On the streets of confusion

Posted by Daimon on November 23, 2012
General, Rides

Where to go?

There was a discussion in one of my classes recently about web design, and one of the most basic principles went something like this: “Don’t make your users feel stupid.”

I feel like this piece of advice should be adhered to well beyond the confines of web design. Really, in pretty much any instance where you’re trying to impart information to people, you generally want to do so without making them try to figure out what’s being said, avoid confusion and basically not make them feel stupid. So on my ride home from that class, I had to finally stop and take a picture of the strangest “helpful” road marking for bikes I’ve seen in Seattle.

On 45th Street in Wallingford, there are a series of painted sharrows to let cars know bikes will be sharing the street, and (in theory) to show cyclists where to ride. All of this is fine and possibly helpful. Until it’s really not. As you ride along, there’s suddenly the sharrow pictured here, which seems to indicate the proper path is directly into a raised curb.

I’m sure there are some people who see this and think, “Great! A city-sanctioned opportunity to show off my high-speed curb-hopping skills!”

I am not one of these people. Mostly because I don’t have such curb-hopping skills, and even if I did, my bike isn’t really cut out for such theatrics. Instead, what I thought the first time I saw this sharrow was, “What the hell am I supposed to do here?”

When I started out I had no idea of what these sharrows were supposed to be telling me, whether they gave bike riders some extra priority in the street laws, or if they removed any protections from riding in other lanes where they existed. I’d simply never really ridden anywhere with these markings in the roadway before.

So when I saw this one the first time, it literally made me stop in my tracks (or in the soon-to-end curb lane, to be literal about it.) I stopped, and stared, and tried to puzzle out the meaning of this sign. Since there’s a curb cut to access a parking lot just before this sharrow, I wondered if it meant I was supposed to move to the sidewalk where the road narrowed to a single lane? If it indicated a sort of “yield” sign, where I was asked to move into traffic only if no cars were coming? Something else entirely? Or, (as I’ve since decided) if it was just a singularly mindless paint job, done by someone who didn’t think for a second about why it was being done, and simply checked it off a list of things to paint at a certain interval.

That first time, though, it left me wondering if I was missing some larger message that was expected to be obvious to anyone biking in Seattle. I wondered if I was missing some essentially piece of information. I felt, at least momentarily, stupid.

This is one of the reasons I think it can be tough for people to start riding around a city, whether they’re new or not. Biking on streets presents an entirely different world than driving. As I’ve said before, this is one of the reasons I enjoy hopping on a bike to get around town. But it also can be jarring when you come across a situation which wouldn’t even enter into your thought process when driving, but requires you to navigate in a completely new way on a bike.

Any other strange messages to bikers in Seattle I should know about?

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5 Comments to On the streets of confusion

  • Peter says:

    Similar thing occurs when riding northbound on 12th Avenue past Seattle U… just before reachingMadison the bike lane disappears with no clue what one should do. Merge with cars?

  • ftn says:

    Just the exact same thing you can find going downhill on Bell and 1st on the left hand sharrow!
    Sometimes it looks like bike infrastructure went crazy in Seattle.

  • merlin says:

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  • Andreas says:

    The real explanation isn’t quite as bad as the one you settled on: when the sharrow was put in, there was no curb bulb there, and when SDOT put the bulb in about 7 months ago, they neglected to grind off the nearby sharrow. But, of course, the sharrow was nonetheless poorly placed in another way: parking was allowed in the sharrowed curb lane, so even without a bus bulb, you usually couldn’t ride where the sharrow said to. Google Maps Street View still shows that spot pre-bulb, complete with parked cars.

    My personal favorite mixed-message spot is at the north end of the U Bridge, where there’s a green bike lane to help keep bikers from getting run over by right-turning vehicles, but the lane abruptly ends, the curb bumps out, and cyclists are expected to instantly merge with vehicles going 35 mph in order to get around a raised median island. It’s ridiculously unsafe, and every time I ride through there I’m tempted to rent a jackhammer and remove a few feet of that island myself.

    • Thanks for pointing that out – I’d honestly guessed the sharrow was just put down by a crew that didn’t care where it went or how unintuitive it seemed. I hadn’t realized the problem might have been a recently added curb bulb bump-out.

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