Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Investigating The New Santa Monica Sharrows on 14th St.

14th St. Sharrow Markings In Santa Monica
(Newly re-paved and painted 14th St., sharrows added and center line made into dashed single yellow)

I checked out those new sharrows on 14th I announced last week, on my way home today. I missed seeing them earlier since this was my first day back from an Independence Day vacation to Chicago and then spending time with my wife and her family in neighboring Indiana (the reason I missed investigating sooner). It's exciting to finally be seeing sharrows on local streets and I'm happy to report this new stretch of sharrows in Santa Monica does not seem to have any of the inconsistent design issues with alignment found in some stretches of the new City of Los Angeles sharrows that Stephen Box has so adamantly been reporting. These do appear however to be in standard paint and not themoplastic, suggesting these are more of a test (according to points from national sharrow conference quoted in Box's article) and thus may fade fairly quickly.

(Google street view of 14th St. before the changes)

I think a very positive but lesser commented upon change in the design of this new repaving and painting is the change of what was a double yellow line to a single dashed yellow line. For stretches of road such as this, I think this change is almost as important as the sharrow itself. Although a motorist can legally cross a double yellow to pass a cyclist when it is safe to pass, I always find a reluctance to do so. This sometimes results in motorists either getting stuck behind me and getting irate about it, but more often motorists trying to pass with hardly any room at all to squeeze by while crossing the line as little as possible. On roads with a dashed line, or no line at all, I always feel a wider and more consistent passing room is given.

For anyone who's read Tom Vanderbilt's book Traffic, you know those bold lines on the road often have as much or more to do with increasing driving speeds through psychology than any notion of creating safety. Drivers tend to intuitively slow down and are more alert when lanes of travel are not as clear like on some residential streets, fearful of the potential for a head on collision. Drivers feel more confident speeding up when big double yellow lines mark the road separation. So this change of line separation treatment works in tandem with the sharrow to suggest that while the lanes are separated, you can cross freely as needed when necessary, making for a more shared space feel to the road.

I love seeing these sharrows on the ground so close to home, they are an important step in promoting awareness of cyclist's place on the road, and encouraging safer lane positioning and passing. They also add to the tool kit of promoting bike commuting a means of change that requires less political wrangling. Sharrows do not actually change the allocation of street space like bike lanes, they simply reinforce cyclists already existing right to the road, and with much more clarity than poorly understood and hard to notice little share the road signs. Thus there is usually far less resistance to their implementation than installing bike lanes but they may become a skipping stone toward bike lanes or bicycle boulevards on the same street in the future if ridership grows. They can be a very effective tool to bridge gaps in other cycling infrastructure like streets with bike lanes that disappear when the road gets too narrow. In some cities I have seen sharrows used, they are even in the middle of tricky intersections to suggest the best path of travel across.

My one criticism of these new sharrows, and one that should be addressed, on this and any future projects planning to use them, is there needs to be more frequency to get the most benefit. Currently these sharrows are placed only at the beginning and end of each intersection with no mid-block markings. The problem with this is that for the less confident cyclist, they may retreat to the door zone after the intersection crossing. Drivers may misunderstand and think cyclists are meant to only be able to move to the center at intersections, and may revert to assuming cyclists must get out of their way mid-block. One of the primary purposes of sharrow markings is to encourage cyclists to hold a consistent and predictable line on the road, as many newer cyclists tend to swerve with a lot more lateral movement than motorists are used to dealing with. The absence of any mid-block sharrows undermines this goal.

Here's hoping we see a lot more of these sharrows on Santa Monica streets in the near future.


Kent said...

Good point about the dashed center stripe, Gary. I hadn't realized it was previously a double yellow. I also strongly agree that the markings need to be applied more frequently. Following only the minimum requirement for this will give only minimum benefits.

Joe said...

Are the sharrows on 14th placed properly? I rode 14th today, and I just can't see positioning myself that far out into the travel lane (at least, not in the uphill direction when I'm traveling slowly).

Cars did pass me (safely) by crossing a few feet into the opposing lane, but had I been out on top of the sharrows they would have had to cross entirely into the opposing lane in order to leave sufficient passing room.

Perhaps the sharrows are positioned that far out because the painters are trying to encourage bikers to "take the lane"; but on this road I question whether taking the lane is appropriate.

On this street, it's not realistic to expect motorists to drive patiently behind the cyclist for block after block, nor is it realistic to expect them to comfortably change lanes entirely (the way we would expect them to do on a 4-lane road). Instead I think riding so far out encourages them to try to squeeze around the left of the biker, leaving as little passing room as possible.

If someone thinks I'm full of crap and should be riding farther to the left, I'd appreciate reading their take on it.