A Little Bike Advocacy Vocabulary

The Riverfront Commons Trail is a perfect example of a Paved Surface Trail. It goes where a road cannot fit, but makes perfect sense for a pedestrian and bike path to connect multiple points along the riverfront.

The Riverfront Commons Trail is a perfect example of a Paved Surface Trail. It goes where a road cannot fit, but makes perfect sense for a pedestrian and bike path to connect multiple points along the riverfront.

It’s easy to be in favor of safer bike riding infrastructure, and to call oneself an advocate for bike riders in your town, but it’s not always easy to speak the language of bike advocacy. When viewing an organization’s website (like ours), or when meeting and chatting with a fellow bike advocate, you may see or hear words and phrases that aren’t always immediately self explanatory. I’d like to cover a few of the basic terms that get used when discussing ways to make streets safer for bike riders.

Sharrows - This is a very common term among bike advocates, and it is a word that doesn’t really exist outside of the world of bike advocates, urban planners, and city administrators. “Sharrow” comes from a combination of the words “Share” and “Arrow". Sharrows are markings that are painted on a road surface which depict a bicycle and an arrow pointing in the acceptable direction of travel. They serve to remind automobile drivers that bike riders are not only allowed, but in most cases required, to be on the road, and they serve to remind bike riders that they are to ride in the same direction as the flow of traffic. Sharrows are typically painted on roads where there is not enough room to put in a special lane dedicated to bike riders, and where bike riders are expected to share the same travel lanes that automobiles use.

Share the Road signs - Chances are you’ve seen these around. They are the typical, yellow-orange, diamond shaped road sign, with a black border and silhouette of a bicycle, below which is a rectangular, yellow-orange sign with black letters spelling out “SHARE THE ROAD". These signs are helpful, but they can also be confusing. Many automobile drivers believe they are aimed at bike riders, telling them to get out of the way of cars, that bike riders are the ones who must share the road with cars. Meanwhile, bike riders tend to believe it is the automobile drivers who are too aggressive and need to do more sharing of the road. The fact of the matter is both parties are correct, and sharing is something that happens mutually. Unfortunately, the risk to one’s life is not shared mutually by automobile drivers and bike riders. If a bike rider is out in the middle of a traffic lane, a motorist is less likely to pass them unless it is completely safe for them to do so. This is why bike advocates tend to recommend bike riders use the full lane of traffic. Which brings us to…

Bikes May Use Full Lane signs - These are signs which are white, rectangular, and feature a black silhouette of a bike and the words “MAY USE FULL LANE” below it. The idea is to educate automobile drivers that the law allows bike riders to use the full lane, that they have no legal expectation for bike riders to get out of the way of cars, and that if a bike rider is in front of them using the whole lane, the automobile driver has no option but to wait until it is safe to pass the bike rider. Bikes May Use Full Lane signs leave less room for interpretation and confusion as to who they are aimed at. They are, in the opinion of most bike advocates, a far better alternative to Share the Road signs.

Bike Lanes and Protected Bike Lanes - If a road is wide enough, it makes sense to put in special lanes which are dedicated specifically to be used by bike riders. These lanes are typically narrower than travel lanes for automobiles, and can be demarcated by paint on the road surface, or in addition to paint, they can be set apart by physical barriers such as stanchions, curbs, or highway dividers. If there are barriers of any kind between the automobile travel lane and the bike lane, then the bike lane is considered to be a protected bike lane. Of course, protected bike lanes tend to be safer than non-protected bike lanes, but both are a better alternative to sharrows or signage alone.

Natural Surface Trail/Path - Of course a trail or a path is an altogether off-the-road alternative to anything we’ve discussed so far. A trail or a path is for pedestrians and bikes only, no motorized vehicles like cars or motorcycles are intended to use them. A natural surface trail is, as its name implies, a trail that is not paved with concrete. It may be hard packed dirt or it may have a gravel surface, but either way, it tends to require a bike have a little bit wider tires on it than your typical 1970’s 10-speed. There won’t necessarily be any difficult or technical challenges to riding your bike on these trails, but there may be hills just a little too steep to ride up for some trail users. But that’s ok, as a very wise bike advocate once said, “I’ve never met a hill I can’t walk my bike up.” Trails like these tend to be less expensive to build than a paved alternative, but aren’t as accessible to as many trail users, as you may need wider bike tires, or the elements may render the trail unusable.

Paved Surface Trail/Path - This is the last term I’ll explain here, as this post has gotten longer than I’d intended. Fortunately, there’s not much to say about this one. Pretty self evidently, a paved trail is like a concrete sidewalk, meant for pedestrians and bike riders only, and it doesn’t require wider tires to ride on or get muddy when it rains. They can parallel a road, as a sidewalk, but typically meander their own way, providing a more direct or alternative route from one place to another, which may not fit a road for cars, but is well suited for bikes.

I hope I’ve done a decent job of explaining some of the terms we use as bike advocates. If you have any questions about any other bike advocacy terms or concepts, please feel free to reach out and ask us what we’re talking about. The more people who know about these concepts and what to call them, the easier it is to spread our message and get things done.

Thanks for reading, and we’ll see ya on the road!

Joe Koehl