Does Share the Road Work
By David Hoffman
Setting the “Seen”
In preparation for this article, I recently asked a friend what she thought of the “Share the Road” signs that were along a stretch of road near her house.
She replied, “What are you talking about? What ‘Share the Road’ signs?”
I described them in detail, and then went on to ask if there were lots of cyclists in her area.
“Sure.” She added, “All the time. But this stretch of road is a bit narrow for them to safely ride on, don’t you think?”
I asked what the speed limit was along this stretch of road. She immediately knew.
“Cops hang out all of the time. You can’t speed here.”
I asked her to take a careful look for the prominently posted signs time that she was out. A few days later I got a call.
“So, yeah, I saw those signs you were talking about. I’ve lived here seven years, and have never seen them.”
What’s In A Name?
I got my start in bike advocacy back in 2002 when a local ran me off the road while the passenger yelled out the window, “That’s what sidewalks are for!” Thus, Bike Pittsburgh (www.bike-pgh.org) was born out of my frustration for the lack of respect that cyclists were getting on the road in Pittsburgh, PA. I talked to a reporter at one of the local newspapers and got my story published. The reporter asked what I wanted from my fellow cyclists, and I responded that I hoped they would join me in a “concerted ‘Share the Road’ campaign.”
Looking back, it seemed like a good idea. I was, after a fashion, only repeating a catchphrase that I had heard many times before. It was all that I knew. The phrase was part of a collection of sayings that my brain had stored over the years—Only you can prevent forest fires—Say no to drugs—Give a hoot, don’t pollute—Take a bite out of crime—you get the idea…
Now, nearly eight years into a career as a bicycle advocate I’m beginning to question the effectiveness of the phrase “Share the Road”. Before we go any further, it is important to separate the passive message of “Share the Road” from the active education and outreach efforts underway, such as teaching drivers and bicyclists how to coexist safely. Specifically, I am questioning the efficacy of the “Share the Road” message.
As it turned out, the “Share the Road” campaign that was my first stab at bike advocacy lasted a few months. Within a very short time, it became apparent to me that nothing would get accomplished in a town as gritty as Pittsburgh if all that I was peddling was a catchphrase.
Dynamics of Share the Road
Most people don’t like sharing things of value. Sharing their money. Sharing their chocolate. Sharing their time off with unwanted family members. And most importantly, sharing the road with other users that may slow them. So when a driver sees a sign that tells them to “Share the Road,” there is a voice in the back of their head that whispers, “But I don’t want to.” It’s the same voice that says, “Why do I have to go 35 miles per hour on this straight road in the middle of nowhere? I could totally do 60 and get away with it.” “Share the Road” is a message aimed at drivers who need to be reminded that their behavior can be aggressive and reckless. These same people rarely like to be told that they don’t own the road.
Getting back to my friend who didn’t see the “Share the Road” signs near her house, I did a little bit more thinking and asking around. As it turns out, most drivers pay attention to just two types of signs when they’re driving: speed limits, and control signs (stop, turn, yield, etc.). “Share the Road” signs fall into a third, less noticed category: environmental signs. These might include information like “Entering National Forest,” or “Soft Shoulder.” These signs are often missed, because there is almost no penalty for missing them. You don’t get fined for entering a National Forest, but you will get cited for failing to stop at a stop sign. Additionally, images are easier to process while driving than text. If you saw a picture of a tractor on a sign you would immediately know that you should expect to see farm equipment along that particular stretch of road even without reading any text on the sign. It is, in effect, a “Share the Road” sign for cars and farm equipment.
There is also the issue of sign pollution. Studies have shown that we can only process so many things while we’re driving. If there are too many signs, many of them simply fade in to the background and are never seen by us. Dense urban environments are classic areas for sign pollution. And these same dense areas often have a burgeoning bike population with little room for bicycle-specific facilities such as bike lanes or paths. Instead, cyclists are often in a shared use environment—replete with “Share the Road” signs.
Is There an Alternative?
OK. I’ve made it clear that I don’t think that “Share the Road” signs are particularly effective or welcome by most drivers. “That’s all well and good,” you think. “But you can’t just throw that out there and not offer some sort of alternative.” And you would be right.
My moment of clarity came one cold and icy January day while I was out with the Director of Public Works, helping to locate where signs would be placed along newly designated bike routes. The ground still had snow piled up on the sides of the road, effectively narrowing lane width, making these already difficult roads even more treacherous for cyclists. Drivers were behaving as aggressively and recklessly on these snow-compromised roads as they would on a sunny day. Sharing the road definitely wasn’t on their minds. The Director of Public Works was in his car with a clipboard, noting locations for bike route signs. I was on my bike pointing out good locations.
He asked me, “Where should we place the ‘Share the Road’ signs?”
It wasn’t a question of “if,” but merely “where.” I thought for a moment, and said, “Nobody pays any attention to those. What about another sign? How about simply, ‘Watch for Bicyclists’ with a picture of a bike under the words?”
He thought for a moment, and said, “Sure. We can have the sign shop make those, no problem.”
Why I Like “Watch for Bicyclists”
While “Watch for Bicyclists” falls into the same category of environmental signs, there is a subtle difference between that and “Share the Road.” First, it isn’t asking the driver to share anything —so no subtle hints that their driving experience will somehow be diminished. Second, it has a reasonably neutral tone to it—similar to “Caution, Children at Play” or “Pedestrian X-ing.” It imparts the idea that they should simply expect to see bicyclists along this stretch of road, as they’re already there.
But what I like most about “Watch for Bicyclists” is that it helps to convey a cultural change in the way that we think about how roads are used by people. A colleague, Jim Baross, often signs his emails with “Roads are for people, not just people in cars.” I think that “Watch for
Bicyclists” conveys this idea perfectly.
The signs were met with enthusiasm by both bicyclists and motorists—both of whom thought the new signs struck a mildly positive tone. Of course, all of this data gathering and polling has been informal. And, it’s all just one person’s opinion.
It’s time for a change. Don’t just share the road with us, be sure to look for us, as we’re out there!
What do you think? Send your thoughts to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Check out more at the urbanvelo.org website. They have a good thing going for them.