“Sharrow” the Road – Missoula’s New Biking Road Symbols


It is an honor to take over the Bike It blog from Ryan Newhouse, a thoughtful and engaged cyclist, who as it happens, has held three bike-related jobs in Missoula that I have now had as well.  I hope to continue providing valuable information about biking in Missoula, and maybe even encourage some people to take up cycling again.

If you have been out and about around town lately, you have no doubt noticed a new symbol in the road.  It is a bicycle with two chevrons above it, and it is called a “sharrow.” Derived from the phrase “shared roadway” marking and more easily remembered as a “share arrow,” the sharrow is a relatively new addition to the road builder’s toolkit, though we have seen them in Missoula before, most prominently on Third St. between Higgins and Orange.

Sharrows were designed with several goals in mind, specifically to:

  • Assist bicyclists with positioning in a shared lane with on-street parallel parking in order to reduce the chance of a bicyclist’s being “doored”
  • Assist bicyclists with positioning in lanes that are too narrow for a motor vehicle and a bicycle to travel side by side within the same traffic lane;
  • Alert motorists of the lateral location bicyclists are likely to occupy within the traveled way;
  • Encourage safe passing of bicyclists by motorists; and
  • Reduce the incidence of wrong-way bicycling.

Basically, the markings are there to show cyclists where they are legally allowed to ride and to alert motorists that there are frequently cyclists present on that stretch of road.  Since being painted in late June, some motorists as well as cyclists have complained that the markings are too far into the traffic lane for comfort, that the placement of the sharrows contradicts the state law about riding on the right-hand side of the road.

Addressing the second statement first, Montana state law says that cyclists “shall ride as near to the right side of the roadway as practicable.”  The operating word “practicable,” meaning useful or able to be done successfully, is what gives cyclists the permission (the imperative, even) to ride outside of the parking lane and the door zone and more in the middle of the lane.  Furthermore, state law encourages cyclists to take the lane when there is not enough room for a vehicle and a bike to travel safely side by side.

Still, state law does not stop angry drivers from yelling at cyclists they perceive to be taking their space, and for many people, being hit by a car does not feel any better just because they were right.  So, do the sharrows make it safer for biking in Missoula?  Paint alone cannot do that.

As drivers, we need to recognize that more and more people are riding bikes for transportation and recreation purposes today than ever before, and we should give them the space and patience they need on the roads.

As cyclists, we can continue following traffic laws, including riding where the sharrows are painted, and being aware that people are not always paying attention.

Finally, if you need that little extra push to get out in the lane, you can pretend that the sharrows function as turbo bursts like in video games, and you will be at your destination before you know it.

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Ben Weiss has been biking around Missoula for the last decade, on his way to and from work, school, volunteer engagements, board meetings, pot lucks, concerts, and the bars. Previously serving as a Bicycling Ambassador for the City and as a current employee of Missoula In Motion, Ben has spent hundreds of hours talking with Missoulians about how and where they ride their bikes.