On The Road

So, what exactly is a sharrow?

Courtesy of Chris Hoeber
A sharrow is a marker that indicates that the road is too narrow to allow a car to pass a cyclist safely within the same lane.

After my first column ran last month, I received a question from a reader: “There’s a sharrow painted on my street; what is it? Does it mean my entire street is now a bike lane?”

A sharrow on the roadway is an acknowledgment by the responsible agency (city, county, etc.) that the road is too narrow to allow a motor vehicle to pass a cyclist safely within the same lane. It is a recent invention that takes some getting used to – like a new emoji.

A sharrow does not give cyclists any special privilege, nor does it impose any special obligation on motorists that they don’t already have. It is merely a caution sign, acknowledging the need for cyclists to occupy the lane.

But aren’t cyclists supposed to ride as close to the right-hand edge of the road as practicable? Yes, but there are several exceptions to this rule, and one of them is if it would be too dangerous to do so.

There are at least two reasons why it would be dangerous in the situation illustrated in the accompanying photo at left.

First, a sharrow is often used where there is no shoulder because of on-street parallel parking. To share the lane with an overtaking motor vehicle, the cyclist would have to ride within inches of the parked cars. Someone opening his or her door and exiting in front of a cyclist could cause serious injury to the cyclist, not to mention him or herself. In the Netherlands, where bikes are everywhere, drivers are taught to open their door with their right hand, which forces them to turn around and look for oncoming traffic, but most people in the U.S. do not do this.

The second reason is a bit subtler: If it is too dangerous to pass, don’t let your body language invite people to do so. Hugging the side of the road gives a visual message to the motorists behind you that they are invited to pass. Taking the center of the lane sends a different visual message: “It isn’t safe to pass here; I’ll move over when it is safe to let you pass.” Please note that it is now illegal in California to pass a cyclist without giving 3 feet of clearance. The sharrow on the roadway is a reminder to both the cyclist and the motorist that it is OK for bikes to take the lane.

A piece of advice for my fellow cyclists: If you want the drivers behind you to respect you, do your best to respect them. Don’t dawdle in the middle of the road; that gives the message that you don’t care about them, and it reinforces negative stereotypes. Move purposefully down the street and move over when there is a break where you can safely do so. When the driver behind you does pass you, give a friendly wave to acknowledge the respect he gave you; this acts as an apology for the inconvenience. The driver may even smile and wave back.

Chris Hoeber is a Los Altos area resident, avid cyclist and founder of a cycling club. Email questions and comments to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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