Bicycle Infrastructure as Educational Tools

I like the Bryant Avenue shared lane markings. I ride on Bryant Avenue nearly every day on my way to and from work. I see the shared lane markings more or less as training wheels  for cyclists, which is a characterization I expect the City of Minneapolis would probably distance themselves from.

Bryant Avenue Bikeway (via OurUptown.com)

I was recently working with a client who was considering installing shared lane markings along a collector roadway. The client asked me to prepare some materials explaining the impacts of installing shared lane markings. I think they found my response a little bit surprising.

I prepared some materials explaining how shared lane markings don’t change any of the expectations for how drivers or cyclists should use the roadway. I explained that the primary function of sharrows is to convince drivers and cyclists to exhibit the behavior that is already expected of them. And that the FHWA has published results confirming that shared lane markings are effective at accomplishing this objective.

For example, a primary function of shared lane markings is to encourage cyclists to ride far enough left that they are outside the door zone, but certainly this is an expectation of cyclists anywhere shared lane markings are not present as well. Similarly, shared lane markings encourage cyclists to ‘take the lane’ where necessary, ride on the right side of the roadway, not ride on sidewalks, etc. They also encourage motorists to be alert and aware of cyclists, and give ample room while passing. Each of these goals of shared lane markings is an expectation of motorists and cyclists regardless of the presence of shared lane markings.

This all begins to make the traffic engineer in me a little uncomfortable. It feels like we’re using pavement markings as an educational tool. If the markings aren’t necessary (in the sense that they have no regulatory purpose), then perhaps they aren’t necessary? If the purpose of the marking is to encourage better behavior, maybe an educational program is a better solution? This is similar to how traffic engineers have given up on enforcing stop sign warrants, and now we have unwarranted stop signs all over the place just to try and encourage people to exhibit better behavior (i.e. slow down).

Other types of signs and markings that don’t serve a regulatory purpose are more or less being phased out. For example,  you don’t see too many new “deer crossing” signs going up anymore. Instead we just expect motorists (and cyclists, I guess…) to always be aware that deer may jump in front of them. I recognize that a similar argument could be made for, say, crosswalks, and you won’t find me making this argument any time soon.

However, back to the point of this post – I think the Bryant Avenue shared lane markings do a great job functioning as an educational tool. Bryant Avenue is an excellent place for inexperienced cyclists to learn how to ‘take the lane’ because of the relatively low traffic volumes, and moderate parking turnover rates.

What do you think, readers? Are you comfortable with the idea of using pavement markings for educational (rather than regulatory) purposes?

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