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Trust the sharrow 

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The first roundabouts on Hillsborough Street are open and working as planned, moving the car traffic slowly but safely through what is now a pedestrian-friendly district at the front door of N.C. State University. Still unresolved, however, is the issue of bike lanes.

It's a metaphor for our times. Can we move forward together in Raleigh?

I believe we can with the aid of a unifying emblem that, with proper promotion, could also heal the nation.

On Tuesday, the City Council was expected to approve an experiment: It calls for a single 11-foot lane in each direction for the cars on Hillsborough Street (an earlier plan called for 10-foot car lanes); that leaves just 5 feet, not 6, between the car lanes and the marked parking spaces on each side of the street.

That's 5 feet, in other words, to be shared by bicycles and the open doors of any parked cars. Thus, the idea of having 4-foot bike lanes is out the window, at least temporarily. Bicyclists fear being "doored" almost as much as they fear being run into by a car; riding with just 12 inches of clearance, they'd be doored daily.

So the new scheme, suggested by the state Department of Transportation, is not to mark the bike lanes. Simply stripe the car lanes and let the bicyclists figure out where to ride within the remaining 5-foot area.

Because the DOT has the final say, Raleigh could do little but follow its lead, says Russ Stephenson, chairman of the council's public works committee. Thus, his committee went along, but with the proviso that the car lanes be striped at first with tape, not paint. That way, Stephenson says, Raleigh can see whether the 11/ 5 split is working before applying the finishing touches.

Good idea. A lot of people, including Stephenson, think 10 feet for cars is enough, but DOT didn't, and maybe they're right. The point is, we'll all learn how best to share the road and proceed from there. But to do so, I think we're going to need more than just some white tape to guide us. We're going to need a slew of sharrows.

Consider: Sharrows (it's a made-up word from Australia out of share and arrow) on the roadway tell motorists to give the bicyclist a fair shake. Give him his own lane where there's room for one. Share your lane where there isn't.

On Hillsborough Street, we're going to need lots of sharrows in the spaces between the car lanes and the parking spaces. We're also going to need them in the car lanes approaching the intersections and the roundabouts.

And it's not just on Hillsborough Street. In the coming year, Raleigh will roll out bike lanes across the city, which means that soon we'll be resplendent with the sharing symbol that can help us solve so many other big problems.

  • The high-speed rail problem? Trust the sharrow. Coming through the center of Raleigh, the trains should share the streets with everyone else. These are not bullet trains, after all. They'll be—for the foreseeable future—the same old Amtrak trains that currently go to Washington at slowpoke speeds via Rocky Mount. They can get to Washington faster if they cut through the city, but that doesn't mean they can't share the corridor and slow down as they go by. Either that or spring for a system of overhead or tunneled tracks.

  • The school assignment problem? Trust the sharrow. The Wake school system is a shared trust of the city and Wake County. It does not belong to the five-member majority currently in control of the nine-member school board. The majority should share its power with the four other members. If they did, they'd find that stability in student assignments—the majority's goal—can exist in harmony with diversity in student populations.

At the national level, too, the sharrow can be our guide.

  • The federal deficit problem? Trust the sharrow. As David Stockman, President Reagan's first budget director, argued Sunday in The New York Times, the top 1 percent of Americans received two-thirds of the gain in national income during the 2002–06 economic "bubble." Meanwhile, the Bush tax cuts reduced federal revenues to just 15 percent of gross domestic product, turning Clinton-era surpluses into huge budget deficits. With a bit more sharing by the rich, however, the deficits would shrink dramatically.

  • Immigrants rights? Trust the sharrow. U.S. Sen. John Kyl, R-Ariz., is among the Republicans who want to repeal the part of the Fourteenth Amendment that confers citizenship on anyone born in this country. Really? We can't share our country with our fellow Americans?

We're just rusty when it comes to sharing, I think, too busy grabbing for ourselves to notice that things work better if and when we work together. Which is why it's so much fun watching the traffic move through the roundabouts. Because everyone's going in turn, no one has to stop for very long and we don't need any red lights. So by sharing the road, we all get there faster.

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