Sharrows are great for streets where there isn’t room for a traditional bike lane. But sometimes, they’re used as a way to avoid putting in a bike lane, which is bad for bicyclists and drivers alike.

New sharrows on Georgia Avenue in Silver Spring. Photo by Paul Meyer.

Last week, sharrows appeared on Georgia Avenue between Wayne Avenue and East-West Highway in downtown Silver Spring. It’s one of eighteen state highways in Maryland where cyclists are allowed to take the full lane, and the sharrows let drivers know to look out for them.

Reader Paul Meyer tweeted this photo of the lane markings and wrote, “Sharrows on Georgia Avenue in downtown Silver Spring?!? A start.”

Sharrows are a start for Montgomery County, which has embraced bicycling without always committing to the infrastructure needed to support it, like bike lanes. The county has had Capital Bikeshare for just over a year, including in downtown Silver Spring, but due to a lack of safe places to bike, it’s gotten off to a slow start.

Georgia Avenue is a big, wide street, with six lanes of traffic, turn lanes, and parking lanes. Though the signed speed limit is 30 mph, the lanes are wide, which encourages speeding. This is the kind of street that only the hardiest cyclists would ride on, and sharrows won’t change that. Cyclists will continue riding on the sidewalks where they feel safer, but they’re already barely wide enough to accommodate pedestrians in some areas.

Sharrows are ideal for streets that are too narrow for a bike lane. Because of the amount and speed of traffic on Georgia, cyclists need their own space. This street would be a good candidate for bike lanes with a buffer or even cycletracks, where a physical buffer would give cyclists additional separation from vehicle traffic, which benefits drivers too.

Obviously, that would require taking lanes from cars, and in the case of cycle tracks, redesigning or even removing parking spaces. County and state transportation officials have traditionally been reluctant to do that, most recently with Old Georgetown Road in White Flint. And so sharrows are sometimes used as a substitute for a bike lane where the political will to build one isn’t there.

Sharrows are great for narrow, slow streets like Illinois Avenue in Petworth, but not for big, fast streets. Photo by Wayan Vota on Flickr.

But if there’s any community that should have the will to give cyclists a place on its streets, it should be downtown Silver Spring, where a majority of residents walk, bike, or take transit to work. Nearly a third of all households don’t even have cars, and 40% of its public parking spaces are usually vacant.

The new sharrows on Georgia Avenue tell drivers to pay attention to cyclists. But as long as Georgia remains a big, fast street that prioritizes driving over everything else, drivers won’t have many cyclists to watch for.