Muddled Markings

[ This is part 1 of 2, dealing with bicycle markings on Toronto’s streets ]

As spring approaches, our city planners are developing plans for the 2010 construction season, to improve our roads and bring us closer to Toronto’s goals of having sustainable streets that encourage green transportation.

Recent years have brought a string of disappointments, as cyclists were repeatedly promised much more infrastructure than was delivered.  The majority of proposed bikelanes still remain stuck as mere proposals.  This year, the City seems to be taking a different approach by offering subdued targets, and trying new strategies that are less likely to be politically volatile.

At the core of this new approach, is a massive implementation of various forms of “sharrows”, a relatively new marking on Toronto’s streets.  Sharrows are essentially used when there isn’t enough road width (or political will) to paint proper bikelanes. Sharrows remind drivers that they need to share the lane, and they’re also supposed to push drivers over to the left providing a little more space for cyclists.


I’ve never been a big fan of sharrows, because I’ve seen them as an easy way for politicians to score points without actually doing what needs to be done. Sharrows can be viewed as a band-aid solution to a real problem.  On the other hand, they’re better than nothing, and they do send a strong message that bicycles belong.  In a way, every time the city paints a bicycle logo on a street, we are getting closer to educating drivers that bicycles are a valid form of transportation. More paint = more respect and credibility.

But here’s a twist.  City staff are proposing two new types of sharrows for 2010. One is a Rush Hour Sharrow, that would only be used during certain hours while the rest of the day they would be underneath parked cars. The second type is called a “Dual Sharrow” or “Floating Sharrow”, that essentially provides sharrows in two lanes: one for rush hour only and the other for the rest of the day beside parked cars.

In both cases, the proposed system includes cars parked legally on top of painted bicycle symbols.  I think this should raise some serious concern, and needs to be thought out a little more.  There are two major problems facing cyclists on Toronto’s streets:  First, we are lacking designated infrastructure.  The Bike Plan is moving at a snail’s pace, and cyclists are suffering from the lack of bike lanes on arterials.  The second problem is that drivers aren’t respecting the small amount of existing infrastructure. The only thing worse than a street with no bikelane, is a street with cars parked in the bikelane. We have not been able to successfully educate drivers about the importance of staying out of bikelanes and many drivers treat bikelanes as a shoulder, or a pick-up/drop-off zone.

We need to build a heightened sense of awareness and respect for bicycle markings, and we need to send a clear message to drivers that designated spaces for bicycles are off-limits. Ideally, we’d want to reach a point where parking in a bikelane would be as socially unaceptable as lighting up a cigarette in a daycare.

But to reach this goal, road markings need to have consistent meanings.  A bike symbol, be it a designated lane or a sharrow, should have a clear message: Please make room for cyclists, do not block their path or park in their space.

Dual Sharrows: Car parked legally on top of a bicycle symbol

My concern about the new markings, is that they convey the exact opposite message.  The message is that bike symbols are temporary, fleeting, momentary and need to be heeded, but only at certain times.  Indeed, for most of the day, it’s perfectly ok to park right on top of them (see above).  I’m not sure we want to set a precedent, where we have cars legally parked on top of painted bike symbols. It normalises an act, that in most other situations is incredibly dangerous.

I can’t imagine the same thing being done for general road markings.  Imagine if planners started making exceptions to basic markings like the yellow line, or double white line on highways.  It would completely alter the meaning of all yellow lines if they started to have some that you were legally allowed to cross at certain times.

I think the only way to do this properly, would be to create a new symbol that clearly distinguishes itself from existing markings, as “temporary”.  That way, we wouldn’t be diluting the strength of our existing markings, which are already being ignored far too often.

A few ideas:

Orange paint • (Brackets) • RH for 'Rush Hour'

Another option would be to go with the current proposal, but to simultaneously  strengthen our existing bike lanes with solid paint.  That would send a strong message that while some bike markings are momentary others are not.

I think city staff are going in the right direction with the 2010 plans.  Increasing signage and markings gives added legitimacy to bicycles, and helps incorporate them into the culture of the city. Many of the specific proposals being looked at for 2010 are great ideas, such as the intersection markings that extend bike symbols right through a street crossing.


But the rush hour markings need a little tweeking.  If we’re going to allow cars to park on top of bike symbols, let’s do it in a way that doesn’t send the wrong message.

What do YOU think?  Leave a comment below:

10 responses to “Muddled Markings

  1. Dave:

    My response to your article thus far is a dedicated posting on my website:

    http://mark-state.wetpaint.com/page/The+%22SHARROW%22+Rant+(For+Dave+Meslin)

    Your readers can tune into it there. I thought it was too long and would be ungracious of me to post in here because of its length. You made a lot of good points, and I responded to them with solutions and a few other points –“Rants” that I’ve got in my belly about the political scene altogether.

  2. This is a useful contribution to the discussions about sharrows, and they are also a useful boost to biking, or they can be.
    Sadly, an opportunity for good discussion was lost with the Miller/progressive cutting of the Cycling Cttee back to only 8 members from 22, and with that was a curtailing of a Network Sub-Comm, and of the opportunities for fuller discussion of such issues.
    Unfortunately, the CU is really mild about sooo many things, though it’s a big city/task, and even Yvonne can get ignored by Mr. Heaps at deputation time….
    At least you mention the lack of political will – and the most egregious instance is on Bloor in that Yorkvile project with its EAvasion where despite that wider street being the #1 place for bike lanes in 1992 – and with Dan Egan’s name on the report for further info – the allegedly progressives have bought a “widened sidewalk” deal that wastes the space that could give us an easy pair of bike lanes for this greenhouse century. (pic @ http://takethetooker.ca/ )
    And all we’re getting is a sharrow in a 4M lane that staff now say – gee we’d like 4.2M.
    Trying to be positive – at least the TCAC had the guts to set up a Network Sub-committee again thanks Margaret – but I’m pretty dark about the low standards we have in Caronto, (there’s a few other clunkers around), and how supine we all seem to be in accepting bad stuff – but maybe I’m just being negative again….

  3. I agree with you for the most part on this matter, but would go even further and say that sharrows are really only a political tool to create the appearance that the City, or a particular city politician, supports cycling. In fact, they do very little to make the street safer for cyclists and arguably even create a false sense of security. I cycle everywhere for about 8 months of the year, almost daily using the sharrows on Lansdowne north of College. I feel less safe on the sharrow stretch of Lansdowne than almost any other street I cycle on, and go out of my way to avoid it. Cars practically brush your handlebars. I cant imagine what it would be like to experience that with the constant threat of being doored on the other side. It seems ill-conceived. It will be disappointing to see anyone support proposals like this simply because it is the first serious lipservice the cycling community has ever been paid. My advice: holdout for better.

  4. My advice: wear orange florescent gloves and point downward to “the space” as each car approaches from behind (except when it’s bumpy – then point earlier and hang on!). Do it especially when you hear the engine accelerating behind you.

    I’ve grown so tired of hoping the next car won’t buzz me, only to have my hopes seem somewhat stupid on my part when he/she whizzes by, inches from my handlebar.

    A simple point, or a wave outward (kind of an outward brush off) seems to work wonders. I take the responsibility for my life in my own hands, and drivers seem to take immediate notice, slow, think, then pass. Often pulling out or waiting until it is safest to pass.

    I even gestured (to slow down) to a car speeding through the crowded intersection at Pape and Danforth this week, and he immediately took his foot off the gas. Wow!

    I’ve been doing this for a month now – assuming that all drivers really don’t know how to pass a cyclist properly – and am actually starting to enjoy cycling again. It’s been a long time coming.

    Join me (and Peter Tabuns, Joe Mihevc and Sandra Bussin to-date) on facebook: http://www.facebook.com/event.php?eid=285600741860

  5. Sharrows are like fourth place at the Olympics.
    No one really cares.

  6. They are better than nothing – and they may make both an appearance and a larger difference on the main east-west streetcar-tracked streets of the core, where we are truly needing a boost in bike safety; but we need to do more.
    Dave’s thinking of how to make them work better is also helpful, but it’s very hard to get any! new idea or thinking into the situation.

  7. Hi Dave,

    This is off-topic. After I read a Toronto Star commentary written by someone from Urban Strategies® about the TTC and other municipal services, I decided to check its website at http://www.urbanstrategies.com. I did take a look at its open space master plan at Cornell Village in Markham. I do know someone who lives there. Cornelll Village has a lot of Mayberry type homes. It does have a community courtyard with a few small services stores. Luckily there is a school even though it has the same box-store design as half of the other public schools in York Region. It does not have a community centre. It does not have a “main street” with mixed use buildings. One must venture outside the Cornell Village community to go grocery shopping and use other services.

    I know that you are into the downtown public space scene. I do encourage you to visit the suburbs as Toronto exists beyond the downtown core and midtown periphery.

    Other point of interest: the new private renewal of the southwest corner of Don Mills and Lawrence. How public is this newly developed private space?

    http://www.thestar.com/opinion/article/764803–a-tale-of-two-cities-toronto-wake-up-sleeper

    http://www.urbanstrategies.com/index.php/parks_and_open_space/open/cornell/

  8. On Google Street View, I just looked at a couple of downtown Toronto streets such as Simcoe, Sherbourne, Jarvis, and Mount Pleasant. Where there are bike lanes, they are not always clearly marked. I did not see any cars parked in the bike lanes. I did see “No Parking” and “No Stopping Signs” posted where there was no curb parking for motorized vehicles. When I did see the bike lanes, some of them were very close to legal curbside parking spots. This is not safe for cyclists.

    A few years ago, I rented a bicycle in Montreal. I did like riding on the protected bike lanes as I did not had less worries about motorized vehicle traffic. I did sometimes have to watch for pedestrians who sometimes stood on the exclusive bike lanes. The were other bike lanes that went along the waterfront which were shared with pedestrians. At least I knew they were shared.

    Back in Toronto, the citizens must decide if Jarvis Street should be seen as a throughfare or neighbourhood street. If we are to view Jarvis as a neighbourhood street, then we can place secure bike lanes on either side or on one side of the street.

  9. I think the sharrows are a sham- I think of them as “This way to Death” markers, and that they give a false sense of security. I guess the theory is that they are there to say to cars that bikes are legitimate, and to give us space, but they just point out to me, especially when cars are parked directly on top of them, that we can be doored at any time. As we have little space between parked and moving cars to maneuver in general, and cars weigh tons, who will win if I am knocked into traffic by a door? Especially onto streetcar tracks?

    I understand that people do not want bicycles on the sidewalk, but it is very frustrating to me when drivers open their door, and stand beside their cars pushing me out into traffic as well. Also, pedestrians standing in the middle of the street waiting to cross is infuriating. There is a lot of construction right now, and it is safer for me to be on the sidewalk than in the middle of construction on occasion- unfortunately for pedestrians.

    So- my vote is for protected bike lanes, and ‘complete streets’ because if we want to legitimize bicycles, and allow everyone despite age to ride, we should separate them from cars to end the war between cars and bikes. By the way, other cities nationally and internationally are installing bike lanes, as they are tried and true, and mitigate the conflict between bikes/pedestrians and bikes/cars.

  10. Oh- and drivers, please do not hang your arm out the window with a lit cigarette, or throw the butts out your window as I pass by on my bike. I get hit or almost burned on average of ten times a year. Thanks so much.

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