I was driving along a newly paved stretch of Riverview Drive recently when I noticed a bright white symbol painted on the road.
The image of a bicycle with two arrows above it was not unfamiliar, but it nonetheless jolted me with this embarrassing admission: I had no idea what it meant.
I figured the increasingly common symbols had something to do with bicycle safety (which is true, by the way), but I really didn’t know what they were called or what they were trying to tell me.
In my defense — not much of one, really — I’ve heard others ask about the symbols as well.
So like any good journalist, I decided to investigate.
OK, so it’s not exactly Watergate, but I figured, as long as I’m not alone in my ignorance, it would be a public service.
A few clicks on the internet gave me the answer. The symbols are called sharrows, or shared lane pavement markings, and they are intended to indicate a travel lane in which bicycles and automobiles must share the space because there may not be enough room for them to fit safely side-by-side.
The markings, which have become increasingly popular in recent years across the country, serve multiple purposes, said Leah Ness, Eau Claire’s deputy city engineer.
“Sharrows are typically located in a driving lane and they are a visual reminder to motorists that they have to share the lane with bicyclists,” Ness said.
Beyond that, the symbols are often deployed in Eau Claire to indicate primary bicycle routes through the city and typically are placed 2 to 3 feet from the parking lane to give bicyclists a good idea of where they should ride to stay safely out of the way of door swings from parked vehicles, she said.
City Councilman Jeremy Gragert, an avid bicyclist and former northwest ambassador for the Wisconsin Bicycle Federation, added that he hopes motorists also interpret the markings as indicating they should slow down when sharing a lane with a bicyclist and wait for a safe place to pass.
“A key thing for drivers to remember is, whether there are sharrows or not, a bicyclist always has the right to take the lane because they are a vehicle too,” Gragert said, adding that he believes motorists have gotten better about being aware of bikers as more people have taken to pedaling instead of putting the pedal to the metal.
Other bicycle-related safety symbols used on Eau Claire streets include those marking separate bike lanes and bike boxes.
Bike lane symbols, which are probably the most widely understood, depict a person on a bicycle or just a bicycle in a narrow lane intended strictly for bicycles. The lanes give bicyclists the comfort of not having to share a lane with cars and trucks.
Bike boxes, now used only at the intersection of Keith Street and Brackett Avenue in Eau Claire, are a section of green painted pavement with a bicycle symbol. They designate an area where bikes can get out in front of other vehicles when stopped at a traffic light.
“It allows bicyclists to be more visible and do their turning movement ahead of the cars,” said Gragert, who hopes the city adds more bike boxes at busy intersections used frequently by bikers.
Sharrows, however, are a bit less intuitive, especially when they are located in the middle of a street that doesn’t happen to have any cars parked on it.
Though sharrows have appeared on Eau Claire streets for about a decade, Gragert recognizes that many people, like me, are still confused by the symbols. He has a tongue-in-cheek answer ready when people ask him what they mean.
“I say, ‘They mean you should be biking,’ “ Gragert said with a chuckle. “It’s kind of a joke, but kind of not.”
Indeed, a secondary goal of sharrows is to promote other modes of transportation beyond driving by generating more awareness of primary bicycle routes around town.
“The idea is that maybe people will see them and think, ‘I probably could have biked here instead of using my vehicle,’ “ Ness said.
Considering the benefits — increasing fitness and decreasing gasoline costs and greenhouse gas emissions — that’s a message worth repeating on pavement all over town.