No one really understands or likes this street symbol, so how was it created?

Sometimes Denver bike commuters follow bike icons and arrows on roads like 23rd Avenue or Franklin Street. Usually not for long.

Riding in the middle of their lane on the so-called “sharrows”, as they are supposed to, cyclists can pedal through a few close calls and rude remarks.

The problem is that drivers don’t see the muzzles, and even if they do, they probably don’t understand what the muzzles mean. So what are they, anyway?

The Sharrows are those icons painted in the streets with a driverless bike under two arrows. Another term for them: lane-sharing markers.

In Denver, they are painted by the Ministry of Transport and Infrastructure on streets that don’t have bike lanes but are meant to accommodate both bikes and cars.

In theory, when followed, sharrows encourage a rider to take the full lane of traffic and warn riders to relax, slow down and pull into line. Sharrows can also steer bikers away from the door lane – where people jump out of their cars, open their doors, and hurl bikers to their deaths.

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Unfortunately, the implementation isn’t as polished as the idea.

Some wasps are painted too close to the gate lane, attracting cyclists, eager to obey city signs, in danger. Other lane markings are too close to the dividing line between cars going in different directions.

Drivers sometimes don’t see bikers – so why would they see bike logos? And for many drivers, who passed their exams before sharrows started streaking the streets in the 90s, they are as significant as a wad of tar-tinted gum on the road.

Many Denver bike commuters will tell you: the Sharrows don’t make them feel safe — and some research backs it up. According to a 2016 University of Colorado Denver study of 10-year, 2,000-block cycling infrastructure in Chicago, the sharrows might actually be more dangerous than no infrastructure at all.

Much like watery Coors, blistering Crocs and the pesky boot on your car wheel that forces you to ride a bike, the sharrow is a Colorado invention.

The Sharrows have toured the world.

Frugal town planners, disinterested in building major cycling infrastructure, have embraced them.

Sharrows gives city officials a cheap way to say they’re doing Something for the safety of cyclists — even if it compromises it.

Cyclists pass #RedCupProject, set up on Wynkoop Street downtown, April 26, 2019. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

We tracked down the man credited with inventing the haversack, retired Denver bicycle traffic engineer James Mackay, and interrupted his morning tooth brushing to find out how and why the haversack is born.

When Denver hired Mackay in the early ’90s, he said, the city made its priority clear: They didn’t want him to do anything — certainly, nothing involving currency or money. silver.

The city was still recovering from the oil and gas crisis. Bigwigs were fighting for mega projects like Coors Field. Cycle paths? No dice.

“It’s this recalcitrant recalcitrance: ‘Oh, we’ve done enough. Let’s do nothing else. We have other priorities,” Mackay said. “It changed my whole career. I’m happily retired – but that was the mentality I was dealing with.

So Mackay began tweaking an idea he had dreamed up when he was working as an engineer in North Carolina: a cheap-to-paint marking that could go on the sidewalk to tell drivers that the road should be shared. He called it “split lane marking”.

Mackay’s original version had the outline of an arrow with a cyclist inside.

“So you had the two wheels, the bike, the silhouette of the cyclist riding on the wheel, and it was inside a hollow arrow, but commonly referred to as the ‘home barrel jumping man’ “, did he declare.

San Francisco commissioned a study between Mackay’s version and another from France: chevrons – essentially arrows – above the bicycle symbol. It turned out that this symbol worked better.

“You might think my feelings were hurt,” Mackay said. “They weren’t. They proved which one worked best. What I found was just a guess on my part. Now we had real data paid for by San Francisco – not by the bike community, not by the bike industry, not by the city of Denver.

“It allowed us to present it to the National Committee and go through their messy and vexing process to make it an official standard,” he said.

The scavenger was finally added to the Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices in 2009, the product of countless meetings and grueling studies. It could have been a triumph in Mackay’s career — but it was mostly nothing for Denver officials.

“Everything that happened,” he said. “Nobody in the City congratulated me.”

A protected bike path on 14th Street.  (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite) Denver;  Colorado;  deveritis;  kevinjbeaty;  downtown;  central business district;  bike path;

Mackay leaves the future of cycling infrastructure to today’s advocates and engineers while enjoying his retirement bliss. But he defends some of the merits of the sharrows.

Bike lanes, which require painting strips block after block, require more maintenance, he said. Shared bike paths use less material.

When bike lanes disappear under car traffic, they can be expensive to repaint. With sharrows, you only need to replace individual coins – not the value of the blocks.

“Another advantage of shared lane markings is that cars can use the whole lane when motorcyclists are not present,” he said. “And it helps with the air moving out of a car, kind of a sweeping action to blow sand, glass, gravel, broken glass shards, etc., into the curb line. When you install a bike lane, you don’t get the displaced air from car traffic and you will often see sand, glass, gravel, etc. pile up in the bike path.

Sharrows took off in cities, from Los Angeles to San Francisco via Chicago, Burlington, Vermont and Louisville, Kentucky.

City planners loved them because they were cheaper to install than painted or protected bike lanes.

“‘It’s something we can do for bikes, something that doesn’t require the expense and maintenance of bike lanes’ – which still has appeal,” he said, pricking officials who ask, “Does that mean we don’t have to do the same?

Maintenance budgets for transport services rarely increase, making the installation of infrastructure that requires regular maintenance less attractive.

“People in these transportation areas are always very averse to any new idea because they can’t maintain what they already have,” Mackay said.

Given the funding and political will, Mackay knows Denver could have done more, like cities like Copenhagen and Utrecht, to actively discourage driving and encourage cycling.

But the politicians did not have this vision.

The future site of a bike path between Champa Street and Broadway that will be part of the 5280 loop, April 23, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

If the city didn’t have Mackay’s back for Denver’s cycling infrastructure expansion, surely the cycling community would be…right?

Mackay, who served on the board of the Denver Bicycle Touring Club, asked for help. It turned out to be futile.

“All these guys care about is high-priced bike riding on a Saturday morning,” he said. “They drive to the starting point of the ride, take their bike off the roof rack, and only then do they become cyclists. They will cover 30 to 50 miles on a Saturday. I was trying to get them to run three to five miles a week to get around on a weekday. Zero Interest. Active disinterest.

When the city was working on its master plan for bicycles, Mackay brought copies to the club’s board and told them he wanted their support to implement it. They refused, arguing that they weren’t organized for it.

Mackay was furious. The group’s bylaws explicitly stated that the organization should work with transport officials to improve conditions for all cyclists.

“Cycling clubs don’t think in terms of weekday cycling and improving things for people who don’t have fancy bikes,” he said. “I’m talking about people who cycle out of economic necessity: the Girl Scout who wants to cycle to the library, the liquor saleswoman who needs a bike to get to work. Those types of riders who rode Walmart-type bikes — not the $1,000, $2,000 bike shop bikes — just don’t register with bike clubs.

He couldn’t even convince the clubs to sponsor safety workshops for children.

“I wish good luck to people who want to make things better for cyclists,” he said. “But the cycling community doesn’t care and especially doesn’t support people trying to make things better for them.”

Denver bike commuters and their allies have gained significant political momentum in recent years.

The city continues to build bike paths – some connected, less protected. Community support led to a new protected bike lane on South Marion Parkway after a cyclist was killed there. The completion of the long-promised Broadway Bikeway may be somewhere on the horizon.

Advocates have pushed lawmakers to pass bike-friendly laws like the Idaho stop. Denver is funding e-bike rebates, and cyclists are actively lobbying to end sharrows.

But Mackay thinks there are plenty more in the racing community and casual weekend warriors who could show up to city council meetings, call 311 and write DOTI.

Correction: The 2016 Sharrows study was conducted by the University of Colorado at Denver, not the University of Denver.

James V. Hayes