Symbolizing Cycles


With the wrap up of the BTA‘s Bike Commute Challenge – during some of the best September weather in recent memory – we in Portland have biking on our minds. Which makes this a fitting time to get into some urban cycling symbology geekery: the many ways our DOT represents cycling.

I first recognized a variety of symbols while modeling the Seattle Streetcar project. I saw the difference between a bike route symbol and a bike lane symbol (For clarity: routes are shared by bikes and motor vehicles and are marked with sharrows – see symbols 1 and 2 below. Lanes, on the other hand, are bike-only – and generally too narrow for even the smallest cars. They’re marked with a bike symbol/arrow combination that is decidedly different from a sharrow – see 3 below. Lanes are often what would be considered a shoulder or parking lane in other cities, and often treated the same here, but that’s a discussion for a different venue.)

Notice that the shape of the bike symbols are different. And pointed in different directions. And one has a rider, the other doesn’t. I’ll sheepishly acknowledge that I hadn’t noticed these differences during the years of cycling before this project. Once I saw the inconsistencies, though, I recognized different bike symbols all over the place.

For a few weeks I kept my camera handy, eager to document as many different bike symbols I could find. After sifting through a few dozen photos, I tallied four unique bike symbols. Three are widely used. Two have riders, two have just bikes.

Drum roll, please.


This symbol is the old standard: a fairly detailed and riderless bike facing left. Slender and precious, it’s the one used in the old little bike routes circles, on construction detour signs, on most – but not all – of the wayfinding signs, and in the few sharrows Portland had pre-2010. I like that it was used consistently, and that its preciousness brings to mind the fragility of a cyclist. Though the preciousness also makes it cutesy and easy to dismiss as a frivolous curiousity.


This is the new standard for sharrows: a thick, low detail (look ma – no pedals!) riderless bike facing left. It’s the symbol used for the thousands of new sharrowsthroughout the city and has in effect become the most visible bike symbol. It’s a bolder image than the old standard, giving it a stronger presence on the road and making it more noticeable. I like its visual strength. Also, it’s strikingly similar to the (one and only) symbol used in Copenhagen.


Then there’s the bike lane marker guy: a rider with two wheels (no actual bike!), usually facing right. It shows the rider, reminding us that cyclists are people. Facing right – for left-to-right readers like ourselves – brings to mind forward motion, progress. (Copenhagenize has a great post about this.) Showing the rider also means that the road crew can have fun adding elements like helmets, hats, pigtails, trumpets, orwhathaveyou to the symbol. It’s bold, easy to recognize, and its portrait aspect ratio is road-friendly.


The fourth is the 1970s racer. Not as widely used; I saw it only on a few road signs (maybe it’s a standard for sign-makers?). Another rider with two wheels, this time more sporty with the rider apparently down in the drops racing toward the finish. Despite the style being reminiscent of the road biking boom of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, it's on newer signs: the 2010 NW Marshall bikeway and Going crossing at NE 33rd. Its shape and proportions are attractive, but it brings to mind the recreational side of cycling instead of the practical side - a liability for getting more people to see cycling as a serious transportation option.

As a designer and a cyclist, I appreciate that there are fairly easy to recognize symbols to designate bikeways. And I appreciate that there have seemingly been attempts at standardization over the years.

That said, I’d much prefer to see a consistent symbol for a cyclist. When we at FPS want to create an easily-recognizable icon for a project, a basic technique is to use the same icon throughout. The consistency strengthens the icon, legitimizes it, and allows the viewer recognize it easily. Using many different versions and styles makes it unnecessarily confusing and implies a lack of seriousness from the designers (or planners). Cycling already suffers enough from people not considering it a serious transportation option; lackadaisical symbology doesn’t help.

There are also subtleties that should be considered when selecting an appropriate symbol. The direction of the symbol: facing right brings to mind movement toward the future, facing left toward the past. Integrating the rider into the symbol reminds us that a cyclist is a person. Using thin lines makes it seem precious and delicate, thick lines bold and strong.

The main objective of these symbols is to make cycling safer and, as a person that recognizes the value of cycling, I’m happy they exist. But I can imagine some symbolic improvements as we ride into the future.

Jason Nolin was an illustrator at Fat Pencil Studio from 2010-2013.