Cyclists and drivers rarely have a cooperative relationship. Usually, one thinks less of the other. For both, “share the road” is far easier said than done. Then, there are also pedestrians who find themselves off the sidewalk; and scooters and other personal mobility devices and electric bikes all using the same public road.
Lane markings are a good way of segregating road users, as long as such markings are strictly enforced. Violations must be penalized. But, for “unlicensed” road users like cyclists and those on electric scooters, how does one penalize their violations? Erring motorists and jaywalkers can be cited for violations. The same does not apply to cyclists.
Before the pandemic hit in early 2020, there had been moves already to make life easier particularly for cyclists. Laws have since been passed promoting cycling safety. In addition, as a consequence of the pandemic and limitations on public transportation, bike lanes were officially established on many roads.
To date, on major thoroughfares, bike lanes are clearly marked and designated. On Ayala Avenue, for instance, the dedicated bike lane is the rightmost lane that runs from EDSA all the way to Gil Puyat Avenue. The lane was first established in 2020 or 2021. By March, however, the same lane is seen to become a “shared” lane or a sharrow.
Sharrow is a portmanteau, combining the words “share” and “arrow.” Sharrows were said to have been first used in Denver, Colorado in the 1990s, and have been included in the US Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices since 2009. Simply put, a sharrow is not a dedicated bicycle lane like the one on Ayala Avenue now. Instead, it is just a lane marking that indicates where cyclists and motorists can “share” the road.
It was thus no surprise that local cyclists gathered on Sunday, Feb. 12, to protest the Makati plan to allow motorists to “share” the lane previously dedicated to cyclists and marked by bollards. Cyclists fear for their safety under the new scheme, claiming that allowing particularly public utility vehicles to also use the bike lane was a bad idea.
“Sharrows (shared lanes) will not keep us safer. Paint is not protection. Removing bollards is a death sentence. There are design options to keep all of us safe and keep public transport moving without taking space away from our most vulnerable road users: cyclists, pedestrians, women, children, senior citizens, and persons with disabilities,” the Philippine Star quoted a joint statement released on Sunday by road users at the protest.
There are new laws that require the designation of bicycle lanes. It remains uncertain, however, if the use of sharrows or shared lanes on Ayala is in compliance or breach of law. Moreover, was the establishment of bicycle lanes on Ayala Avenue a government initiative backed by a city ordinance? Or, was it a private initiative of the Makati Central Estate Association, Inc.?
Moreover, what has been the experience of other countries with sharrows, and what stands out today as the global best practice or gold standard in urban planning for the establishment of bicycle and pedestrian lanes? Lastly, what approach will promote the most common good and will be in the best interest of more sectors? Policy and planning cannot be selective and should not benefit one sector at the expense of the other.
A Jan. 10 article by Brian McEntee on Bicycling.com quoted US FHWA official Neil Gaffney as claiming that “multiple studies have found that sharrows ‘increase the distance by which motorists pass bicyclists, reduce wrong-way riding, and reduce the number of bicyclists riding on the sidewalk’.” A 2010 FHWA report also “found that cyclists generally had more space to maneuver after sharrows were installed on roads in Seattle; Cambridge, Massachusetts; and Chapel Hill, North Carolina.”
But the same article also cited a 2016 study that claimed that “sharrows failed to dramatically increase the amount of bicycling on Chicago roads between 2000 and 2010,” and that it was “time that sharrows are exposed for what they really are, a cheap alternative that not only fails to solve a pressing safety issue, but actually makes the issue worse through a sense of false security.”
The article also quoted Darren Buck, a bicycle planner in Washington, DC., who noted, “When sharrows were introduced, many in the bike community hoped that they might result in some driver behavior change around bicyclists, or that they would make many riders feel more comfortable on busier streets… We don’t think there’s a lot of evidence out there to support those hopes. We have moved away from installing sharrows on streets where the separate space of a bike lane would be more appropriate.”
And this, to me, is the crux of the matter. What needs to be discussed thoroughly, going beyond sentiments, is the “appropriateness” of a planned measure and its suitability given the existing environment. Going by this parameter, in the case of Ayala Avenue and its use, should the existing dedicated bike lane be converted into a sharrow or a shared lane particularly with public utility vehicles?
Ayala Avenue caters to cars, buses, jeepneys, motorcycles, bicycles, personal mobility devices, and pedestrians, among others. It cuts through Makati City from east to west, and is the main thoroughfare of the Central Business District. It is safe to assume that majority of office workers in the district take public transportation to and from work. Those who drive or ride cars or motorcycles probably comprise the second biggest group, while a minority either walk or take bicycles and personal mobility devices.
The main question: Is Ayala Avenue, as it is and given it use and purpose, actually suited for a dedicated bike lane? This should be taken into consideration in deciding how Ayala Avenue is shared by all its users. Decision makers should also factor in the number of accidents involving all types of users, the legal implications of using sharrows, global best practices in road use planning, and the common good.
McEntee hit the nail on the head when he wrote, “Sharrows offer a recognition of reality: Not every street has room for bike lanes and, in many cases, cyclists and drivers will be forced to interact. The goal of the sharrow is to make these interactions more predictable and safer, reducing the potential for conflicts that might arise when different road users try to share a common space.”
And quoting Will Handsfield, a Washington, DC-based transportation planner and former policy advisor to the DC city council, McEntee wrote, “the reason why sharrows have such a poor reputation… is their misapplication… Engineers need to take more seriously their responsibility to not put sharrows where they don’t belong… It’s not the tool that’s wrong, but it’s the way the tool has been mismanaged that gives it a bad rap.”
Marvin Tort is a former managing editor of BusinessWorld, and a former chairman of the Philippine Press Council