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With grant application, PBOT finally acknowledges ‘safety issue’ with streetcar tracks

Posted by on April 14th, 2014 at 10:15 am

Crash on NW Lovejoy-3
Streetcar tracks have claimed many
victims over the years.
(Photos J. Maus/BikePortland)

After years of activism and untold amounts of carnage, the Portland Bureau of Transportation is finally making an attempt to address the dangers that streetcar tracks pose to people riding bicycles.

PBOT has filed a grant application with the Transportation Research Board that would give them $150,000 in funding to work with Portland Streetcar Inc. and Portland State University to identify best practices and improve the safety of cycling around streetcar tracks.

This is an issue we’ve covered for over seven years.

As late as last August we reported that PBOT Planning Manager Art Pearce (he was a streetcar project manager back then) said he didn’t know of any internal effort to address the issue. And then in September we lamented that despite ongoing injuries there was still no substantial movement from PBOT to address the issue.

PBOT and PSI are well aware of the ongoing crashes caused by streetcar tracks in large part because of efforts by the volunteer non-profit group Active Right of Way. In December 2010 that group made a presentation to a table full of top PBOT and PSI staffers outlining several specific trouble spots and potential fixes. They also launched an online crash-reporting tool to track the number of incidents.

AROW meets with PBOT about streetcar-bike issues-1
A meeting at PBOT headquarters in January 2011 included the head of Portland Streetcar Rick Gustafson, PBOT streetcar project managers, and activists from Active Right of Way. Yet years later, very little has changed.

Yet despite this activism and hundreds of falls, broken limbs, and bloodshed, PBOT and PSI have not taken serious steps to address the issues. Instead, they released a video aimed at educating people on how to ride around the tracks.

This perspective that the issue was simply a matter of people riding more carefully was shared by former PBOT Director Tom Miller. Miller’s lack of urgency about the issue likely had a lot to do with his experience riding in Amsterdam and the Netherlands, where there are a lot tracks and people manage to ride over and around them without problems.

But now there’s a new director at PBOT (Leah Treat) and this grant application also comes out as Dan Bower, former head of PBOT’s Active Transportation Division, transitions into his new role as Executive Director of Portland Streetcar. For what it’s worth, Bower is a frequent bike rider who has first-hand experience on what it’s like to navigate around tracks.

This grant application is the first time we’ve heard the City of Portland officially acknowledge that safety issues exist and that they will take some responsibility to mitigate it.

Here’s a key line from the ordinance that will be heard at City Council this Wednesday:

“Analysis of crash history and community feedback indicate that there is a safety issue associated with people riding bicycles on or across streetcar tracks in Portland’s central city.”

We plan to look more closely at what type of safety solutions are being considered by the city. One source confirms that PSI has been testing a flange-filler in their maintenance yard. Flange fillers are placed in the groove of the tracks and are meant to depress only by the weight of a streetcar, while remaining flush at all other times. These devices have been around for many years (there’s a discussion about them by a City of Portland employee in 1996 preserved online), but they have typically not been very durable. (see update below)

Stay tuned for more coverage on this issue. For background browse our rail track safety story archives.

UPDATE/CORRECTION, 12:58 pm: It turns out that we received bad information and PSI is not currently testing flange-fillers. We regret any confusion our story caused.

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Comments
  • Huey Lewis April 14, 2014 at 10:23 am

    Carnage? You don’t do this subject any favors when you make people (surely I’m not the only one) roll their eyes and sigh loudly with great annoyance with the first sentence of an article.

    Also, lift your front tire. Like an inch.

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    • Spiffy April 14, 2014 at 10:45 am

      lifting your front tire isn’t an option for many… often I can do that, but sometimes it’s just not possible… for some it’s always impossible…

      I’ve found that I just need to ensure I have a good approach angle and hold onto my handlebars extra tight…

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      • Reza April 14, 2014 at 11:39 am

        The tracks don’t move! Just a quick flick of the handlebars when you cross the tracks to ensure a perpendicular crossing angle is all you need.

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        • ed April 14, 2014 at 12:14 pm

          agree with Reza. this is an extremely simple maneuver and you will never have a problem. This is how everyone in Amsterdam knows to cross tracks. Far more tracks in the street in Amsterdam and it is not a problem.

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      • GlowBoy April 14, 2014 at 11:42 am

        Spiffy’s right that it’s not always possible to lift your front tire. For example, when riding a cargo bike.

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    • Reza April 14, 2014 at 11:37 am

      +1 Huey. The untold carnage!!! Oh, the horror.

      Very disingenuous to complain about Joe Rose and his writing when you do the exact same thing about this one pet issue.

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    • Champs April 14, 2014 at 11:40 am

      Not all of us are playing games with the streetcar tracks. Report back when you hit 00 on that roulette wheel.

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    • Todd Hudson April 14, 2014 at 12:01 pm

      Carnage
      ˈkärnij/
      noun

      1.the killing of a large number of people.
      synonyms: slaughter, massacre, mass murder, butchery, bloodbath, bloodletting, gore; holocaust, pogrom, ethnic cleansing
      “an unforgettable scene of carnage”

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    • Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) April 14, 2014 at 12:50 pm

      Thanks for the comment Huey. I think my characterization is accurate. The streetcar tracks have caused thousands of people to fall and hurt themselves. Everyone that has lived in Portland for a few years likely knows someone that has been hurt from a streetcar track fall.

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      • Huey Lewis April 14, 2014 at 1:58 pm

        Look, I know they cause people to fall. In ’98 I moved to Austin and fell one day on some old tracks just outside of downtown. It sucked. But what are we to do? It’s an urban environment and sharp corners are everywhere. Many people ride over the tracks just fine. Someone just rode over them riiiiiight now. And now! And now!

        I don’t think this is some conspiracy to hurt cyclists. I do think it’s something you have to pay a *tiny* bit of attention when you encounter.

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        • Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) April 14, 2014 at 2:02 pm

          Huey,
          I never said there was a conspiracy theory. I simply stated that PBOT and PSI have known about the issue for a very long time and they have done almost nothing about it at all. And given the amount of crashes and injuries these tracks have caused, I think calling it carnage is appropriate.

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          • Aaronf April 15, 2014 at 8:50 am

            I think your perception of this issue may be clouded by your Mom’s injury on tracks. PBOT and PSI know about a ton of safety issues. Transport has never been safe. This one may have fewer cost effective options than other critical infrastructure safety upgrades. Tough to say from the outside, as a non-expert. Have you asked any experts?

            Anyway, you don’t have to agree with me, but look at the up votes: your readers are tired of the carnage drumbeat. Think of something else, please! I know car carnage sounds slick for bike vs car polemics, but the shoe just doesn’t fit. Like saying the tracks have massacred hundreds. Would that be too far? Would it be inappropriate to say the tracks raped your mother’s vacation? I’m so confused. I’m not cut out for PR I guess.

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    • El Biciclero April 14, 2014 at 1:23 pm

      “Drivers, come on! It’s a quick e-brake with a flick of the steering wheel to countersteer, and you can whip around all those too-tight corners with ease. I don’t understand why it’s so hard! Quit your whining!”

      Do we design streets with obstacles that require stunt-like driving skills? No? If we don’t expect the average driver to attend precision driving school, why do so many expect the average cyclist to be able to “bunny-hop” obstacles or “lift a wheel” to cross tracks?

      Granted, with some practice “lifting a wheel” isn’t too hard on most bikes, as long as there is enough advance warning and the rider has the arm strength to do it. But to expect skills other than starting, stopping, and turning from the average cyclist is yet another way to exclude the “interested but concerned”.

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  • Richard Risemberg April 14, 2014 at 10:31 am

    Flange fillers or not, people still have to be careful. Tracks can be slick, with or without fillers. Bikeways should always, as everyone knows, route riders over tracks at a somewhat obtuse angle.

    At the same time, streetcars can add more capacity to a roadway than even bicycling can, using very little square footage per passenger, so they’re not a bad thing.

    I ride around 150 miles a week here in LA, but also often use our growing network of heavy and light rail trains, which includes some street-running segments. And I cross train and tram tracks several times a week. crashed once, going over an abandoned street-running rail spur, but it was my own fault: I was trying to see what was the shallowest angle at which I could cross it successfully. I found out, too: it was the next-to-last one. (About thirty degrees, with 700×28 Marathons.)

    To see bikes and trams casually co-existing, take a look at this video from Barcelona in 1908:

    http://www.bicyclefixation.com/blog/archives/00000299.html

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    • Scott H April 14, 2014 at 11:06 am

      You must have some fancy high speed street cars down there in LA. Ours seem to crawl along and 1/2 mile an hour and hold up traffic.

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      • Reza April 14, 2014 at 11:47 am

        And it’s one of the most productive transit lines in the entire region. Your point?

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    • Paul in the 'Couve April 14, 2014 at 11:47 am

      A bus can easily add nearly as much capacity without requiring tracks and in Portland with the short blocks requiring very short street cars, and the way seating is designed in the street cars, I think buses typically have greater capacity.

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    • charlie April 14, 2014 at 2:04 pm

      I don’t know that that really proves anything. People that time weren’t exactly big on safety the way we are today- workers were horribly injured in factories all the time, and they just accepted it as part of life. You can also show a video of people crossing tracks here, on *most of the time* it looks fine. But it’s the 1 in 10,000 times that it isn’t fine, that’s the problem.

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  • Nicholas Skaggs April 14, 2014 at 10:33 am

    $150,000 to do a study to “identify best practices and improve the safety of cycling around streetcar tracks?”

    1. Cross tracks at a 90° angle.
    2. Use caution when wet.
    3. Ride around on tires bigger than 700×23/25.

    I’ll take my $150,000 now, thanks.

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    • charlie April 14, 2014 at 2:09 pm

      Uh, no.
      1. Sometimes tracks cross the street at weird angles. Or maybe I have to swerve suddenly to avoid something (like a car). It’s not always possible to cross at 90 degrees.
      2. Sometimes it rains here. We still need to be able cross tracks. Telling people “use caution” is like saying “yeah, we know this is dangerous, but we don’t care enough to do something about it.”
      3. Skinny tires are a lot easier and more efficient for urban riding. The city should build roads that can accommodate them, not force everyone into riding on mountain bikes.

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      • davemess April 14, 2014 at 5:54 pm

        your number 2 ties right into number one. Wet tracks are also infinitely easier to cross at right angles. Sure there are a few places in town this might not be completely possible. But there are many where it is (more if you slow down quite a bit).

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      • Laura Sadowski April 15, 2014 at 9:47 pm

        I see a fair number of crashes at the intersection of 10th & Lovejoy that I have stopped counting. There are curves on the streetcar lines and cars parking nearby and difficulty figuring out how to get around both. NW Marshall was altered from an all-cobblestone street to a paved patch for bicycle commuters so they could avoid Lovejoy and the Streetcar tracks. Not all bicyclists are cyclists. Education is required.

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    • Scott H April 17, 2014 at 10:49 am

      Yeah, this is what gets me. What an absurd amount of money to ‘study’ this.

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  • matheas michaels April 14, 2014 at 10:54 am

    car·nage
    ˈkärnij/Submit
    noun

    the killing of a large number of people.

    synonyms: slaughter, massacre, mass murder, butchery, bloodbath, bloodletting, gore

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    • Todd Hudson April 14, 2014 at 12:07 pm

      But don’t you dare say “cyclist”! Ever.

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      • matheas michaels April 14, 2014 at 12:10 pm

        *giggle*

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    • Pete April 14, 2014 at 5:10 pm

      I think Jonathan meant to say “streetcar·nage”.

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  • JNE April 14, 2014 at 11:00 am

    Please no talk of flange fillers – that sounds waaay too expensive, and probably not effective (the groove is only part of the hazard). Education and signage will prevent ‘carnage.’

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  • John Liu April 14, 2014 at 11:17 am

    “. . . riding in Amsterdam and the Netherlands, where there are a lot [of] tracks and people manage to ride over and around them without problems.”

    I think most of the solution is right there. Riding over and around tracks is a basic skill that should be possessed by competent urban cyclists.

    At the same time, bike lanes/routes should be mapped to avoid routing bicyclists alongside tracks, and to cross tracks at safe angles.

    I can see using flange fillers in a few key spots where they would be most useful given the natural angle of crossing bicycles. Maintaining 20 foot stretches of filler would be easier than trying to maintain filler through the streetcar/MAX network.

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  • David McCabe April 14, 2014 at 11:18 am

    I think we can plot a middle course here: When bicycling, you have to be careful of many types of pavement hazards, including streetcar tracks, and it is always possible to cross tracks without crashing. With that being said, many of the intersections, such as Lovejoy and 9th, are designed in a way that makes it quite difficult to approach the tracks at a safe angle, without also impeding traffic or getting run off the road by autos. These intersections can’t be dug up and redesigned, but changes to signals, paint, and signage could help a lot.

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    • Spiffy April 14, 2014 at 11:45 am

      Lovejoy and 9th is the worst! tons of bike traffic and weirdly angled tracks…

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      • Laura Sadowski April 15, 2014 at 9:49 pm

        Lovejoy & 10th is the worst! Lovejoy and 9th is not so bad because it has a dedicated turn lane for cyclists. And, it crosses the tracks at the proper angle.

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  • TOM April 14, 2014 at 11:20 am

    crossing MAX tracks is just like crossing into a driveway, ALWAYS AT A RIGHT (90 degree) ANGLE. Else you will hit a cement/steel derailleur . (and get “carnaged” )

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    • Dave Thomson April 14, 2014 at 9:52 pm

      We must immediately fix all those driveway transitions before the interested but clueless hurt themselves.

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      • El Biciclero April 15, 2014 at 10:32 am

        Well, to be fair, driveway transitions don’t usually present themselves at a 30-degree angle in the middle of the travel way.

        It’s fun being experienced and skilled, able to flout road hazards like dodging bullets in the Matrix(tm), but we can’t expect that level of “flow” from everybody just trying to find their way around and get from A to B.

        I’ve had plenty of times when I’m watching for lane change opportunities, keeping my eye on side traffic, being startled by a sudden engine-revver, dodging signage placed in the bike lane, any number of things, and hit a surface “irregularity” that I wished I wouldn’t have. And I know every dip, crack, manhole cover, concrete patch, MAX track, root heave, expansion joint, and thermoplastic speed bump along my entire 10-mile commute. It just isn’t always possible to optimize crossing locations and angles for every hazard, especially tracks.

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  • john April 14, 2014 at 11:21 am

    These streetcars are a waste of our taxpayer money and a hazard to bicyclists….what’s wrong with buses? or (if we need overhead wires) electric trolley busses?…both options are more flexible and cost effective….

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    • Opus the Poet April 15, 2014 at 9:05 am

      What’s “wrong” with buses is the damage they do to the streets. Frequent heavy buses are like frequent heavy trucks except the weight is not as gently distributed over many axles.

      Streetcars are steel wheels on steel rails, a “road” that can last decades with minimal maintenance. Also the commitment to continuing a route is much higher with a streetcar that requires expensive capital changes to move a route compared to buses that just quit one day and never come back. People tend to move to areas with close access to streetcars because there is a commitment to cheaper transportation in the infrastructure.

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      • Alan 1.0 April 15, 2014 at 12:25 pm

        A road bed that supports a rail trolley will support a trackless trolley without damage to the bed. To remain durable instead of steel rails, the wear surface needs to be high-grade concrete or stone. Similar capital investment results in similar commitment to the route.

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  • Chris Smith April 14, 2014 at 11:26 am

    I facilitated the meeting in that picture, and am also frustrated that so little has actually happened. I’m glad we’re putting some resources behind this.

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  • RH April 14, 2014 at 11:28 am

    If they put flange fillers in some tracks and not others, then you know some chump will sue if they fall on the non-flange area just because they’ll be assuming it’s on all rail tracks.

    If someone trips while stelpping up to a curb, does that mean all curbs need a ramp….!!

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  • Bike Commuter April 14, 2014 at 11:29 am

    Streetcar tracks are not the only problem around, although they impact the most people. There are lots of abandoned tracks in the NW that are very bad. It is even worse as you move North and West. These are not working tracks as many are only short segments that are left over. The paving is breaking up around them and it is very hard to ride around them safely.

    Why do we allow these to continue to exist? Why aren’t the businesses that are on the street not required to remove them?

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    • Spiffy April 14, 2014 at 11:48 am

      like on NW 15th… it’s an abandoned-track minefield…

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  • Brian Davis April 14, 2014 at 11:44 am

    I for one am delighted to hear about PBOT and PSU joining forces to look at this issue, and am a little surprised that the first wave of commenters seems to be pooh-poohing the idea.

    Traffic safety 101: The user is always culpable to some extent in a crash, but when you have an inordinate number of crashes clustered around a particular piece of infrastructure, you can bet the infrastructure shares some of the blame. That’s certainly the case with the Streetcar tracks.

    It’s worth noting that the MAX runs on the same gauge of track as the Streetcar, however MAX tracks haven’t been problematic for bike riders. Why? Because with its exclusive lanes, people are almost always crossing the MAX tracks perpendicularly. By contrast, the Streetcar tracks wind their way through the city streets, often presenting bicycles with no optimal angle to cross (think 4th and Harrison), and share lanes with other traffic requiring bicycles to “merge” over them at acute angles.

    While I agree that skilled riders on relatively fat-wheeled bikes can navigate these obstacles without a ton of difficulty, we have made grandiose statements about growing Portland’s bicycle modal share to 25% of all trips. Having identified the Streetcar tracks as being disproportionately hazardous to new and less-skilled riders, it seems pretty apparent that we should be looking at infrastructure fixes in addition to rider education, particularly with bike share on the way (holding my breath on that).

    If some mitigation is identified that can reduce crashes on the tracks by any significant amount, it not only represents a concrete safety benefit, but also reduces the stress of bicycling in the central city which will bring about greater ridership, which in turn benefits safety itself. Kudos to PBOT for actively pursuing a fix here and backing off the old “learn to ride” mentality.

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    • davemess April 14, 2014 at 12:32 pm

      So why has there never been decent public service announcement campaign to just get the word out to cyclists “CROSS TRACKS CAUTIOUSLY AT 90 DEGREES”. I am seeing signs out in East Portland telling drivers not to pass left turning cars in the bike lanes (granted they’re often ignored). But why not make these kind of billboards in the central city for cyclists. I think there are just too many people out there who haven’t been taught how to safely cross tracks.

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      • Pete April 14, 2014 at 5:16 pm

        Good point, but they’d be as effective as the ones on the highways that say “Slower Traffic Keep Right” and “Keep Right Except to Pass” (or the ones that say “Speed Limit 25 MPH”).

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        • davemess April 14, 2014 at 5:55 pm

          Those things actually work with enforcement. (Don’t think that would help here though)

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    • Laura Sadowski April 15, 2014 at 9:51 pm

      Nice response Mr. B Davis!

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  • John Liu April 14, 2014 at 11:46 am

    I don’t think businesses are normally responsible to maintain the roads that they border, any more than homeowners are responside for repaving their own residential streets.

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    • CaptainKarma April 14, 2014 at 12:48 pm

      …however, a question on a similar tangent: will businesses and corporations have to pay the monthly “road fee” being bandied about? If not, why not? And if so seems like $8 is nothing to Nike or Fred Meyer.

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  • GlowBoy April 14, 2014 at 11:53 am

    1. Yes, avoiding crashes on tracks is a basic skill. I’ve crossed them hundreds of times (if not more) and never crashed. It helps that I almost always run 38mm or wider tires.

    2. Despite that, I think we can agree that there are some pretty lousy track crossings for cyclists, that the streetcar routing and intersection design often failed to properly take cycling into account, and that much more could have been done to ensure that popular bike routes crossed the tracks at better angles.

    3. Lots of people are getting injured. I think almost all of us know someone who’s broken a bone in a crash on the streetcar tracks. Regardless of fault, let’s cut the victim-blaming and acknowledge that there IS a public safety problem here. There will always be some crashes no matter what we do, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to reduce them.

    And I say this as someone who is the FIRST to say suck it up and deal with it (as many people here will probably recall) when it comes to people complaining about cobbled streets, wintertime princess-and-the-pea gravel, or Hawthorne Bridge rumble strips. I think acute-angle rail crossings are an order of magnitude more serious safety hazard than those are.

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    • Steve B April 14, 2014 at 2:12 pm

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment.

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  • Granpa April 14, 2014 at 11:57 am

    $150,000 to set up a committee, to have meetings, meet with public, write up summary and revise summary, have public announcement of findings: there done! Now back to business as usual.

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  • jim April 14, 2014 at 11:58 am

    Just don’t ride bikes on streets with tracks.

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    • charlie April 14, 2014 at 1:47 pm

      Why not? Theyd be great streets to ride on if it werent fir the tracks. We shouldnt have to surrender a bike route every time they expand the streetcar.

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      • jim April 15, 2014 at 12:28 am

        We surrender a car lane every time they add a bike lane.

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        • El Biciclero April 15, 2014 at 8:04 am

          Not true, but even if it does happen that way, they don’t close the street to cars altogether, which is effectively what happens for bikes when a street is made too dangerous to ride on, or drivers take it upon themselves to “help” cyclists stay where they belong by driving aggressively enough to intimidate other road users.

          Here’s a question: In the absence of road construction, when is the last time you couldn’t go somewhere you wanted in your car, or had to go more than 2 miles out of your way to get where you wanted?

          Another question: when is the last time an undamaged road put you in fear of rolling your vehicle, other than during a snowstorm?

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        • Mij April 15, 2014 at 8:47 am

          I’m not originally from here, but are all the following examples true? Highway 30 used to be 6 lanes now cut down to 4? Terwilliger was 4 lanes now cut down to two? Inner SE Burnside is 3 lanes one-way with a bike lane. You’re telling me it used to be 4 lanes? There have to be numerous examples where paint was put down where there was already space. It’s the lowest hanging fruit.

          Lets forget about your hyperbole for second though. I still get to drive my car on a street where a bike lane was added, but I don’t get to ride my bike on a street where a rail line was added. Since you don’t like to write anything longer than one sentence, I’m a little unclear on your suggestion. Does it mean never crossing a track? That walls off a lot of the city.

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        • Dan April 15, 2014 at 8:58 am

          Would you prefer to surrender a parking lane? Have bikes take the lane in all cases? What needs to happen for you to share?

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  • Paul in the 'Couve April 14, 2014 at 12:10 pm

    Interesting that this comes up today because I rode downtown extensively twice last week. My usual trips involved simply crossing downtown and following habitual routes that I have worked out over years to be efficient and safe. Because of Vancouver Spring break I was able to enjoy two days of running errands and hanging out downtown in PDX by bicycle. Usually when I have an opportunity to just spend time down town several factors cause me to take public transit and walk or just drive and park. So although I ride downtown regularly, taking impromptu trips by bicycle, even knowing my way around, I got the opportunity to look at cycling down town from a more “newbie” perspective. Just hopping on my bike and riding from point A to point B and knowing how to get “there” choosing routes for safe and convenient cycling is not intuitive. The street car tracks certainly make it significantly more challenging.

    I am a fairly skilled, experienced rider and I admit, I did not crash or fear crashing. I was riding upright with 28mm tires on a bike that isn’t very encouraging for Bunny Hopping. I was also carrying purchases on my bike so that made me feel like I had less ability to rely on showing off my mad maneuvering skills.

    Anyway, I did find the street car tracks frustrating overall. There is no doubt to me that they are an added hazard that interferes with cycling. Even though I know my way around generally, while riding and navigating by memory and land marks I kept encountering sections of track I would have preferred to avoid. Worse, I sometimes made the choice to ride the center of the tracks, which I’m generally fine with, but then found myself in situations where another track is merging into the one I’m riding on, or the track is turning or bulbing out and then turning etc… Again, I chose to ride there. I felt relatively confident doing it. I was not in fear of falling. But, But BUT… Laying down street car track definitely takes away from cycling, makes route finding more complicated, makes it harder for newer cyclists and people less familiar with facilities, and adds a real hazard and risk. Finally, this was on a nice, sunny dry day in mid day. At night and in the rain these hazards are increased.

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  • Zaphod April 14, 2014 at 12:14 pm

    Any study of significant value costs real dollars. $150k is actually a small amount. It’s big to you & me and would change my universe to have such a sum in my bank account.

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  • John Lascurettes April 14, 2014 at 12:53 pm

    Forget the tracks. What about some of the spaces between tracks, particularly around rails that cross each other? The pavement condition at the intersection of SW Morrison and SW 10th comes to mind. It’s a hazard to people on bikes or on foot.

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  • Shoemaker April 14, 2014 at 12:58 pm

    This is really not a problem of educating end users. Enough with the “in the Netherlands people know how to cross tracks…” In the Netherlands light rail is not sharing the lane with motor vehicle traffic, let alone bike traffic. Each mode has a dedicated facility. They might seem to be in close proximity, but there is typically some physical separation (raised bumps, bollards, curb, etc.) that preclude riding a bicycle in any way parallel to the light rail tracks such that you might get your wheel locked in and crash.

    Last week PBOT put a “Right Lane Closed Ahead” sign right in the bike lane on Lovejoy leading up to the Broadway bridge which forced riders out on to the tracks. With this level of awareness, we have a long way to go before there is recognition that the street car, like the MAX needs to *not* share the lane.

    Mixing the light rail and motor vehicle and bike traffic is just a bad idea. It is an engineered conflict and the results are not ambiguous. It is dangerous. Don’t blame the users.

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  • Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) April 14, 2014 at 1:00 pm

    Please note: It turns out that Portland Streetcar Inc. is not currently testing flange-fillers. We reported that they were based on information from a source at PSI but it turns out they are not. Sorry for any confusion.

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  • Champs April 14, 2014 at 1:01 pm

    As usual, lots of naïveté and victim-blaming here.

    The risk/reward of riding between the rails is never worth it. The problem is that crossing the tracks is also a serious fall hazard, yet it is necessary to do this on routes marked as “safe” for riding. Treating them like gnarly trails or winding mountain roads for thrillseekers is missing the point.

    I could use the money, but I’ve got some free advice for this $150k study. For starters, a few nasty speed bumps on every block would be a deterrent to riding between the rails. Then you just need flange filler at the intersection. If it’s material that costs, you can put short runs of it in the gaps in well-marked places. If it’s labor, then run it at intersections with bike routes. You’re welcome.

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  • Steve B April 14, 2014 at 2:32 pm

    Thanks Jonathan for your continuing coverage of this issue. Reviewing the comments, there seem to be some misconceptions around the scope of this issue.

    AROW has collected 180+ crash reports over 3 years, many reports coming from experienced riders. We know because we asked them. Education is important, but it is not the only measure necessary to prevent crashes. I recently returned from a trip to the Netherlands and not once was I ever put in a position where I might slip on the streetcar tracks in cities like Amsterdam and Utrecht. Often if I did encounter tracks, the bikeways and crossings would be designed to cross the tracks at a 90 degree angle, as other readers have pointed out, it’s a best practice and it should be incorporated into Portland streetcar planning.

    The issues around the new Portland streetcar line in particular have a lot to do with the location of the streetcar tracks in the right of way. Many of the crashes on the new line are on Lovejoy, MLK and Grand Ave. I appreciate some folks may have great biking skills and don’t believe they are in danger of crashing, but others hope for a city where the barriers to bicycling are few and far between. Many of these crashes are preventable and it starts at the design level.

    We have opportunities to improve the safety of biking parallel to streetcar tracks and I commend the city for acknowledging the issue and working toward creative solutions. For more info on why AROW took on the issue please see: http://www.activerightofway.org/p/why-arow-is-working-on-streetcarbikeway-safety/

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  • J_R April 14, 2014 at 3:35 pm

    My wife crashed on some tracks near downtown Portland a few years ago. She was riding a bike with 28mm tires, crossed at very nearly 90 degrees (maybe 80 degrees), but went down hard. She had a compound fracture of one arm and a cracked pelvis. I did not witness the crash and can’t tell you exactly what caused it, but as I described above she was demonstrably following the basic rules so many of you claim will prevent crashes.

    Lest you think this crash was a newbie, I’d tell you my wife has spent some time at the Alpenrose Velodrome, commuted for years, ridden the STP in one day, and ridden across the USA and France.

    Like may of you, I used to think it was simply operator error. After seeing the results, I’m not so smug. It can happen to you.

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    • dwainedibbly April 14, 2014 at 5:27 pm

      I hope your wife made a full and uneventful recovery!

      There are two kinds of riders in Portland: those who have crashed on the streetcar tracks, and those who are going to crash on the streetcar tracks. I ride 650B x 38mm tires around town, but I’m still VERY careful around the tracks, especially as I get older. (Maybe I should crash now, while my bones can still heal, and get it over with?)

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    • AG April 14, 2014 at 8:09 pm

      I have commuted every day year-round downtown on bike for three years. I am always cautious when crossing the tracks but must inevitably do so a couple of times each day and had my second crash two weeks ago. I was proceeding carefully at slow speed and crossed at probably 60 degrees (I was traveling parallel and had to cross to make a right turn). the tracks were wet and I went down.

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  • Jim Lee April 14, 2014 at 5:16 pm

    Why does Portland Streetcar, Inc., actually exist?

    Never have I detected the slightest ability of anyone involved therewith actually to design anything…except “transit appliances”…certainly useful, but which have little or nothing to do with the dynamics of cycling or any other mode of transport.

    TriMet, on the other hand, has generated little or no conflict with any other mode of transport, because it actually employs people who know what they are doing, and who understand the basic meaning and technical implications of “design.”

    Perhaps if Portland Streetcar, Inc., deigned to allow us to testify at its board meetings, things would be different.

    At least we could generate useful noise in its echo chamber.

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  • Alan 1.0 April 14, 2014 at 8:27 pm

    random comments & omnibus replies…

    There are streetcar tracks in Amsterdam, bike lanes cross the tracks and they don’t all cross at 90°: example

    Tandems are another model of bike that’s not practical for wheel hops. Even with 235s, I’m damn careful around tracks.

    Swerving the front wheel across tracks is all well and good but at acute angles the back one can still slip or slot into the gap and take the rider down.

    Besides crossings, PBOT needs to address locations where riding parallel to tracks is necessary; MLK and Grand are examples.

    I’m under the impression that there are way more bike-person trips than streetcar-person trips in Portland. True or false? Sources?

    ‘jim’ has it almost right, just a tweak to his words: don’t put tracks on streets where bikes travel.

    Thanks, ‘john,’ for (almost) sparing me the urge to say trackless trolley.

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  • Scott B April 14, 2014 at 11:41 pm

    As a former Pearl District Resident I have TWO crossings I like to call the HOLY HEAVEN STREETCAR TRACK MURDER INTERSECTIONS – It is VIRTUALLY IMPOSSIBLE to cross the tracks on these streets without having at least one close shave with hitting one of them at a bad angle.

    Namely the horror zone at NW 15th & Northrup and NW 11th & Lovejoy.

    After all the times I have had close calls and have contacted PBOT regularly with my concerns it’s about time that this finally has something done about it.

    I lost count a couple years ago how many close shaves and actual wipeouts I have had because of these tracks and thats with someone who rode over them nearly everyday.

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  • John Liu April 15, 2014 at 8:06 am

    What do folks think can be done to make streetcar tracks safer for cyclists?

    Don’t say “move the tracks” because that isn’t going to happen. The city is committed to light rail (and should be, in my view), and the cost of moving a couple miles of track would probably wipe out years of funding for bike lanes, cyclepaths, and other bike projects.

    Other than flange fillers, which may or may not work, and better riding skills, which does work, what solution does anyone have to offer?

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    • Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) April 15, 2014 at 8:47 am

      The solution is to have a legally mandated set-aside… a.k.a. a percentage of funding from every rail project that must be spent on an adjacent, separated bikeway. If PSI and PBOT truly care about bike safety and bikeway design, they would be willing to put their money where their mouth is.

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      • Aaronf April 15, 2014 at 9:06 am

        What percentage? I don’t see how setting a fixed % helps, since some intersections will require more $ to upgrade than others… but since you do (or I misunderstand) what % should go to bikes to make you satisfied?

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        • Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) April 15, 2014 at 9:12 am

          I’m not sure what the percentage should be, but there are smart people that could figure it out. My feeling is that any little gadget or attempt to simply make the tracks “safer for cyclists” will be a band-aid… The true fix is to simply make high-quality separated bikeways… And to do that requires funding. If we are truly a multi-modal city we should be able structure our funding mechanisms in a more multi-modal way.

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          • spare_wheel April 15, 2014 at 10:16 am

            “The true fix is to simply make high-quality separated…”

            could you please explain how protection of a bike lane helps fix streetcar crossings.

            (sometimes it seems like this site advocates for a single solution to every cycling infrastructure problem.)

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            • Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) April 15, 2014 at 11:05 am

              Part of this problem, IMO, is that portland planners never put the bikeway as the #1 design priority on a street project. The bikeway always plays 2nd or 3rd fiddle to something “more important”. In the case of the Pearl and the eastside streetcar, clearly bikeways have been compromised for the streetcar project.

              Maybe saying simply “more separation” isn’t the right thing. I’m just saying we need to be smarter about bikeway network design and how streetcar impacts it. Seems to me one element of being smarter would be to create more dedicated bikeway space away from track conflicts.

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              • Aaronf April 15, 2014 at 12:12 pm

                One element. Now, the difference between a separate facility along 20% of tracks vs. 80% of tracks may be a lot of money wasted if most accidents occur in particular areas. Hopefully this study can identify cost effective solutions.

                One thing most big projects that get completed have going for them is a clear vision. So far, to me, your solution is “Smart people, think of something bold.” You want safe access for bikes throughout the city, but you don’t seem to have a clear trajectory for progress… just this sort of crowd riling carnage sensation.

                I do appreciate your willingness to constantly ask what your country can do for you. Someone probably should be. Plus, I think that unreasonable demands on both sides of a debate can have a desirable balancing effect. So just keep repeating “By the year 2030, PDX is committed to 20% bike ridership.” And keep publicly requesting infrastructure on a scale that shows that you truly believe they were serious about that projection. It can only help make the reasonable requests look more centrist, and slightly embarrass the folks tasked with fulfilling Vision Zero etc. Good work, really.

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          • Aaronf April 15, 2014 at 10:55 am

            The problem wouldn’t be solved with an earmark. The solution is to develop a consensus favoring your “simple” solution. If everybody at the table agrees that a particular intersection has reasonable access for bicycles, the problem is solved. That will be more realistic to implement than an earmark large enough to build a separated bicycle facility next to every single track. Nobody is gonna sign off on that.

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            • Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) April 15, 2014 at 11:07 am

              IMO it’s that type of thinking that is holding back cycling in America. Too many people are afraid to think big and ask for big things. Asking for and then lobbying for huge projects worth hundreds/billions of dollars is why freeways and bridges and streetcar lines get built. In a weird way, the sheer size and audacity of those projects helps them get built IMO.

              But most bike people are too afraid to ask for big things, so guess what, we are never taken seriously and we only get small things.

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      • grumpcyclist April 15, 2014 at 4:57 pm

        Unless your “adjacent, separated bikeway” tunnels under the street or goes well out of the way it’s going to cross rails somewhere downtown. How exactly would your separated bikeway deal with track crossings? You’ve been beating this drum for years but I’ve yet to see an actual proposed solution from you.

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    • El Biciclero April 15, 2014 at 11:38 am

      Maybe you can’t move the tracks, but we could allow cyclists greater freedom to move in the vicinity of the tracks. I can’t claim to have any familiarity with the configurations of streetcar tracks in NW or elsewhere, but it seems that at least some of the problems are caused by “forcing” cyclists into a narrow slice of street such that when tracks cross that slice at a sub-optimal angle, or an obstacle is present that someone on a bike must avoid, there is little room to maneuver into a 90-degree track-crossing angle. If we allowed cyclists full use of the entire street, there might be more choices in how and where to cross the tracks. If the city wants to make transit stew by mixing conflicting modes, they might also have to admit some “slow” cooking is necessary by marking a few blocks at 10-15 mph where all modes intersect in dangerous ways, then make sure that drivers know that cars are the guests in such “transit zones” and must yield to non-combustion modes.

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  • Chris I April 15, 2014 at 9:04 am

    The problem with streetcar tracks, as with any transportation issue in this city, is that we have compromised safety to accommodate motor vehicle traffic. Because the city did not want to remove vehicle lanes and create dedicated space for the streetcar, they have had to cram it into small ROWs, and cyclists end up getting what’s left over, which is usually not much. Imagine a street like Lovejoy with dedicated ROW streetcar line running down the middle, and bike lanes on both sides. No parked cars, no motor vehicle traffic. Imagine SE Grand and MLK with dedicated streetcar/bus lanes and a two-way cycle track. There is room, you just need to reduce the number of motor vehicle lanes from 4 to 3.

    As others have said, this is a problem in Europe. I have hopped streetcar tracks on a bike in Berlin, Copenhagen, Amsterdam, and several other cities. The difference there is that I don’t also have to worry about getting creamed by some SUV that is tailgating me, or someone dooring me with their Smartcar. We shouldn’t be fighting Portland Streetcar for transportation scraps, we should be working with them to get dedicated space for transit and bikes.

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    • MaxD April 15, 2014 at 9:50 am

      Chris I,
      correct me if I am wrong, but is my perception that Streetcar routes are not made as transportation systems, rather they are development-inducements. If BDS and/or PBOT had a bit more oversight and could dictate streetcar routes that were part of a well-integrated transportation plan, it would help. That said, I COMPLETELY agree with your assessment of the City being unwilling to make the hard/smart decision to strategically remove traffic lanes to create high-functioning, integrated transportation corridors.

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  • Nicholas Skaggs April 15, 2014 at 4:08 pm

    charlie
    3. Skinny tires are a lot easier and more efficient for urban riding. The city should build roads that can accommodate them, not force everyone into riding on mountain bikes.
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    Get with the times. Skinny tires are not more efficient than wide, supple tires. If anything, they’re way sketchier.

    Here’s an article to help you educate yourself on bike thought fresher than the 700×19 1980′s: http://janheine.wordpress.com/2014/01/01/tires-how-wide-is-too-wide/

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    • matheas michaels April 20, 2014 at 1:02 pm

      Wow, condescend much?

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    • El Biciclero April 21, 2014 at 11:55 am

      I don’t think I’ve ever ridden anything smaller than a 700×32, and tracks would still pose a problem if I hit them at the wrong angle, which is almost impossible to avoid in some locations without taking a wide swerve, which is nearly impossible sometimes due to auto traffic or other space constraints. Run tires as wide as you want, and they’ll still slip on tracks even if they don’t get caught in the flange. I’ve successfully lifted my front wheel over a track only to have my rear wheel hit at such an angle as to cause a pretty significant fishtail…there are all kinds of track scenarios that are unrelated (much) to tire size.

      Also, we don’t tell drivers, “well, just stiffen up your suspension and run some off-road tires…but only when you’re downtown. Or, just set up an ‘urban’ car for trips to town and keep your ‘nice’ car for other trips.”

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  • jim April 16, 2014 at 12:41 am

    I crashed on the tracks just once. That was close to forty years ago. I never did that again.

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  • jim April 16, 2014 at 12:44 am

    How did people deal with this back in the days when train tracks were all over town? There must have been cyclists laying on the ground all over the place. Oh the carnage. One hundred years ago we had trolleys running everywhere and rail spurs went to many warehouses.

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    • Lazy Spinner April 16, 2014 at 9:13 am

      I suppose folks back in the day paid attention, believed in appropriate risk behaviors, and had this weird notion called personal responsibility? Today, people expect their government to find millions of dollars to build things and pass laws that allow them to go about their business in the most oblivious way possible. If you can’t ride a bike in a glass smooth, car/track/pedestrian free environment that allows you to ruminate intently on the lyrics streaming through your earbuds or the random thoughts that occupy your consciousness at that moment, then society has clearly failed you and trampled upon your liberties.

      Now, if we could just get our brave bike advocrats to focus on 100% total bike safety and outlaw rain, snow, cold temperatures, hot temperatures, curbs, wind, attractive human beings, frightened squirrels, dogs, cell phones, ADHD, runners, power walkers, ambling tourists, homeless people in Waterfront Park, changes in grade, gravity…

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    • GlowBoy April 21, 2014 at 12:50 pm

      How did people deal with this 100 years ago, when we had lots of cyclists and tracks on the road? Lots of people crashed, that’s how. We had much lower standards for transportation safety back then. There WAS lots of carnage, but back then it was much more accepted as the part of the risk of daily life.

      One other thing that has changed is the financial impact of being injured in a crash. Health care is radically more expensive (even after adjusting for income inflation) than it was 100 years ago.

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      • GlowBoy April 21, 2014 at 12:53 pm

        To be more specific about healthcare costs: fixing a broken limb can now cost more than half the median annual personal income.

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  • El Biciclero April 17, 2014 at 8:34 am

    “…folks back in the day paid attention, believed in appropriate risk behaviors, and had this weird notion called personal responsibility?”

    Are you talking about drivers here? That would make a difference, as those on bikes might have a little more breathing room to maneuver around obstacles like tracks. If the tough kid at school keeps taking your lunch money, do you just quit eating lunch then? Quit going to school?

    “Today, people expect their government to find millions of dollars to build things and pass laws that allow them to go about their business in the most oblivious way possible.”

    Ah. You must mean things such as freeway interchanges and mandatory sidepath laws.

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