Urban Velo

“Share the Road” – Is this a positive message for cycling?

The below guest essay is written by Patty Vinyard, Executive Director of the St. Louis Regional Bicycle Federation. It is but one person’s reflection on “Share the Road” signage from within the advocacy community, touching on the theme of how to more effectively communicate with the cycling and non-cycling public.

share_the_road.jpg In the St. Louis region [and across the country] this is the signage of choice to alert drivers of cyclists on our roadways. This is a standard sign, approved in the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices. It seems innocuous, even like a good idea. But what does this sign really say? What does it mean to people who see it? Is the phrase “Share the Road” suitable for use in materials produced by bicycling advocates?

The sign’s literal meaning is: Caution! You might encounter a person riding a bicycle on this road. With its yellow background and black lettering, this is classified as a “warning sign” in the MUTCD. The underlying message is that a bicycle on the street creates a hazard. This sign inadvertently reinforces the idea that bicycling is dangerous and thereby discourages people who do not currently bike on the streets from ever doing so.

In an ideal world the sign should mean: Both motor vehicles and bikes have a place on the road and we should share the space equitably. However, as with any work of literature, there are other possible interpretations.

To many motorists it means: Cars have the right of way. Bikes have to move over and let me pass. Bikes are supposed to share the road. In fact, I have heard of several instances in which, after a car/bike crash, the motorist proclaimed: “He didn’t get out of my way! He wasn’t sharing the road!”

From the point of view of many bike riders, “Share The Road” signs mean: The state (or city) says it’s okay for me to ride here, even though this isn’t a bike path. And/or: Cars and trucks are supposed to make room for me, even if this road is crowded.

For advocates, the underlying meaning is perhaps the most destructive. If we decide to use the phrase “Share the Road” in advertising and promotion, we are beginning with the basic assumption that everyone is going to continue to use their present mode of transport. So it’s like we are saying: “We know you motorists are never going to get out of your car and ride a bike, but would you please give us a little consideration? Please don’t run us over while you are driving!”

sharetheroad2.jpgWhen “Share the Road” is used as an advertising or promotional campaign slogan, it’s a safety lecture. While it’s true that the word “share” has positive connotations, sharing is positive only when it is freely done with a willing heart—not when it is forced upon a person by some external authority.

If we truly want more people to choose bicycling, we must put our advertising and promotion resources into developing material that makes bicycling look fun, practical, and exciting. When I searched online for examples of television commercials or public service announcements that do this, I found none, but I found a lot of “Share the Road” material.

image_5181.gifIn fact, almost every bit of video on bicycling intended for the general public is a safety lecture, unintentionally reinforcing the idea that bicycling is dangerous. Contrast that to a similar search for commercials promoting cars, trucks, and driving. These commercials make cars and driving look exciting, liberating, creative, sexy, thrilling, empowering, fun, practical, sophisticated, convenient, prestigious, and so on. Car companies such as Volvo that use safety as their hook are able to do so only because all the others have made driving look so appealing. For Volvo it’s safe to claim to be the safest.

For the last half-century or more, car manufacturers have poured billions of dollars into promoting their product and its use. They have hired the finest minds in marketing and design in what looks like an attempt to have their product dominate the landscape, our lives, and our minds. Driving or riding in a private motor vehicle has become the default transportation option for most people in this country. That dominance didn’t happen by accident. The advertising and promotion of the automobile made it happen.

The truth is that it can be dangerous to go out onto the streets, whether in or out of a car. But the car promoters know better than to point out that fact—especially since it’s the weight and speed of cars and trucks that makes it dangerous. Most people don’t know that 43,000 people die in traffic crashes each year. They don’t want to know. And car manufacturers don’t make an effort to spread that information, either.

Given that traffic injuries and fatalities drop wherever there are more people walking and biking on the streets, if we really want to improve safety we would do well to get people to join us in the fresh air and sunshine. I sometimes hear protests from uninformed motorists who say, “Roads are for cars!” I would argue that they are not. Roads are for people to go from place to place. Cars are but one way to go and a dangerous one at that. Bicycling is much more fun than driving a car, and it causes much less damage to us and to our environment. So it really is a more desirable way to use the roads. We can do a lot to further our cause by presenting this message in an upbeat and appealing way.

So what do you do with this information once you have it? Are you considering producing a pro-bicycling public service announcement? Do you have your campaign plans laid out for the next couple of years? I ask you to reconsider making yet another “Share the Road” snippet of video. Get creative and put your best minds to work on making bicycling look so fun, practical, convenient, hip, ordinary, sophisticated, sexy, and thrilling that people will be flocking out onto the street to join us. Every piece we produce should be an invitation to join the fun.

stlbikelogo.jpg Patty Vinyard is the Executive Director of the non-profit St. Louis Regional Bicycle Federation and has graciously allowed us to republish this essay.

30 Comments

  1. David HoffmanFebruary 26, 2008 at 2:37 am

    Rock on, Patty! I’m so glad to see that advocates are reading this website AND contributing.

  2. AlegiustFebruary 26, 2008 at 6:09 am

    i was just wondering what does mean you sticker “share the damn road”…..

  3. Urban JeffFebruary 26, 2008 at 7:33 am

    It means “share the damn road”. A lot of my friends wanted us to add a few more words to the sticker. ;)

  4. Ghost RiderFebruary 26, 2008 at 7:44 am

    Patty, et al:

    There is at least ONE widely circulated cycling video that shows it is fun, efficient, practical and a lot of other things (even sexy!). It’s the “Cycle Hero” video from CTC (English-based advocacy group?):

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c52398G2Gl4

  5. tim zFebruary 26, 2008 at 7:46 am

    “lemme get a piece of that ass-phalt, bitch” i made that one up…

  6. tim zFebruary 26, 2008 at 7:58 am

    you should make a sticker that says “that car makes your ass look big.”

  7. jamesFebruary 26, 2008 at 8:27 am

    I think “Equal right” is more accurate to law in my state. We too have the share the road sign.

  8. AlegiustFebruary 26, 2008 at 9:36 am

    it sounded too easy (too simple) to me (i’m italian) “share the road” at the first meaning……….does a bicycle need to say please to hit a road ?

  9. Is “Share the Road” sending the right message? | Commute by BikeFebruary 26, 2008 at 10:30 am

    [...] UrbanVelo.org: [Across the country] this is the signage of choice to alert drivers of cyclists on our roadways. This is a standard sign, approved in the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices. It seems innocuous, even like a good idea. But what does this sign really say? What does it mean to people who see it? Is the phrase “Share the Road” suitable for use in materials produced by bicycling advocates? [...]

  10. Chip HaynesFebruary 26, 2008 at 11:11 am

    I have to say that those yellow “Share the Road” signs are better than nothing, and do keep the idea of cyclists being on the road in the public eye. It’s a start.

  11. Todd ScottFebruary 26, 2008 at 11:14 am

    Although not in the MUTCD, I prefer this share the road sign showing both a car and bike side by side. http://www.m-bike.org/gallery/m-bike/index.php?g2_itemId=1327

    Also note that Share the Road verbiage is also used for motorcycles. http://www.nhtsa.gov/people/injury/pedbimot/motorcycle/McycleSafetyplanner2007/index.html

  12. WaylanFebruary 26, 2008 at 11:21 am

    Well, we have yellow caution sings for pedestrians, crosswalks, school children, horses, cows, dear and the list goes on. I think that in each case drivers are more likely to recognize that the sign is telling the drivers to use caution and be on the lookout for the aforementioned things in the road. In each case, it is generally understood that the automobile will need to yield to the others. I don’t see why bicycles should be any different.

    Of course, in practice drivers often do see bicycles differently, although in my observation they fail to yield to any the aforementioned things. I suspect the issue runs deeper than sharing the road with bicycles. Many drivers have the notion that roads are only for automobiles and the whole world should revolve around their need to get where they’re going.

    Therefore, if your promoting the “share the road” message, it needs to be clear that it is directed at the automobile drivers without being negative. Not an easy task. Not sure how to do that with road signs.

  13. Biking BisFebruary 26, 2008 at 11:42 am

    I have no problem with motorists being reminded that I might be up the road, and they’ll need to keep alert and be prepared to slow down or move over.
    I think the only harm of these signs is when communities erect a few and think they’ve done their job in becoming bicycle-friendly. This is just the beginning.

  14. Chip HaynesFebruary 26, 2008 at 12:21 pm

    Biking Bis nailed it: It’s too easy for a city to put up a few of these signs and think they’re done. It’s a start- but only a start, and every city needs to be reminded of that fact.

    Politely.

  15. reverend dickFebruary 26, 2008 at 12:23 pm

    Cars aren’t dominant because advertising made them sexy- they’re popular because they are EASY and convenient. Bikes are hard to use- they require effort and willingness to be discomfitted (inclement weather, hills, etc). No ad campaign bullshit is going to change those facts or trick simpletons into believing anything else. “Put the fun between your legs” just sounds weak. Bikes are fun, they aren’t sexy…let’s not water down the appeal and make them look foolish in a misguided attempt to follow the direction of “marketing” a la an underwear catalog.

  16. Chip HaynesFebruary 26, 2008 at 12:57 pm

    I prefer the “RIDE A BIKE OR ELSE!” approach to marketing. It’s not very sexy, but it gets the point across.

    Ok, seriously, nothing we do to “sell” the bike will sell the bike. It’s simply a matter of the car becoming less attractive over time. And it will, as gas prices keep going higher, eventually leading to gas rationing.

    How many of you remember the Arab Oil Embargo of 1973/74?

    Ah, good times.

  17. unixd0rkFebruary 26, 2008 at 1:05 pm

    i wish they would say “ALWAYS share the road”.

    …but i also endorse timZ’s versions. let’s get those painted and put up, already.

    “PICK IT UP!” :]

  18. Chip HaynesFebruary 26, 2008 at 1:29 pm

    We just had a new state law passed here in Florida that requires drivers to give cyclists three feet of clearance when they pass. That kept them polite for about two days. Maybe we need to adopt my old line:

    “When the oil runs out, they’re ALL bike lanes!”

  19. Ghost RiderFebruary 26, 2008 at 4:10 pm

    Chip, that 3 foot rule is a joke, as it is in every other state who passed similar laws…laws are only effective when they’re coupled with enforcement, and Florida seems to have really dropped the ball with this one!

    Nevertheless, I appreciate these steps (and “Share the Road” signs). They’re better than nothing, but only serve as starting points, not endings. There’s a lot more municipalities can and must do to make bicycling safer and more practical for more people.

  20. Chip HaynesFebruary 27, 2008 at 7:21 am

    Yeah, like I said: It worked for about two days. Here’s another bummer: As gas prices continue to rise, I see more drivers driving mad. And that’s not good when you’re on a bike. with gas rpedicted to hit $4 this spring, we maybe need to look in to full body armor.

  21. jmpierFebruary 27, 2008 at 11:45 am

    The reverend said;

    Cars aren’t dominant because advertising made them sexy- they’re popular because they are EASY and convenient. Bikes are hard to use- they require effort and willingness to be discomfitted (inclement weather, hills, etc). No ad campaign bullshit is going to change those facts or trick simpletons into believing anything else. “Put the fun between your legs” just sounds weak. Bikes are fun, they aren’t sexy…let’s not water down the appeal and make them look foolish in a misguided attempt to follow the direction of “marketing” a la an underwear catalog.

    Simpletons are the people who believe the commercials that the new caddi will make you sexy and desireable. Advertising is all about convincing people that the product you manufacture is what the consumer needs.

    Cars are easy!?!? How many hours a week do you work to make that payment each month? and if you don’t own a new car, you can’t tell me it is easy to crawl under it every once in a while to change brakes or oil or what ever else brakes.

    In conclusion, I don’t know what your bike looks like but my bike are damn sexy!!

  22. Eric TullbergFebruary 27, 2008 at 1:03 pm

    I agree with Waylan that there is nothing wrong with the “share the Road” message; it needs to be explained better. Many drivers do not look upon passing a bicycle as they would passing any other vehicle – if you cannot do it safely, wait until you can. The slow speed and narrow width of a bicycle makes them much easier to pass than motor vehicles. On most roads there is insufficient room to pass a cyclist safely without going too close to the next lane, particularly if the vehicle is 8.5 ft. wide with mirrors extending beyond that.

    I agree with Reverend Dick that the appeal of cars is not the advertising but the convenience. The best message for cycling or walking would be to chose the most appropriate vehicle for the trip. For short trips for one person to recreation, school, the store, or maybe work a bicycle is best. For long trips with multiple people and carrying large amounts a car or truck is more suitable.

    Any advertising mesaage will go not only to the target audience but to others. Would “Put a bicycle between you legs” be an approriate message to the parents of a 13 yr. old girl buying her a bicycle?

  23. get realFebruary 27, 2008 at 4:29 pm

    Some other warning signs that make me hate what they are warning against:


    and the worst one yet:

    Those warning signs are really just a menace. Getting people all worked up and angry over sharing the road with bicycles, children, babies and ducks just to name a few.

    Cars are not going to go anywhere. The reality is, no matter how bicycle friendly our world becomes, fact of the matter is, there will always be people who physically CAN NOT ride a bicyle, or people that just plain need to get somewhere faster.

    So even if all us able bodied folks start riding bikes 99% of the time, there will STILL be motorized vehicles on the road. Maybe we should all learn to live together in some sort of harmony. Maybe by…sharing the road?

  24. ChrisFebruary 27, 2008 at 5:38 pm

    The signage here in Winnipeg, Canada reads:

    Cyclists Reminder: Vehicle Traffic has the Right to Use the Road.

    At first I hated them, then I realized that the sign puts bikes first. It would be typical to remind motorists that they are required to share the road, but here, cyclists are the presumed primary road users!

  25. Bike Man Dan » Blog Archive » Sensible and accurate critique of “Share the Road”February 28, 2008 at 11:53 am

    [...] and accurate critique of “Share the Road” http://urbanvelo.org/share-the-road-is-this-a-positive-message-for-cycling/ “The sign’s literal meaning is: Caution! You might encounter a person riding a bicycle on [...]

  26. 40x14February 28, 2008 at 12:00 pm

    I am uninspired by the image that Todd Scott posted (http://www.m-bike.org/gallery/m-bike/index.php?g2_itemId=1327).

    A more bike-centric sign would simply depict cars being prohibited from the bike lane, more like this: http://www.online-sign.com/signs/prohibition/thumbs/174.jpg

    Another way to foster driver’s understanding the needs of bicycles and cars sharing the roadway might be a sign demonstrating the three foot margin that is required by law in order to pass a cyclist safely, and a bicycle occupying a full vehicular lane.

  27. LizDecember 6, 2009 at 8:52 pm

    Previous post was an error. A friend of mine just started this website you might be interested in: http://www.sharethedamnroad.com .

  28. Project Process » Blog Archive » Dealing with the Design ProblemOctober 3, 2010 at 3:03 am

    [...] ‘Share the Road’ campaigns still leave a lot of information out of the public domain about how to share that road. Read the article “Share the Road” – Is this a positive message for cycling? [...]

  29. Project Process » Blog Archive » Looking at Road SafetyOctober 3, 2010 at 4:02 am

    [...] “Share the Road” – Is this a positive message for cycling? [...]

  30. Project Process » Blog Archive » Cycling Culture and road safety in the NewsOctober 3, 2010 at 4:34 am

    [...] “Share the Road” – Is this a positive message for cycling? [...]

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