By KEVIN McCALLUM
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Bicyclists and cars are always supposed to share the road.
But in Santa Rosa they’re being asked to take that advice literally on a stretch of Sonoma Avenue near Montgomery Village.
As part of its effort to make the busy road safer for cyclists, the city has installed “sharrows” on a three-block stretch of Sonoma Avenue east of Montgomery Village.
A sharrow — a combination of the words “shared lane” and “arrow” — identifies stretches of the road where vehicles and bicyclists may need to share the lane in a single file because there isn’t enough room for both to travel side-by-side.
“This is our first experience with sharrows, so we’re wanting to see how they’re going to operate out there,” said city traffic planner Nancy Adams.
Bicyclists contacted Thursday were skeptical of the concept.
Ophthalmologist David Lightfoot commutes by bike from his Bennett Valley home to his office downtown using Sonoma Avenue. On Thursday afternoon Lightfoot called the new roadway markings “useless symbols” that he doubted would have any impact on behavior.
“I don’t think anyone knows what they mean, bicyclists or drivers,” Lightfoot said.
He said he had no intention of centering himself over the arrows on the street — as the city suggests — because it would put him too far out in the lane. That would annoy drivers, whom he predicted were more likely to honk and angrily pass him than slow down and patiently travel behind.
“Share the street? What if they decide to not share? Who pays? Me!” said Lightfoot, wearing a bright yellow vest he called his only protection.
Bike riding Mormon missionaries James Miller and Mark McMullan, both 20, said they’d seen the new symbols on the road showing a bicycle with two arrows above it, but weren’t about to use them as guides.
“Usually we see cars driving right over them,” Miller said.
The sharrows are part of a larger city effort to turn Sonoma Avenue into the main east-west corridor for bicyclists. The project was approved by the council in 2007 and is funded with a $300,000 state grant. Most of the 2.5-mile stretch of road from Santa Rosa Avenue to Summerfield Road will be getting dedicated bicycle lanes. The Summerfield Road to Yulupa Avenue stretch got them last week, and Hahman to Santa Rosa Avenue is expected to see them over the summer.
Instead of two lanes of travel in each direction, the Hahman Avenue to Santa Rosa Avenue section will have vehicle lanes pared to one in each direction, with a two-way left-turn lane in the middle, and six-foot wide bike lanes.
In addition to making room for the bike lanes, the re-striping should help reduce the “lane friction” on Sonoma Avenue created when drivers stop to turn left across traffic, forcing drivers behind them to either come to a stop or switch lanes to go around them, said city traffic engineer Rob Sprinkle said.
“I think it’s going to be a really welcomed change to that roadway,” said Julia Gonzalez, outreach coordinator for public works.
The 42-foot-wide section of Sonoma Avenue between Hahman Avenue and Yulupa Avenue, however, is too narrow to accommodate bike lanes without removing on-street parking, Gonzalez said.
Since that wasn’t something the city council wanted to do, the decision was made to try to the sharrows, she said. When there are no parked cars, bicyclists are supposed to stay as far to the right as practical. But when there are several parked cars, bicyclists should position themselves over the arrows and cars should travel behind them until it is safe to pass, she said.
“You don’t want a cyclist having to weave in and out of parked cars,” Gonzalez said.
She said the rules of the road haven’t changed, and called the sharrows a “positioning tool, more than anything.”
The concept is similar to the one behind the controversial changes to Humboldt Street, dubbed Bicycle Boulevard, though it was the former traffic circles that created the bulk of the opposition.
Sharrows work well in other cities and serve as a reminder that bicyclists sometimes face obstacles — debris, glass, parked cars — that prevent them from always hugging the curb, said Sandra Lupien, outreach director for the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition.
“Having a sharrow out there helps people think about the fact that it’s OK for someone who is on a bike to move a little farther out in the lane,” Lupien said.
The sharrow is located a few feet left of parked cars because bicyclists also need space to avoid car doors swinging open, Lupien said.
“I am much more conscious about a car door opening than I am about the car coming up behind me,” she said.
Gonzalez said the city in the coming months will try to educate school kids, neighbors and others about what the sharrows are and how to use them.