Why Do Sharrows Work Better In Long Beach? And Do We Need to Rethink Them?

After four years, many complaints, many praises, and a final acceptance that they really aren’t that bad, the green Sharrows in Belmont Shore have turned 4. And with that, data have been released so that we can figure out precisely what we’ve learned.

Council Woman Suja Lowenthal was front and center at the Green Sharrow Lane opening in Belmont Shores in 2009. Photo:##http://www.publichealth.lacounty.gov/place/LongBeach.htm##L.A. County Department of Public Health##

The Sharrows stretch along 2nd street in between Bayshore and Livingstone Drives along a street that is heavily commercial: With 15 blocks, there are 14 stop lights and a consistent push for parking that borders the intensity of hell sometimes. In other words, more than acting as a complete street, it acted as some vehicular arterial that welcomed pedestrians but forced bicyclists to dangerously roll along the sidewalk or uncomfortably ride in traffic untuned to their presence.

Hence the Sharrows which, according to Bike Long Beach, was created for three reasons: encourage bicyclists to ride the lane safely; reduce bicyclists on sidewalks to increase safety; and encourage bicycling on a larger scale.

But have they proven effective?

According to the data, somewhat yes. For the two and a half years prior to the Sharrows being installed—2007 to mid-2009—Belmont Shore had over 90 crashes of which nine involved bikes and two involved a pedestrian.

Following the Sharrows completion on June 25, 2009, there was a drop in overall collisions in 2010 and 2011—33 and 27 respectively—but a spike in bicyclist—4 and 6—as well as pedestrian collisions in 2011 with 3. Then it drops for 2012 drastically, with just 12 collisions overall and no bicyclist/ped-involved collisions.

2011 could be easily explained by the getting-used-to-them factor, where admittedly drivers were relatively baffled by what Sharrows are. So in a sense, particularly over time, the Sharrows have been effective in increasing safety.

Even more, the last bike count concluded that double the amount of bicyclists are using the Sharrows, with it not uncommon to find more bikes—150 to 200—shackled along 2nd than cars.<

What’s intriguing is the fact that the LA County Bicycle Coalition released a report that had shown the exact opposite of Long Beach’s results: Sharrows, for the most part, do not increase ridership at all and act as a temporary bandage—be it politically or economically driven—to a much larger need for more separatist infrastructure like bike lanes.

I particularly can’t speak for Los Angeles since I have actually ridden there very little in the grand scheme of things—so I can only theoretically speculate that, beyond this universal idea that we must create pathways that do not “exceed [bicylists’] tolerance for traffic stress,” we must reevaluate claims.

And it is here where I simply open up dialogue because I don’t have answers more than I have questions: Given Long Beach’s success thus far, should we be dismissing the idea of Sharrows en tout—or is this a temporary blip that San Diego and Los Angeles have overcome and Long Beach will revert to the same? Is this a matter of educating, given Long Beach’s rather in-your-face ad campaign about sharing the road—or just a matter of city size and the placement of sharrows?

Even more, should we be avoiding Sharrows as “main connections” and instead using them for areas reserved for limited distances rather arterials? Because the blunt reality–and something I proffer to Los Angeles and San Diego–is that this all depends on how you define whether or not Sharrows “work.” If your only goal is to increase ridership–rather than direct bicyclists onto safer paths, help connect bicyclists away from streets that are too narrow, increase the safety on downhill routes–then yes, I understand your concerns. But if not, we should talk because Sharrows work rather brilliantly in the other senses.

  • Um, theres a pretty huge difference between the Long Beach green sharrow lane and sharrows elsewhere…

  • John P

    Agreed, I feel Belmont Shore’s sharrows are in a dense area where cars and bicycles are going close to the same speed. In LA and SD, this is usually not the case.

  • Kenny Easwaran

    I’ve only ridden the green sharrow once, but it definitely felt like a bike lane where cars are allowed, rather than the other way around. Since cars are going at the same speed as bikes, it’s really effective.

    The sharrows in LA are on streets with much lower traffic volume, which means that the cars are generally going faster than bikes, except at rush hour. And at rush hour, bikes are not normally integrated into the same lane as cars, but coasting along between drivers and parking. It feels like a bike space and a car space intertwined, but not really shared.

  • Anonymous

    The city of Oakland is installing this exact same type of green “super sharrows” as we speak, but in a mostly residential area: https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10153222477360066

    It will be interesting to see how both drivers and cyclists react to them.

  • Charlie

    I agree with others that Long Beach’s sharrows are much more like an “advisory bike lane” than a typical sharrow installation. It also helps that it’s an area where car and bike speeds are more similar.

    I have mixed feelings about sharrows in general. In a lot of cases, I do feel like they are a political cop-out to finding room for actual bike lanes or cycle tracks. I think sharrows work better on roads with multiple travel lanes in the same direction since some of the stress from drivers wanting to pass is taken away because other travel lanes are available. On the other hand, if there is more than one travel lane in the same direction, then it means there is more than enough space to put in a bike lane or cycle track by reallocating one of those travel lanes.

    If they really are used as a quick solution until a better solution is installed, I suppose they’re okay. But it’s important to not let our leaders dodge the politically difficult questions of travel lane or parking lane removal in order to make room for high quality bicycle facilities. Often traffic is not as negatively impacted as people predict, and with creative use of road or lane diets, the street is always made safer and in many cases traffic flow can actually be improved by adding dedicated left turn lanes where there were none before (for example with a 4 lane to 3 lane road diet).

  • Christopher Kidd

    The other difference is that the stretch where Oakland has super sharrows has a speed limit of 30 mph and a roadway design speed likely well above that. 2nd Street in Long Beach, if I remember correctly, had an average vehicle speed under 20 mph even before the installation of super sharrows due to the frequency of traffic lights and the amount o parking turnover. It will be interesting to see at what average vehicle speed a bicyclist’s tolerance for super sharrows disappears.

  • grrlyrida

    Fountain and Franklin are two streets with heavy traffic and aggressive drivers. The sharrows are a waste of paint. Most cars and cyclists don’t know what they mean and it doesn’t increase safety or confidence. If I was a new cyclist and tried to ride on one if those two streets, I’d put my bike in the garage and get in my car. Parts of Santa Monica are safer than than those streets. I try and stay off both of them except at 4 am. That’s the only time they’re safe.

  • Anonymous

    I think we really need a different name for this type of installation. Regular sharrows are pretty useless IMHO – they are often used on streets where a bike lane or cycle track is really needed but the political will to take space from parking or auto lanes does not exist. They are kind of like “share the road” signs – good if there happens to a bike *right there* when a driver passes the sign, forgotten otherwise.

    The Long Beach installation clearly conveys two things: (1) to cyclists it shows that you can reasonably expect the facility to take you somewhere and connect to other things; (2) to drivers it *continually* reminds you that bikes are going to be in that space and that you need to watch out. That continuity is a huge difference… this treatment really needs to be analyzed separately from regular sharrows.

  • brianmojo

    This. I read this article not knowing what the ‘sharrows’ in Long Beach looked like, assuming they were like the sharrows we have here in LA.

    Then, when I saw a picture of the actual lane (and really, it should be called that), it was a “well, duh” moment. They’re two totally different things with *incredibly* different visibility levels.

  • Anonymous

    The reason the Belmont Shore sharrows work – and by ‘work’ I mean that many everyday bicyclists and parents feel safe riding with our children on them but not on some sharrows in other cities – is because there’s a stop light at nearly every intersection and traffic is slow moving.

  • Niall Huffman

    Yeah, my impression after riding 2nd Street is that the block length and signal progression are mainly responsible for the superior level of comfort there. The sharrows have helped communicate where to ride and where to expect riders to be, but it’s the fact that traffic is barely moving above bike speed in the first place that really allows you to relax. From what I remember of my travels in Oakland, 40th doesn’t strike me as a particularly comfortable street on which to take the lane, and if my experience on 30+ mph LA streets such as Fountain or Vine (before and after regular sharrows were installed) is any indication, there’s no reason to believe that super sharrows will make much of a difference.

    I’m beginning to think that the only appropriate setting for sharrows is on slow-speed streets like 2nd. Anywhere with higher speeds is somewhere that people who would actually benefit from lane positioning guidance (i.e., less experienced riders with low traffic tolerance) probably aren’t going to venture into the street anyway, sharrows or no sharrows.

  • Anonymous

    Agreed, the sharrows are not an ideal application for 40th Street, but it is actually a compromise as the city tried to get bike lanes installed for years but the neighbors who didn’t want to lose their planted median blocked it, and the bus operators similarly blocked a road diet proposal to reduce the 4-lane road to 2 lanes. Hopefully the sharrows treatment will at least encourage some more cyclists to use the route, which will make better infrastructure an easier sell down the line.

    My take on sharrows is that they work better as auxiliary wayfinding for bike routes, in addition to signage, and not so good for lane positioning. For multi-lane roads alternate solutions should usually be applied, as I don’t trust the typical driver to “share” anything with cyclists if given the choice.

  • Anonymous

    I don’t even get how sharrows are *supposed* to work. Are they supposed to make drivers more aware of cyclsts? Instead, they put the focus on pavement.

  • Niall Huffman

    They’re supposed to communicate the correct lane positioning for cyclists: outside of the door zone, and more or less single-file with motor vehicle traffic. Whether they’re effective in getting the message across to vehicle drivers or in deterring motorist aggression toward cyclists is another matter.

  • Anonymous

    I wouldn’t have guessed that cyclists needed the guidance. I just assumed it was about driver awareness!

  • Niall Huffman

    The message is intended for drivers as well: expect cyclists to ride in the center of the lane, and know that it’s legal for them to be there. And many inexperienced riders do need guidance on lane positioning. There’s a tendency to want to always ride outside the path of motor vehicle traffic, even if it means riding in the door zone. Taking the lane isn’t something that most people have ever learned to do

  • Anonymous

    Sure, taking a chance as a cyclist that you’re going to have an inattentive driver or angry driver coming up behind you means the cyclist automatically pays the price. There is no learning curve for the drivers.

  • sahra

    You raise good questions… I do have the sense that Sharrows (in LA) mostly tend to benefit more experienced riders (not people who need convincing to get out into the street) by symbolically legitimizing their presence or alerting drivers to the fact that bikes do use a particular route. They are often placed oddly (like halfway in the gutter) along some places on Fountain, for ex., that you wonder why they even bothered. But I do like to see them for the legitimacy aspect.

  • Anonymous

    You bring this up but the issue with San Diego was placement of sharrows. In San Diego, the sharrows were being placed on three lane arterials with posted limits of 30 mph but actual speeds (observed) at around 45+. On Belmont given the somewhat constrained road environment they make sense especially given that they connect different parts of the city together.

    Do sharrows increase ridership – think the jury is still out on that one. The primary indicator seemed to be that it got cyclists to ride the right direction (as opposed to against traffic).

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