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A Chorus of Cheers, But Then Some Jeers, Greet “L.A.’s First Sharrows”

6_13_10_Sharrows.jpgCity Council President Eric Garcetti and the B.S.S. Crew that painted the Sharrows.
Photo via LADOT Bike Blog

(An early version of this post listed the Los Angeles County Bike Coalition as in partnership with the government groups.  That relationship has been clarified below. - DN)

It was just after-noon on Friday when the first tweet came in.  After literally years of discussion, planning and studying, the city was finally painting Sharrows, officially known as Shared-Lane Markings, on the streets of L.A.  The Sharrows appear on a half-mile of Fountain Street in East Hollywood.  Eventually, the Sharrows will extend for a full mile between Western Boulevard and Vermont.  This marked a major victory for the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition, who has pushed for Sharrows to be on the street for at least half a decade.  While the Coalition celebrated last week, they've made clear that last week's paintings were the start, not the end result, of the Shared Markings on L.A.'s streets.

Billed as the city's first Sharrows, even though some appear on private streets in Westwood and D.I.Y. Sharrows appear in Northeast L.A. by the Gold Line, this "pilot program" is finally coming to fruition after years of advocacy by the LACBC with an assist from Council President Garcetti's office.  While it might be a simple task to get Sharrows on the streets in some cities, in L.A. it took five years and the work of three government bodies, the LADOT, Bureau of Street Services and Southern California Association of Governments.  In addition, a chunk of funding for the project came from the  Bohnet Foundation, with additional funds provided by the East Hollywood Neighborhood Council.  It's a good thing Metro wasn't involved too, or it might have taken another couple of months before we saw any paint.  Just a reminder, it took four weeks for Long Beach to move their award-winning green Sharrowed lanes from Charles Gandy's head to the street.

You can see above what a Sharrow looks like.  If you're new to the discussion and wondering how that is supposed to make a street safer; a Sharrow serves two purposes.  First, it tells cyclists where to ride to avoid the door zone.  Second, it alerts and reminds drivers where cyclists can and should be riding with the support of the law.  I would add that third, it reminds the police that cyclists aren't supposed to ride in the gutter, but that's just the cynic in me after too many "ride to the right" commercials.  As we'll see later, the placement of the Sharrows is creating a real concern that "L.A.'s first official Sharrows" aren't going to accomplish any of these goals.

The first to report on the new paint was the LADOT Bike Blog who made sure not to undersell the event.  The blog opened by declaring, "Friday June 11th marks a new beginning: LADOT is proud to unveil the first official Sharrows within the City of Los Angeles."  Jeesh, don't you guys read The Source?  A touch of objectivity in style goes a long way in selling your message.  The Bike Blog was pretty breathless in its reporting of the installation, and goes into great detail on the process of actually painting the Sharrows, as shown above.  While the Bike Blog talks about the markings appearing between Vermont and Western on Fountain, so far the Sharrows only appear in one direction (Eastbound) and only go for half the strip.

Following the Bike Blog, an excited celebratory post appeared on the LACBC Blog, and LAist followed with some pictures and mild praise.  While reading the post at the LACBC Blog, I flashed back to an interview I conducted with Smolarski and LACBC Planning Director Dorothy Le.  The interview, conducted in May of 2009 touched on the topic of Sharrows and why it was taking so long for the paint to get on the ground.  Smolarski basically said she would be thrilled if Sharrows were painted before the New Year.  After all that work, it must have been double exciting to see the city finally making good on their years-old promise, after untold hours of advocacy, to paint these road markings.

On the Eco-Village Blog, Joe Linton wrote a piece as detailed as the LADOT Bike Blog's except his outlined the tortured history of the project.  If I had to describe his post in one sentence it would be, "It's nice to see Sharrows on the street but it's taken forever."  Linton paid special attention to the infamous comment made at a City Council Transportation Committee hearing by Senior Bike Coordinator Michelle Mowery that the department was concerned about cyclists slipping on paint and suing the city.  I would have focused on Mike Uyeno's concern that the Sharrows would lead to slower car traffic, but to each their own.  I guess it's a good thing he chose the "slippery when wet" comment, as Ted Rogers snarked on it several times at Biking in L.A.'s announcement of the Sharrws.

But of course the most important issue is how the Sharrows actually effect how people ride on Fountain and the other five streets that will see them installed in the coming weeks. The early reports are mixed.  Some people seem happy that the LADOT and city are doing something.  I've even seen some tweets referring to a ride along Fountain as "empowering."  However, reports from Stephen Box, who measured the Sharrow placement and found it wanting, should raise some eyebrows.

At Soap Box, Box reports that the Sharrows are placed only 12 feet from the curb, which places part of the marking within the door zone.  Box videos himself measuring the distance, so there's no doubt about where the Sharrows are, then goes into depth about how the difference between a Sharrow placed 12 feet and one placed 13 feet makes all the difference in the world.  And if you don't want to take Box's word for it, you don't have to.  He provides quotes from bike safety experts, including Long Beach's Gandy, and a deeply disappointed president of the East Hollywood Neighborhood Council.  After all, if the Sharrows aren't directing cyclists to ride where they're safest, then what's the point of the program in any case?

For Box, the Sharrow placement is part of a larger issue.  For years, LADOT has preached that cyclists should "Ride to the Right, and Stop at the Light."  When a Sharrow is placed too far to the right, it brings up the issue again.  Despite the importance of placing Sharrows so that cyclists are riding outside the door zone, these Sharrows are placed a little too far to the right reinforcing the idea that cyclists should "ride to the right."  LAPD's new training materials tell their officers that cyclists are entitled the full use of the lane.  Is LADOT continuing to preach something different, or was the placement of these new Sharrows just a mistake?

To be somewhat fair to LADOT, and the Bureau of Street Services who actually paints the markings, there is going to be a chance to fix this mistake at other locations.  Thus far, the city has painted Sharrows at one quarter of one of six locations they are to be painted, roughly 4% of the pilot project.  In the meantime, the debate between 12 and 13 or 14 will carry on as some cyclists ponder whether a mis-placed Sharrow is better than no Sharrow at all.

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