California and national standards for sharrows, and LADOT should be publicly called out on that and asked to justify their placement. Presumably they won’t be able to. Since the sharrows have been incorrectly applied they cannot be considered a valid test of concept, so no decision on whether to continue with sharrows or not can be made on the basis of this project.

    It may be necessary to challenge the project, its assumptions, and its implementation legally if LADOT will not agree to explain themselves publicly (by which I mean in front of the media, on the record).

    They are stacking the deck against bicycle infrastructure projects, possibly to the point of legal malfeasance. We need to know why.

  • I have to make a correction. One of my sources referred me to the California MUTCD (Manual of Uniform Traffic control Devices), and contrary to some folks’ assertions, the standard that DOT is required to follow indeed specifies a distance measured form the curb, not the centerline, to wit:

    The shared roadway bicycle marking shown in Figure 9C-104(CA) may be used to assist bicyclists with positioning
    on a shared roadway with on-street parallel parking and to alert road users of the location a bicyclist may occupy within
    the traveled way.
    Standard:
    The shared roadway bicycle marking shall only be used on a roadway (Class III Bikeway (Bike Route) or
    Shared Roadway (No Bikeway Designation) which has on-street parallel parking. If used, shared roadway
    bicycle markings shall be placed so that the centers of the markings are a minimum of 3.3 m (11 ft) from the
    curb face or edge of paved shoulder. On State highways, the shared roadway bicycle marking shall be used only
    in urban areas.

    As Cory mentioned above, this is a minimum, so obviously the standard allows for some discretion–but it does not allow for measuring from centerline.

    The upshot is that we have to ask for refinement, not reinvention. The sharrows do meet CA standards, but can still be functionally inadequate. As Aurisha mentioned, that’s what the pilot project is for–to find out what refinements need to be made before going crazy putting sharrows everywhere.

  • minibikebar

    Sorry, Soap..not with you on this one. I like the new sharrows and the 12 feet is good for me. And I want to see more in LA.
    By the way I was at the LAPD/BAC meeting you and Roadblock had a great speeches. Thanks!!!!!!!!!!!!

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