Sharrows: Whaaa?

Who knows what they look like or what they mean? Certainly not motorists!

While cycling Pinellas County, we are seeing more and more “signage” painted on the roadways. Sometimes it appears in the middle of a lane where it is supposed to be, often to the right side of the road where, if there were enough room for a legal bike lane, the lane would be. The purpose of the sharrows emblem, which looks like two small stacked arrows with a bicycle below them, is to alert both motorists and bicyclists that the lane is to be equally shared. This includes the legal right of the cyclist to “take the whole lane” when necessary for safety. The existence of the sharrow is confirmation that the area does not allow for “side by side” safe movement of a car and a bicycle.

To be clear, where there is not a legally designated bike lane, under Florida law a cyclist may take the lane. That holds true even when sharrows are not displayed if that is what is needed for safe passage. The best example in St. Pete is the short bridge connecting the northern end of Snell Isle with Shore acres. Neither its one lane with a raised median nor the width of the lane is sufficient to allow a bicycle and vehicle. On that bridge, a cyclist asks for trouble if he or she does not take the lane by riding directly in the middle of it.

Unfortunately, few cyclists and even fewer drivers have a clue about what the sharrow is attempting to tell the users of that lane. Even worse, the government workers painting them on the roads don’t know or understand their intended purpose. That could explain why you sometimes see the emblem on the far right side of the road. Painted that way, it gives the motorist the wrong impression that the bicyclist has to ride to the far right side. The consequences of this misinterpretation could be disastrous.

The City of St. Petersburg has included flyers in its water bills trying to educate the public. Unfortunately, most residents probably never read them. Take every opportunity you can to educate your family, friends, fellow cyclists and fellow drivers about what sharrows mean.

Sharrows can be an important part of making sure that cyclists and motorists share the road safely with each other. But cyclists, take care. The mere fact that the road has a sharrow sign on it, signaling it should be shared, is no guarantee the motorist either understands or is willing to share. Constant caution and education are required.