How far we have to go: sharrows and bike counters downtown

Sharrows in downtown Bend
Sharrows in downtown Bend

Navigating Bend’s downtown streets can be tricky by bicycle. ¬†Cyclists must be vigilant to avoid cars pulling out of parking spaces and take the lane when there isn’t enough room. ¬†The recent road construction downtown features new shared use arrows (“sharrows”) on both Wall and Bond streets, which the City says is to encourage the community to ride in downtown Bend as well as increase safety for everyone. ¬†The City is asking cyclists to ride over the top of sharrows to increase visibility and to avoid being passed too closely.

We have mixed feelings about sharrows.  Several studies (see here and here) provide data that sharrows are not the most effective way to encourage more folks to bike downtown or be safer.  It turns out that sharrows only marginally increase bike commuting as compared to streets with no cycling infrastructure.  Even more discouraging is that sharrows may actually increase the risk of injury to cyclists as compared to streets with no cycling infrastructure.  According to the studies, the clear winner for achieving both objectives is building more bike lanes.

While the new sharrows on Wall and Bond streets are welcome, we do believe that the City should be cautious in how they are used.  There may be utility in placing them on streets that are already bicycle friendly, such as neighborhood greenways, as they may educate newer riders that it is okay to be in the center of the lane. They are however poor substitutes for other, better bicycle infrastructure options.

I recently toured Vancouver Island by bicycle, which took me through Victoria, a city about the same size as Bend. ¬†Despite serious opposition, Victoria’s Mayor and City Council recently prioritized building new cycling infrastructure¬†in the face of its exploding population and traffic. ¬†Citing data that shows protected bike lanes increase both ridership and retail sales for businesses along those lanes, the city is building protected two-way bike lanes in the heart of Victoria’s downtown. They designed the new additions to connect the city to rails-to-trails routes, installed cyclist specific traffic lights, and provided education for the public. ¬†Their first protected bike lane was completed in May and they continue to blaze forward with more.

Protected bike lane in downtown Victoria
Protected bike lane in downtown Victoria.

Part of building better bike infrastructure is a robust bike count program to identify where improvements are needed and to track the success of projects such as sharrows and bike lanes.  Victoria, for example, has conducted bike counts since 2011.  Starting in 2013, the Bend Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) began organizing manual bicycle and pedestrian counts.  This project to collect multi-modal traffic data evolved into installing short term counters with an eye to deciding where permanent counters should be installed.  This past April, permanent counters have been placed in key areas such as the Franklin Avenue underpass to track trends over time.

Bike counters at the Franklin underpass
Bike counters at the Franklin underpass in Bend.

We are interested in how the City will use this data and hope that it will look at the success of projects like those in Victoria in its future planning.