Sharrows: the Big Leap Forward or Just an Evasive Side Step

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Today’s post is a guest post, written by Dick van Veen. Dick is a traffic engineer and urban designer, with over 11 years of experience as a designer of streets and cycle paths. Dick works for Mobycon, a Dutch mobility consultancy company who recently opened up its first North American office in Ottawa, Canada’s capital city. Dick is always open to remarks and questions; feel free to email him at 

Lonely Sharrow    photo credit: Joshua Putnam (Flickr)

Working as a Dutch bicycle engineer in the U.S. and Canada, people often ask me about the do’s and don’ts from the Netherlands. Lately, I got such a question regarding a so-called Sharrow (shared lane marking). This is not the first time people have inquired if they were a good idea, or should be thrown out with the trash.

Sharrows have been used in recent years in the U.S. and Canada to indicate that roads are not just for cars. The bicycle symbol with the double arrow on top; it has been slammed down on many roads, indicating the importance of the route in bicycle networks and alerting car drivers to the presence of bicyclists.

The success of these sharrows has been obvious: it’s a cheap and quick way of getting bicycle infrastructure in place. So it is good, right?


First and Last Resort

In practice, we often see this measure as a first and last resort in situations where protected bicycle paths or even bike lanes are too hard to realize, or too costly. In these scenarios, sharrows often appear and nothing else changes. The speed limit and road layout remain unchanged 99% of the time, which de facto means that it is actually just a car space, in which bicycles are supposed to ride. There is no change to the old situation, without sharrows, other than paint in the road to occasionally alert drivers to the presence of bicycles.

This approach does not provide protection for cyclists, nor does it fulfill the riding desires of those aged 8-80. It does not take the desires of the majority of the cyclists into account, because it does not recognize the basic needs of cycling, in terms of safety, comfort or attractiveness.

It merely shows that road authorities are interested in cycling as a way of transportation.

There are even risks involved: putting sharrows on a road can create a false sense of achievement for road authorities and/or politicians: “We said we were going to put bicycle infrastructure in place, and we did. So what is the big fuss about?”

Not all bad

The thing is, sharrows are not all bad. The fact that they highlight the position and possibility of bicycles on the road is a major benefit. In fact, in the Netherlands, often seen as the paradise for cycling, 80% of the urban roads are shared use, mixing bicyclists and cars. So there must be something good about sharing the road.

In the Netherlands however, mixing traffic modes is always viewed from a traffic safety perspective. The 30 km/h limit – mixing modes with higher speeds is deemed too unsafe and thus unethical – is key to shared space. With speed limits higher than that, separation is a must (at least a bike lane, preferably a protected cycle path).

2013 bike images Hans Moor 147.jpgPhoto: “Super sharrow” on a bridge over the Rideau River in Ottawa. The much anticipated new ‘Adawe’ bike and pedestrian bridge near this (Cummings) bridge opened December 4, 2015  Photo: @vaniercycles

Design and speed go hand in hand

Besides a lower speed limit being a necessity for shared space, another aspect comes into play. The design speed of roads must be in accordance with the speed limit. So a wide road is unsuitable for a 30 km/h (20 mph) limit. In fact, a 30 km/h road must be so narrow that a car driver cannot overtake a cyclist when someone is coming from the opposite direction. The design stimulates the correct behavior.

So are sharrows bad? Not always. Using sharrows to accentuate the position of cyclists on the road can be recommendable, especially when the main culture is still car dominated. But using sharrows on a wide, high-speed route is not advisable. It is not making anything safer or easier. So if you use sharrows, be sure to include a road diet, lower the speed limit and make overtaking difficult. Then you create a bike space where car drivers must learn to behave like guests.

hintonburg - Hans Moor 1

Photo: Ottawa’s Hintonburg neighbourhood sees lots of cyclists. Wellington street is not the most bike friendly street: many people fear dooring. With help of the local councillor, local residents saw this design this year that includes a marked “Dooring zone”/Emportierage (Ottawa is bilingual). Some cyclists think it is an improvement, others are not so sure. It takes confidence to cycle in the middle of a lane, with a row of cars behind you……photo: Hans Moor


  1. Sharrows have NO legal status. They mean nothing. A cyclist always, on any residential street, can take a lane, and move into the middle of a lane if they believe they need to do that, and always has the right to move to the left to make a left hand turn. If these sharrows are interpreted as some kind of limitation on cyclist, then they are in fact a detriment because their absence on a street could be interpreted by drivers as signifying that the cyclists have fewer options on those streets that streets that have painted sharrows.

    The only thing that is required is for cyclists AND DRIVERS to be educated on the legal rights of cyclists to ride on any part of the roadway that a car can go to – on any road except 400 series highways.

    So in stead of looking at sharrows as granting cyclists to rights to the road – they will be interpreted as limiting the access that cyclists are allowed.

    • In an european context i would say, the minimal width needed for two cars to pass each other. That would generally be between 5,5 and 6,5 meters, or between 18 and 21 feet, not including the sidewalks. With that width, cars cannot overtake a cyclists when there is traffic coming from the opposite direction. I don’t really see reasons why this would not be feasible for the North American context, besides ‘we are not used to that’.

  2. This is helpful, including the nuances, of needing basic adjustments to roads ie. lower speeds etc. if these ‘sh***ows’ are used. At times I use that term since they can be for show, and they also mean shit sometimes, ie. College St. west in Caronto. Thank you.

  3. Hey Hans, that looks good. i understand it well. I have passed this along to our Deputy Mayor, Janice Lukes, who was one of the organizers for the Kickstand program when it came to Winnipeg. She is interested in this.

    Bob Krul

  4. In my town ‘deathrows’ are when the the urban planning department goes ‘oh shit, we forgot to include cycling infrastructure and crap, we don’t have room for painted lines’

3 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. A Dutch Bicycle Engineer’s Perspective on the Sharrow |
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