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Green bicycle markings create confusion in Bellingham

The Bellingham Herald

The new green bicycle markings on city streets have been getting some bad reviews.

A current and a former City Council member were among the critics who said city staff could have done more to let people know how to use newly installed bike boxes and sharrows.

“The issue is laying huge green patches at key intersections in town with no, zero, advanced education as to what they mean,” former council member Stan Snapp said Monday, Aug. 31, on Facebook. (Contacted by The Bellingham Herald on Wednesday, Sept. 2, Snapp said he stood by his Facebook statement.)

Snapp and current council member Gene Knutson, among others, said bicyclists already fail to follow the traffic laws, and these new pavement markings could make it worse.

“The last thing we need is to give further license to the cyclists that are breaking the law now with zero enforcement,” Snapp said.

Knutson, interviewed by phone on Wednesday, said he wasn’t familiar with the new green sharrows installed last month in intersections around the city. The green pavement markings have bicycle arrows in them and are intended to show where bicyclists are likely to be crossing busy streets. People have seen bicyclists treat a green sharrow as if it gave them the right to ignore stop signs.

“(City staff) might have to do more of an outreach,” Knutson said.

City staff and bicycle advocates maintain that more signs painted onto the streets to warn drivers about bicyclists will make the roads safer, especially in the long run.

They also acknowledged that bicyclists and drivers are still on a learning curve.

“Admittedly, the greenback sharrows are new,” city transportation planner Chris Comeau said. “They’re going to take some time for people to get used to, including bikers who aren’t using them properly.”

“The whole point is, we’re trying to draw more attention to drivers that, ‘Hey, you should be looking for bicyclists,’” Comeau said. “But it in no way gives a bicyclist the ability to not follow the same rules of the road as anybody else.”

The city painted bike boxes at Cornwall and Ohio streets on Aug. 17, then installed “no turn on red” signs 10 days later. In the interim, drivers were asking in online forums whether they could turn right on red at Cornwall and Ohio, as the law allows, even though the turn could put the driver in the path of bicyclists approaching the bike box.

Cars are required to stop behind the bike box at a red light, to leave room for bicyclists to come to the front of the line of vehicles waiting for the light to change.

“This isn’t rocket science,” said Blake Trask, state policy director for Washington Bikes, a Seattle-based education and lobbying group. “It’s something new. It’s a question of how you get the awareness and education out there.”

The city’s education campaign on the new markings is underway. Stickers were distributed to bike shops and breweries advertising the city Web page cob.org/bike, with information about the markings. A 2 1/2-minute video explaining the new features was released on Thursday, Sept. 3, on YouTube and BTV10.

The city and Whatcom Smart Trips are leading a bicycle tour of the road symbols on Oct. 25.

While some initial confusion is to be expected, Trask said, studies show that this new wave of road markings work.

“Seattle has seen a decrease in serious injuries and deaths” with these features, he said.

“It’s new to Bellingham, but we’re seeing it everywhere,” Trask said. “It’s pretty commonplace.”

Bellingham Public Works is taking calls from people with questions about the new bicycle symbols at 360-778-7900.

The phone number for information about bicycle road markings was corrected on Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2015.

Reach Ralph Schwartz at 360-715-2289 or ralph.schwartz@bellinghamherald.com. Follow him on Twitter at @BhamPolitics.

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