Traffic School: Bike Lanes and Sharrows

So your city painted some bike guys on the street. Cool! Maybe they put some lines down to go with him, maybe it looks like he’s wearing a stack of arrows on his head, maybe there’s a crazy zig-zag dealie on both sides – what the heck does it all mean? In this post, we’ll take a look at the painted symbols you’re likely to encounter on the street and what they mean for your ride!

Bike Lanes

Bike lanes are probably the most widely recognized piece of painted cycling infrastructure. They usually live on the right hand side of the road, typically 5-6 feet wide, and are marked by a pair of parallel solid white lines with the occasional “bike silhouette” figure every block or so. Not to be confused with the road’s shoulder, bike lanes are legally considered a vehicle travel lane and, because they’re separated from the side of the road, they should be relatively free of debris and other obstacles. Bike lanes come in a few flavors, so let’s look at the most common.


Unprotected Bike Lanes

An unprotected bike lane is one where the only separation between you and heavier traffic is a solid painted line. The upside is you shouldn’t have to worry about cars driving behind you if you get a flat tire or take a spill, the downside is they offer less protection against traffic than more thorough measures.


Cities also have a tendency to paint these bike lanes in the “door zone”, so you still want to be aware when you’re cruising along. Check your local laws to understand your obligation to stay in the bike lane, but most jurisdictions offer you the ability to take the adjacent lane at any time to avoid hazards (broken glass, potholes, puddles) or dangerous situations (opening car doors, joggers, etc…). Unprotected bike lanes do a good job of making motorists aware that they should be on the lookout for bikes when making turns, pulling in and out of driveways, parking, or approaching intersections – but you still want to be vigilant and visible in those areas to avoid conflict.


Buffered and Protected Bike Lanes

Buffered bike lanes, however, do more to separate you from heavier vehicle traffic. These consist of an on-street bike lane and then some form of separation between you and the rest of the road users. On the cheapest end, that may just be another 6-feet of painted “median” on the left side of the lane to guarantee you get more space from cars. On the fanciest set-ups, you’ll see the bike lane placed on the right side of parked cars or the use of planter-boxes, bollards, and the like to separate traffic and keep cars out.

When a protected or buffered bike lane is completely separated from traffic (there’s no way for cars to get into it), it’s often referred to as a cycletrack – and the Netherlands is famous for building a wonderful network of them to boost bike ridership after public backlash against the large number of road-deaths caused by motorized vehicles 50 years ago.

Studies have shown that protected bike lanes are the most encouraging to riders who don’t feel safe on the road, and the best deterrent against sidewalk riding. That’s not surprising, as many of those who ride on the sidewalk do so to avoid mixing with motor-vehicles. Riding in a protected bike lane, you have more leeway to relax, but you still want to be mindful of opening car doors (depending on the placement of parked cars relative to the path), pedestrians stepping into the lane to cross the street, and at intersections where some mixing with traffic is inevitable. At least until we all get those sweet new “Dutch” intersections like the one they just put in Salt Lake City.


But what about when you’re heading down the road and there, in the middle of a regular travel lane, is the little “bike silhouette” with or without two or three stacked arrows(?), chevrons(?), sometimes a diamond(?), what are those exactly? That’s a sharrow!

Sharrows are used to remind drivers that bikes are entitled to use the entire lane, and they’re meant to be placed in the safest spot for a cyclist to ride. If you find yourself on a street with sharrows, just keep riding straight over them and you should be safely out of the door-zone and centered enough in the lane that cars will change lanes to pass you (instead of trying to squeeze by your handlebars).

Because Sharrows don’t actually provide any protection from motor-vehicles, they’re the least effective form of bike infrastructure in terms of safety, encouraging new riders, and discouraging sidewalk riding. But, because they’re the cheapest (least amount of paint) and don’t involve re-striping the road or even reducing the number of lanes, they’re incredibly popular. In fact, most cities count sharrows in their bike lane bragging numbers, so it’s important to learn the distinction when scoping out a new city for work or travel. While one city may brag 300 miles of bike routes or bike lanes and it’s neighbor only 100 miles, if the first city is 90% sharrows and the second city is 90% protected bike lanes, the latter will provide a more pleasant cycling experience.

And now the next time you see a little painted rider on the road, you’ll know what it means! Jump into the comments to tell us what your city uses to encouraging riding, and post a photo of your favorite piece of cycling infrastructure in town. Enjoy your ride!