Special gravel coverage

A few ideas on how to improve streetcar track safety

Posted by on September 1st, 2011 at 9:22 am

On the Cherry Ave Bridge in Chicago, the tracks
are filled with rubber so bicycle riders
can roll over them without worry.
(Photo: Steven Vance)

As we continue to discuss the ongoing problem of streetcar tracks causing people to crash while bicycling in Portland, I thought it might be helpful to share some potential solutions.

Many of the current issues (track-straddling on the Lovejoy ramp, tracks in the curbside shoulder (former bikeway) on the MLK/Grand couplet, the craziness in the Pearl District) have to do with a new streetcar line not that’s not even slated to open until fall of next year. However, much of the track is already in the street and has already claimed a lot of bike-riding victims.

The way I see it, PBOT and Portland Streetcar Inc., (the private non-profit that builds and operates the streetcar under City contract) must look to some interim fixes in the short-term and a more permanent solution in the long term.

Since there are tracks in the ground right now and people are crashing in them, why not fill the tracks with a temporary material that can be removed later? Activists with the non-profit Active Right of Way have suggested something as simple as gravel to fill the track gaps. While riding down in South Waterfront the other day, I noticed rail tracks that had been filled in with pavement.

(Photo © J. Maus)

This seems like a cheap and easy solution that might prevent some bloodied bodies and broken bones until streetcars actually start running on the system.

A more long-term solution would be some sort of rubber-filled flangeways. The basic idea is that the rubber allows bike tires to move over the flanges without incident, but the weight of a streetcar depresses the rubber. Once the streetcar passes, the rubber rises back up again. Check the drawing below (which came from this webpage)…

Chicago resident and urban planner Steven Vance has extensively documented the challenging bike/streetcar track issue as well as his city’s use of such rubberized trackways on the Cherry Avenue Bridge. He has even made a video showing a bike riding over the tracks…

After someone shared Vance’s photos and information with me the other day, I forwarded it to local streetcar project officials. It wasn’t the first they’d heard about rubber-filled flangeways, but they said they’ll get in touch with the maker of the product to see if its application is feasible in Portland (one big difference is that the Cherry Avenue Bridge isn’t a major rail corridor – it serves only a few rail trips a month).

Streetcar and bicycling officials at PBOT have said in the past that rubber-filled flangeways won’t work in Portland, but as the injuries and crashes mount, perhaps they’ll give them another look (or perhaps work with the manufacturer to create a product that meets Portland streetcar needs).

The way I see it is, doing nothing is not an option. The tracks are in the ground and people continue to get hurt. The problem has been extensively documented and has existed for years without any significant action from streetcar or city officials (they’ve known about this issue since as far back as 1996!).

Like I’ve said in the past, imagine if this traffic hazard occurred in some other context. Would PBOT really just continue with business as usual while people incurred serious injuries due to an obstacle in the public right-of-way?

Similar to many transportation issues we grapple with, we don’t lack solutions, we lack the creativity and will to seek them out and implement them.

Stay tuned for more streetcar track/bicycling coverage.

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NOTE: We love your comments and work hard to ensure they are productive, considerate, and welcoming of all perspectives. Disagreements are encouraged, but only if done with tact and respect. If you see a mean or inappropriate comment, please contact us and we'll take a look at it right away. Also, if you comment frequently, please consider holding your thoughts so that others can step forward. Thank you — Jonathan

  • sabes September 1, 2011 at 9:34 am

    Or cyclists could just avoid the streetcar tracks.

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    • Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) September 1, 2011 at 9:36 am

      unfortunately sabes, many of the streetcar tracks have been placed where it is difficult to avoid. Regardless of how you think people should ride, we have had tracks in this town for many years, and the problem of crashing on them is as big as ever. Educating people about them would be great, but something in addition to that needs to be done.

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      • Paul Johnson September 2, 2011 at 6:33 pm

        It’s not hard to use the center or left lane on most streets that have the streetcar tracks, or use the next street over where there’s only one lane, if they’re that big of a hazard until something gets done. But again, Portland’s not as serious as some up and coming bicycle cities about actually providing adequate and complete facilities. Or we’d already have the flangeways filled with something springy bikes can roll over, we’d have sidewalks on the major cycleways, and the city wouldn’t dream of putting speed bumps on greenways.

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    • Dabby September 1, 2011 at 9:56 am

      Or we could tear the tracks out…..

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      • Alan 1.0 September 1, 2011 at 10:11 am

        Or change to rubber-tired street cars with guidance wires laid into the existing track channels and then covered flush to the street. Quieter and better traction in the occassional ice storm, too.

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      • Unit September 1, 2011 at 12:40 pm

        Comments like these remind me of drivers complaining about how bike facilities interfere with their rights as a driver. Sharing the road means everyone – us too.

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        • Alan 1.0 September 1, 2011 at 2:23 pm

          Yup. But when there is a solution which solves the safety hazard to bikes and the annoyance to cars (straddling), and still has the appeal to adjacent property and business owners of dedicated infrastructure (specially paved lane to support the trolley), that would seem to me to be the optimal form of sharing for this case.

          (pardon if this shows up twice; once seemingly disappeared)

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    • Paul Souders September 1, 2011 at 10:08 am

      Blame the victim much? Try crossing downtown in any direction without riding along or across train, Max, or streetcar tracks.

      There are two kinds of bike commuters in Portland: those who have bit it on tracks downtown, and those who will. When it happens, it happens quickly and unexpectedly, and it doesn’t spare experienced riders.

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      • cyclist September 1, 2011 at 1:08 pm

        I rode my bike downtown every work day from 2001-2011, both to PSU and SW 6th Ave, somehow I managed to avoid falling on the streetcar and the MAX tracks. I guess you can call me one of “those who will”, but considering I’ve never had a close call and am smart enough to know how to ride around them (cross at a perpendicular or as close to it as possible) I imagine I’ll have another 10 years without an injury.

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        • Bjorn September 2, 2011 at 5:53 pm

          Wait until some construction occurs by them and an official bike detour leads you right into a trench, I luckily wasn’t hurt, but it destroyed a front wheel. I have to agree with the above comment ride long enough and eventually you will get nailed by one of the many tracks in this town.

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  • 9watts September 1, 2011 at 9:49 am

    “Streetcar and bicycling officials at PBOT have said in the past that rubber-filled flangeways won’t work in Portland.”
    One would like to know their explanation.

    Let us imagine blind people, or–heaven forbid–people in cars were routinely flung onto the pavement of particular intersections because of an infrastructural quirk that made passage for certain groups treacherous. Who knew that there were clever technical solutions to this problem?

    Great work on this, Jonathan!

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    • Chris Smith September 1, 2011 at 10:20 am

      The flange-fillers we have looked at in the past have had a risk of derailment for the vehicle. We continue to look for new materials and will definitely check out the product show in the video/picture.

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      • Alexis September 7, 2011 at 9:43 am

        I asked about this in 2009 during my first episode of research around track safety. At that time I was unable to find any sign that there was a material able to handle streetcar-frequency traffic. I hope the answer might be different now though!

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    • was carless September 1, 2011 at 5:49 pm

      Freight trains weigh considerably more than a streetcar. It is possible that the hard rubber on certain flange fillers could lift a streetcar flanged wheel out of the track, causing it to derail (especially around sharp corners), running over and killing people in cars, bikes, and walking.

      That would not be pretty.

      What about using soft rubber mats near streetcar/bike crossing point? That way, even if your tire slips, the soft rubber would help it to not slide out from under you.

      Also, what do the Dutch do?


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  • A.K. September 1, 2011 at 9:56 am

    I wonder if the spring-back in the rubber breaks down if it is compressed too many times? That may explain why it works on a bridge that is used a few times a month vs. every 20 minutes.

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    • Chris I September 1, 2011 at 10:13 am


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  • Bryan Dorr September 1, 2011 at 10:01 am

    Any chance the exposed abandoned freight railroad tracks embedded in the streets in the NW industrial and Pearl District can be removed? I’ve gone down a few times on those, too.

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  • Greg September 1, 2011 at 10:02 am

    Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor)
    unfortunately sabes, many of the streetcar tracks have been placed where it is difficult to avoid. Regardless of how you think people should ride, we have had tracks in this town for many years, and the problem of crashing on them is as big as ever. Educating people about them would be great, but something in addition to that needs to be done.

    …if only there were a book that could warn new riders of this (and other) dangers of cycling in an urban environment. 😉

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  • Ross Williams September 1, 2011 at 10:03 am

    Be careful what you wish for. Are there “solutions” or are bike safety and streetcar tracks just incompatible? If its the latter, then one solution is to ban bikes on streets with tracks. Its a more likely solution than tearing up the tracks.

    I don’t think streetcar tracks are a threat if you are always careful. The problem is that people are not always careful or even aware they need to be. Perhaps the only real solution IS better warnings and making it clear that use of streetcar ROW is risky on a bike and requires extra caution.

    The idea of rubber flanges that fail, with the failure “discovered” when a cyclist expects to be protected, does not sound like a solution at all. It will just introduce a false sense of safety.

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  • q`Tzal September 1, 2011 at 10:07 am

    the current economic climate,
    the lack of political will to spend tax dollars on an unproven (in our area) solution…
    We can infer that nothing will change.

    Possible remedy:
    remove the economic impediment.
    Find some way to pay for installation privately (collections, fund drive, injury lawsuit payout) with oversight from the responsible local government agencies and a rep from both the manufacturer and a DOT official from prior installation site. Record and compare before and after crash data.

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  • SJ September 1, 2011 at 10:13 am

    We might lack creativity and will, but we also lack money. I’m guessing that this is an expensive addition to the rails.

    I think you do a wonderful job as a bike advocate, Jonathan, but even this liberal daily bike commuter thinks that cyclists need to ride over a block, period. I do not need the redundant signage, the confusing lights (for drivers, IMO), the sharrows, the rubber-filled rails. I rode for years before all these without incident. Do they help overall? Probably. But the ultimate responsibility lies with the walker, the cyclist and the driver. This is only my view, but all these “fixes” feel like coddling to me. I dislike cars very much, and all the infrastructure devoted to them, but it is very difficult for me to fault that infrastructure for blood and broken bones, especially when cyclists, myself included, can very easily avoid running parallel to any tracks. I’ve said it before, here, on your site: I ride to get exercise, experience the weather and save money; I do not think that I need to always take the most direct route because that should be my right. If I need to go around an obstacle, it might cost me a few minutes–the easy price to pay, for me, for living in a city that values affordable mass transit.

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    • 9watts September 1, 2011 at 10:22 am

      I used to be in your camp, SJ, and think that it is important to not lose sight of what you are saying. At the same time, it isn’t clear to me why (see the signage article yesterday evening, the recent Street Smart campaign http://tinyurl.com/435vp69 , or this issue of street car tracks) why bicycling is still treated as discretionary, as something frivolous, as not worthy of the respect and infrastructural accommodations that cars get.

      Sure, cyclists can make lots of exceptions: avoid the arterials, avoid the street car tracks, avoid doorings, right hooks…. but what does this add up to? What message does this send to the majority who don’t yet bike but who soon will?

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      • SJ September 1, 2011 at 10:32 am

        All good points. But when is enough enough? For example, going down Broadway every morning, I cross Hwy 30. At the light near the on-ramp, there is a white sign that says “No turn on red.” Perfect. Drivers, including myself, need to pay attention to this sign. Just before the bike light turns green, to signal riders going west, another red light comes on that says, again, “No turn on red”–we mean it this time! I mean, great; it calls extra attention, I guess, and I can’t argue with stats that might prove its effectiveness, but is it good design? Can it perhaps distract a driver? I really do appreciate everything that is in place for cyclists, but I wonder about fixing every possible “problem” at the risk of *appearing* to be a class of travelers who can’t deal with some overlap that might occur (as in the case with rails). I’d love an elevated, separate path that goes from my house to my office, but it ain’t gonna happen, nor should it. Ease is relative. I find it very easy to meander to work in 25-30 minutes over four miles. I understand that others want to cut this to 15-20 minutes. Great. More power to them. But increased speed means higher risk. I’m guessing that people who ride near/on rails do so because they want to cut time from their trip. This is a personal choice that involves risk. Rails don’t snap up and throw riders off their bikes.

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      • SJ September 1, 2011 at 10:37 am

        Another example: the floating section of the river bike path. When a design flaw was found during very high water (the “lip” of the ramps), a fix was in order. While I still thought it was supposed to be the responsibility of every rider to be on the lookout for drops (along with rocks on the path, birds, things falling from others’ bikes, maybe), I thought the fix was reasonable. Rails are a whole other matter because the costs is considerably more, probably.

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    • Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) September 1, 2011 at 1:49 pm


      We don’t lack money. We lack the will to use it in a way that challenges powerful special interests and the status quo. We don’t need a new pie, we need to divide up the slices in a way that matches our city’s goals and rhetoric about wanting to improve bicycling and combat climate change, etc…

      As for the “just go around the obstacles” argument. I hear you and that’s fine and good. I’m with you in some ways… but I remain steadfast in my belief that PBOT can do a better job in refining our right-of-way so that bicycling is much more efficient, enjoyable, and safe.

      Bottom line is that today, when I choose to ride my bike to a destination, I am not provided with a commensurate level of quality/efficiency/safety that is experienced when I drive or take transit.

      I think the quality of bicycling experience (not just on backstreets, but on major thoroughfares) needs to be vastly improved if we are to seriously move the needle and get more people to ride.

      And this isn’t even about people like you and me. This is about 10-yr old kids and people who are not yet bicycling because they don’t feel like it’s a viable option.

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      • SJ September 1, 2011 at 2:51 pm

        Totally agree with you. The larger picture could be improved, no doubt. I guess part of my reservation is potential backlash. When the economy is not good, regardless of where the funding comes from, when the pie is not cut their way, people tend to believe that they are paying more for items they think have no payoff, including, hell, especially, bike infrastructure. Rubber-filled rails are at the bottom of my list; separate paths for bikes is probably number one.

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  • Chris I September 1, 2011 at 10:19 am

    The “problem” has been around for over 100 years.


    These tracks used to be all over Portland, and were systematically removed from the 1940s on as busses replaced streetcars.

    I think that educational outreach may be more effective on this particular issue. Between MAX (from the mid 1980s), railroad lines (here for over 100 years), and new streetcar lines, the hazards are everywhere, and they aren’t going away.

    This is not to say that we should not be involved in the new projects to ensure that they are done with consideration for cyclists. Due to many complex issues, the final result may not be perfect, but consideration must be taken.

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    • Alan 1.0 September 1, 2011 at 12:07 pm

      Chris I
      The “problem” has been around for over 100 years.

      From that page:

      “In a few years, we can expect streetcars to make a comeback in several Portland neighborhoods. It is likely we will see streetcars running east on Hawthorne, Broadway and Belmont as well as other high-density streets.”

      The problem isn’t going to go away or get smaller.

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  • Bob_M September 1, 2011 at 10:22 am

    Portland Streetcar will take the concerns of cyclists serioulsy when a well healed cyclist hooks a wheel into a track and gets badly injured from the fall, then brings high priced lawyers into the discussion.

    Until then we are just a buzzing annoyance.

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  • Ted Buehler September 1, 2011 at 10:31 am

    Regarding a rubber flangeway filler, The gap is only half the problem — the other half is that the steel rail is extremely slippery and is raised above street level. Even if you filled the gap, folks would still wipe out crossing the slippery rails in the rain.

    To solve the over half of the problem, all they need to do is lay the rail level with the street. No bumps anywhere. The original MAX rail to Gresham is this way — it would make a huge improvement in safety.

    Ted Buehler

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  • Ted Buehler September 1, 2011 at 10:35 am

    Streetcar tracks are a huge problem, and Portland Streetcar, Inc. was not proactive in laying out streetcar routes so they avoided existing bicycle routes, and has been negligent in solving problems that have surfaced because of it.

    When in doubt, call 823-SAFE and ask for a specific location to be addressed. or email safe@portlandoregon.gov

    Crashed on tracks? Fill out a crash form on the AROW website.

    And, let your public officials know you are not happy with the lack of signage, the shoddy secondary routes, the lack of interim mitigation. They need to hear your voice.

    Be the squeaky wheel.

    Ted Buehler

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    • Paul Johnson September 7, 2011 at 11:00 am

      I’d rather see an unbiased source instead of from Active Right of Way, who doesn’t even try to pretend they’re not anti-transit.

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      • Chris Smith September 7, 2011 at 2:11 pm

        As a transit and Streetcar advocate, I can’t say that I’ve ever found AROW to be anti-transit in any way. What they are is very pro-cycling and pro-pedestrian, and not afraid to hold transit project accountable when they negatively impact cycling or walking.

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  • Ross Williams September 1, 2011 at 10:35 am

    “it doesn’t spare experienced riders.”

    No, but it does spare cautious ones. If you cross tracks at a right angle, your wheel won’t get caught.

    As someone pointed out, if this is really a serious safety concern then the answer is similar to the others sited. You regulate use to make it safe. There is a reason for all those pedestrian signals that make it illegal for a pedestrian to cross the street against the light. I don’t want to see this problem exaggerated to the point that we end up with regulations like that.

    If you want to argue that the safety of bicyclists requires eliminating rail based transit in Portland, go for it. I don’t think that is a winner. Nor should it be. The two are not incompatible, although they do require compromises.

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    • jeff September 1, 2011 at 11:26 am

      I’ll only add to cross tracks at appropriate angles at appropriate speeds for wet/dry conditions. I’ve been riding around the tracks for the past 15 years and haven’t had a single issue. then again, I’m a rider who actually keeps his brain turned on while planted in the saddle. there are plenty who don’t.

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  • Ted Buehler September 1, 2011 at 10:41 am

    Strategy question for you all —

    As AROW members, we’ve met with Portland Streetcar and PBOT twice now. In January and May. Not a lot of pestering, but solid, respectful meetings.

    We gave them lots of solid requests — easy stuff. Signs, paint, outreach.

    * public outreach — make hand-out maps to give to bicyclists to show them the new routing through The Pearl. Hand them out on the Broadway Bridge
    * Put up signs that direct bicyclists to make jug-handle lefts where there are streetcar tracks in the left lane (like Lovejoy westbound at 9th, Broadway westbound at Vancouver).
    * Replace existing signage in The Pearl so you can find your way around by bike
    * Add orange “bike crashing on streetcar tracks” signs where there are new rails being installed.
    * Not close bike lanes, close sidewalks, shut down traffic signals during construction.
    * Keep bike lane paint in a state of good repair.

    And we got smiles and nods at the meetings, but summer 2011 is over and we still have bicyclists injuring themselves because even the simplest fixes remain undone.

    The only concrete improvement is eliminating the right-hook on Broadway at Larrabee. It’s a big one, but considering that there’s 5000 bicyclists a day on the bridge, I think that this single response is a pretty poor record for Portland Streetcar, Inc. and PBOT.

    Any thoughts on turning up the pressure on them to actually mitigate the problems they’ve created in the bicycle transportation network?

    Ted Buehler

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    • Alan 1.0 September 1, 2011 at 10:56 am

      Take as many PBOT and PSc people as possible on a guided bike tour of the issue?

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      • NL September 1, 2011 at 4:36 pm

        How about we take cyclists on a ride to show how to ride on tracks without crashing? For my part, I crashed one time in the old South Waterfront industrial area, and I have never crashed since. A little care and attention is all that is needed.

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    • Alan 1.0 September 1, 2011 at 2:53 pm

      Paint a big, red dot at the site of every bike crash on the tracks?

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    • Alan 1.0 September 1, 2011 at 3:48 pm

      Guerilla Dan Henry and “safer route” stencils at critical junctions, preferably in neon orange color?

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  • Ross Williams September 1, 2011 at 10:53 am

    Ted –

    Those seem to be (mostly) good suggestions. (Not sure what “close sidewalks is about.) I would think the question for both PBOT and cycling advocates is whether those are the top priorities for cyclists in Portland. Obviously, there are many more things for PBOT to do than they have resources.

    I think, in particular, the orange warning signs are a good idea. There are people who don’t anticipate the dangers the tracks create for cyclists. That is something Portland Streetcar could include in their construction process and budget for new construction. Which sounds like what you are suggesting. But PBOT also needs to consider putting them on streets with existing track. It would also be useful to identify specific places where accidents are more likely for other warnings, including street paint, to alert people to the danger.

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  • SJ September 1, 2011 at 11:21 am


    No: signage, helmets, seatbelts (no seats!), insurance, whining.

    Yes: common sense, caution, arrival at destination.

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  • Justin September 1, 2011 at 11:45 am

    I got tangled up in the streetcar tracks 3 weeks and took a nasty spill on Grand. Sprained my wrist and two fingers pretty bad. I am just now getting back on my bike. i’m an avid rider who rides everyday but even experienced riders make mistakes. I dont blame Portland for my stupid mistake and I dont have an answer to the problem but I would be happy to see Portland attempting to make an effort towards track safety.

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  • Spiffy September 1, 2011 at 12:14 pm

    you’re all looking at this wrong…

    the easiest way to avoid getting your tire stuck in the groove is to not have a tire…

    take off your tires and ride ON the tracks!

    you’ll stay above the groove, you’ll get to stay on Lovejoy, and you’ll have a smooth easy line to follow…

    granted, some of you will need wider wheels…

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  • Ted Buehler September 1, 2011 at 12:32 pm

    Bicyclists suing the South Lake Union Trolley in Seattle for a lack of warning signs.

    What kind of deliberate street/bikeway rail entrapment by PBOT would it take to get placid Portlanders riled up enough to sue?


    Ted Buehler
    (hat tip Alexis)

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    • Ross Williams September 1, 2011 at 3:33 pm

      From the article above:

      “The lawsuit cites engineering reports from the city’s consultants at Parsons Brinckerhoff, who recommended closing Westlake Avenue to bike traffic and rerouting it down Ninth Avenue.”

      So are others here advocating closing streets with streetcar to bike traffic as a solution? This is exactly my fear.

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  • jc September 1, 2011 at 12:40 pm

    Maybe the answer is to have separate dedicated bike lanes where the streetcar and bikes must travel on the same road.

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  • Todd Boulanger September 1, 2011 at 12:50 pm

    In addition to the conventional post construction mitigations already suggested…one should add traffic speed reduction (20 mph?) on these corridors with surface bikeways mixed with tram tracks due to hazardous conditions, since operating around these tracks makes cyclists reduce speed AND take ‘odd’ approach angles to cross a track when lane changing.

    For the opening of the Eastside Streetcar, there should be an educational focus to make drivers aware of and expect the ‘odd’ movements bikes on tracks. Versus drivers thinking that bike riders are breaking the law (not riding along the curb) or doing stunts.

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    • Paul Johnson September 2, 2011 at 6:48 pm

      I’m not aware of any street that the streetcar runs on where the speed limit is greater than 20, except in areas where bicyclists already have a bike lane. Could you please provide an example?

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      • Alexis September 7, 2011 at 9:48 am

        MLK/Grand will have this situation when the streetcar begins operating. Tracks are already laid. The speed limit is 30 (may be 35 in some parts).

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  • Todd Boulanger September 1, 2011 at 12:53 pm

    Critical for streetcar future projects, should be the mandatory linkage between establishing new projects and maintaining access, safety and connectivity for bike traffic – if the new project mucks things up so badly then a convenient alternative route(s) must be funded and built before the streetcar project is started. This should be identified and well planned for in any draft impact statement, etc.

    This assumes the City is serious about reaching >20% bike commuting levels in the city core.

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  • rootbeerguy September 1, 2011 at 12:54 pm

    Dismount your bike near track
    Walk across the track
    Mount your bike and vrooomm o/o


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    • Ted Buehler September 1, 2011 at 4:57 pm

      rootbeerguy — have you ridden NE Grand from Couch to Oregon lately?

      Ted Buehler

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  • Todd Boulanger September 1, 2011 at 12:56 pm

    Better would be for ALL future streetcar and transit projects to incorporate bike tracks and bike friendly intersections along the corridor being rebuilt. This is the hope.

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    • Chris Smith September 1, 2011 at 1:07 pm

      Amen brother!

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    • Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) September 1, 2011 at 1:16 pm

      Absolutely agree Todd. I hope folks don’t think this post is the summary of all my thoughts/proposed ideas on how to make things better. This is just about fixing the tracks/situation that exists now.

      I plan to address other things… like perhaps new City Code or a state law that sets aside a % of money in streetcar projects for bikeway enhancement/mitigation (like the Bicycle Bill but for streetcar projects instead of highway projects).

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  • Unit September 1, 2011 at 12:56 pm

    Clarification: the MLK/Grand track is not in a shoulder or former bikeway. It’s in a live traffic lane. There is not and never has been a shoulder or bikeway on MLK/Grand. Not that there shouldn’t be, but that’s another conversation.

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    • Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) September 1, 2011 at 1:19 pm

      I define bikeway loosely to mean anywhere that was a preferred or popular place for bicycles to operate. When it comes to MLK/Grand, the curbside lane was indeed the bikeway. I used to use it a lot. However, now there are streetcar tracks and station bulb-outs, etc… which makes an already stressful bikeway (due to the speeds/volumes of cars on MLK/Grand) even more so.

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    • Ted Buehler September 1, 2011 at 2:20 pm

      Unit —

      MLK and Grand are bikeways, as per the City of Portland’s transportation map.


      I used MLK and Grand a lot. Now I use them sometimes, or go a long way out of my way to avoid them. I live near MLK and Fremont, and I frequently need to go to the SE industrial district. Cruising down MLK was a breeze, riding up Grand not so bad. Not any more.

      Ted Buehler

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      • Chris Smith September 1, 2011 at 2:42 pm

        That was one of the big lessons learned for me from this project. I believe there was mindset that since MLK/Grand were high-traffic and had never been ‘improved’ as a bikeway, they were not important and we didn’t have to worry about how to treat them.

        I’ve since learned that we were very wrong about their importance as the only reasonable crossing of Sullivans Gulch for a considerable distance.

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        • Ross Williams September 1, 2011 at 3:02 pm

          Its hard for me to imagine the streetcar making MLK/Grand LESS bike friendly. My experience a long time ago on 11th was that once the streetcars actually started running the “traffic lane” became a great bike lane. Since drivers already avoided the lane because of the streetcars, they considered bicyclists just one more minor annoyance.

          I would expect a similar impact on MLK/Grand. Once the streetcar’s are actually running interference, cyclists will be able to take the lane and those bulb outs won’t make any difference. Of course, I suppose the most aggressive cyclists will find the streetcars just as annoying as the drivers do.

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          • Alexis September 7, 2011 at 9:51 am

            Based on the reports that AROW has received, the two things you can do that will most increase your risk of crashing are to ride in the lane with the tracks, either to the right of them or in the middle. It’s much safer to ride in the other lane entirely. So the right lane on a streetcar street should not be considered any kind of bikeway.

            (The third is to cross tracks at an oblique angle, but that’s pretty much unavoidable in some places.)

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        • OnTheRoad September 1, 2011 at 6:51 pm

          Thanks, Chris for that. While MLK/Grand was not anybody’s ideal for a great bicycle couplet, the streets were quite utilitarian and rideable for medium vehicular cyclists and kept blocks-long detours to a minimum.

          And for reasons probably historic, Portland’s north-south routes are not only rare but also heavily auto-centric compared to the many E-W arterials. So having the streetcar compromise what was not the best N-S route, but one of the few such routes was indeed unfortunate.

          Hopefully those “lessons learned” will help Portland Strretcar come up with better ways for bikes and streetcars to co-exist if/when the streetcar expands to east-west Eastside arterials.

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    • Ted Buehler September 1, 2011 at 5:59 pm

      I also drive more often when going to the Inner SE. Thres a plethora of great supply places there — electrical, plumbing, hardware, green building, woodworking, salvage, and others.

      I’ll try clocking it sometime, my house to Winks Hardware. Via MLK, via Vancouver/Esplanade, and via NE 15th.

      Ted Buehler

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  • Todd Boulanger September 1, 2011 at 12:57 pm

    As a side note, I am always still surprised at how many Portland cyclists still hug the curb along tram tracks vs. taking the lane after 10 years of sharing the road with the streetcar.

    Perhaps the addition of frequent mini sharrows would be helpful to remind cyclists to ‘take the track lane’ and not the gutter pan.

    Another big difference about tracks and bikes in Portland (vs. Amsterdam) is the narrower average tire width here. (Perhaps someday there might be signed alternative routes for skinny tires – >28mm.)

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    • GlowBoy September 1, 2011 at 1:55 pm

      I personally won’t commute with less than a 35-38mm tire on the front, mostly because of rail tracks that I often MUST cross at less than an optimal angle. Then again, I have a cyclocross(ish) bike that allows this.

      I do find many of the new tracks to be a pain, and I do think Portland Streetcar could and should do more. But still …

      To me, having racing bike that can’t accept tires bigger than 28mm is a little like buying a low-slung sports car and complaining about how it scrapes on speed bumps and driveway aprons. Well yeah … you bought a racing vehicle that isn’t well adapted to the urban environment. What do you expect?

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    • dwainedibbly September 1, 2011 at 4:07 pm

      I have seen Streetcar drivers (pilots? captains? skippers?) ring the bell and blow their horn when behind bicyclists.

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  • q`Tzal September 1, 2011 at 1:38 pm

    Is there any reasoon to believe that wider tires mitigate this problem for cyclists?
    Would that have been a greater factor in the past? Meaning: if technology has allowed narrower tires could this also account for a higher rail crash rate per capita? I am assuming that general human spupidity has not changed.

    Reminded of a recent Yahuda Moon: http://www.yehudamoon.com/index.php?date=2011-08-30
    Where the link is to a new Surly tire “Moonlander” that is 4.7 inches wide.
    It migtht be overkill but have a hard time working out how to wipe out one out on a rail with tires wider than 2″.

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    • was carless September 2, 2011 at 1:31 am

      Yes, actually. I used to ride a mtn. bike whose tires wouldn’t even fit between the rail flange. I even rode ON the rails when it was icy – bike just wouldn’t crash on rails!

      Wider tires = more contact area = less slippage, even when wet.

      As a note, I used to live near the Pearl, and have never crashed on any rails. 8 years!

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  • Ryno Dan September 1, 2011 at 3:00 pm

    I have finally decided I don’t like the streetcar (from neutral before). Dedicated high-speed buses would be a much better solution. The tracks are impossible to avoid in the city now. And even careful riders are getting bitten. Too late, i know….

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  • dwainedibbly September 1, 2011 at 4:05 pm

    Perhaps the cycling community needs to lawyer up and try to get some sort of class action going against Portland Streetcar and the City for not using due care. If mitigation methods are available (and the rubber flange system may be exactly that) then they are creating an unnecessarily dangerous situation for people who are using the roadway in a legal manner. Threat of legal action is one of the few ways to effect change anymore.

    OK, so maybe this is a bit crazy and maybe the rubber fillers aren’t durable enough, but there has to be some incentive for someone to come up with something that will work. Eventually that’ll happen, and Portland Streetcar needs to know that there is an expectation that they will so whatever they can.

    (And no, I’m not anti-streetcar. I live downtown and use it a few times every week.)

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  • bumblebee September 1, 2011 at 7:36 pm

    I think Jonathan makes a good point about bicycling infrastructure getting less than its fair share of the pie. I’ve been living car-free for a year now and have no regrets. But I don’t approach a trip on my bike the same way I did when I got behind the wheel of my car. If I’m going into relatively unknown territory, I try to map out a more or less direct route, but safety always takes precedence–and that includes avoiding streetcar/MAX tracks. How many people, when they get into their cars to go across town, make such painstaking plans?

    I would love to see a day when I could just get on my bike and go–the way people in cars do!

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  • Grandpa September 1, 2011 at 7:51 pm

    Bicycling has been strong and vocal in Portland well before the new streetcars came on the scene. It seems willful ignorance (or feigned ignorance) that the decision makers with Portland Streetcars have not considered bicyclist’s safety when designing this system.

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  • Schrauf September 1, 2011 at 9:11 pm

    If the alternative routes are convenient, then tracks will mostly cease to be a problem. Marshall and Johnson, next to the tracks on Lovejoy for example. Turn some of the stop signs so the signed bike routes actually are not a hassle. Novel idea.

    Currently one can take Lovejoy, wipe out on the tracks, apply a bandage to stop the bleeding, get up and continue, and still be ahead of where they would have been after stopping at all the stop signs on Marshall and Johnson. =)

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  • DK September 2, 2011 at 8:15 am

    Alternate routes are all over the place. If I have to ride near the tracks, it will be for a few blocks at most. My bike’s line is about 3 or 4″ wide on the roadway. The tracks can be avoided if I’m paying attention.

    Let’s not get rid of the tracks or streetcar. These modes keep people out of cars too.

    Let’s not go broke, as a society, trying to sterilize our entire city. Ride your bike, look out for obstacles, and become a better, stronger rider. Sometimes, regardless of doing all of the above, you’ll still probably crash. …Get tough and deal.

    If there’s extra pavement laying around in the back of someone’s closet, instead of filling the tracks, we could be widening some roadway shoulders (West Hills – cough). If we have some “extra” money to fill the gaps with rubber, let’s re-allocate it to the food pantry and/or shelters for the coming Winter months.

    Peace out.

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  • Paul Johnson September 2, 2011 at 6:27 pm

    Wow, this is the best thing I’ve ever seen for the in-lane track problem.

    Would PBOT really just continue with business as usual while people incurred serious injuries due to an obstacle in the public right-of-way?

    Given that Portland’s only kidding about having adequate bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, as evidenced by the proliferation of MUPs instead of separated pedestrian and bicycle facilities even as other cities are implementing sidewalks on cycleways, I’m going to guess that this idea has about as much chance of being implemented here as LA does of going car free overnight.

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  • CR September 2, 2011 at 7:40 pm

    Here’s the situation froma transit perspective: Hanning & Kahl and Contel anre the two largest manufacturers of Girder Rail components that are currently used by Streetcar operators in North America.

    Girder Rail is made in Austria since currently no steel mfg. in the USA (or North America for that matter) makes these specialty track components anymore due to the demise of streetcar systems in the past in North America (Thanks Again… National City Lines).

    A couple of months ago FDOT held a meeting to try and get interested parties to make the rail again in the USA. This is where your group meeds to go since whoever does this in North America and design a solution to this issue for the track that they will manufacture for systems in the future.

    Yet the reality esists that the track currently made and installed cannot be ripped up to repair this issue as the costs and months of construction would be prohibitive. The only solution is a dependable drop in fix and the Cherry Street Bridge is NOT a source to look for as it is primarily a pedestrian bridge with very limited rail use.

    The problem with ribberized rail crossings is that they wear down greatly over time. This is why major freight railroads are replacing their rubber crossings with concrete as it will last longer.

    The problem is the same in the EU and for the most part is to observe simple common sense to avoid spill from bikes. You all know to watch out for sewer and drainage grates and the same should be the case for rails embedded in concrete as well.

    No one wants anyone to get hurt, but your lives are in your hands when you ride. You know that this is an issue so take steps to protect yourselves when you ride. After all, we simply can’t put warning signs and padding on everything in the world and until somone develops a cost efffective drop in system to fix this problem then we’re all going to have to be careful (I ride too) and protect ourselves.

    Additionally I can’t find anything on the ECF site about this so why isn’t there the same problems in the EU?


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  • Rick Browning September 3, 2011 at 4:16 pm

    I wrote the following 3 days BEFORE JM’s article in response to a request from a PDX bike activist (not JM) for history on attempts to make the initial streetcar project safer for bikes:

    There is not a lot I can tell you unfortunately. I raised concerns, they were ignored.

    At the time of the initial design and construction I did an international search on flange filler material, which seemed to have the best promise for a technical solution. Despite PDOT’s insistent, repeated mantra that “it won’t work, it won’t work” I did find that some correspondents in various parts of the world said it WAS a workable solution. I believe it requires initial expense and a lot of upkeep, neither of which municipal authorities want in their budgets. It also needs more R&D for a better future material (at a national level of course, not suggesting PDX could or should take this on unilaterally) – but there is no motivation for doing it.

    I think my strongest line was: “if you installed a bike lane striping material that caused any car driving over it at an acute angle to swerve uncontrollably and crash….how long would you be installing that material?”. It is a simple political calculation -unlike the imaginary motorists in the above scenario, the real cyclists who crash – all the time – on the rails and break legs, arms, collarbones, etc. figure “I deserved that”. They don’t organize, they don’t write their elected officials, they don’t sue the city, they don’t even report their accidents to anyone involved in streetcar operation or design. They often stop riding their bikes and go back to driving – like God intended for them to do. Thus, there is very little motivation to change the way the rails are configured.

    Seattle’s streetcar line is exactly the same in terms of configuration and the cycling community here is even more quiescent than Portland (have you seen the long thread of comments on a streetcar rail article posted on Bike Portland about 9 months ago? – elitist 20 something bike messenger types essentially argue that anyone who crashes on the rails is not one of the cycling elect and – you got it – deserves it).

    As a result of my and the BTA’s complaints the one concrete change that was made in the original line was the “ride around” feature at the stop on lower NW Lovejoy. This is where you can avoid the pinch point at the station curb bulb out by going through a curb cut and riding around the back of the shelter. I believe the change in the original design was made at then council memeber Charlie Hales’ insistence and over the objections of PDOT engineers. Elitist bike types hate it because “bikes don’t ride on sidewalks”, but I think as mickey mouse as it may be, it represents some reasonable attempt to mitigate for a special hazard to cyclists. Was this design ever repeated anywhere else?

    I also advocated for a limited suspension of the no bikes on sidewalks rule in the downtown so that cyclists could ride on the sidewalk rather than get squeezed between the rails and the curb on those streets with tracks. That went nowhere. Interestingly, it is legal to ride anywhere in Seattle on the sidewalk. I often use this solution to avoid riding parallel to the rails in Seattle’s S. Lake Union area.

    In summary I continue to be amazed that the rail hazard to cyclists is such a non-issue. Any other mode – transit, car, pedestrian – that had a hazard like this imposed on them in their normal work-a-day path of travel would be in court in 5 minutes flat. Streetcar rails are a perfect example of how bikes remain buried at the very bottom of the transportation hierarchy – and how we willfully enable society to keep us there.

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    • Ross Williams September 4, 2011 at 12:09 pm

      My problem is that it appears there is no reasonable solution to make streetcar tracks completely safe for cyclists. So the alternative is to prevent the two from mixing. That means a combination of both fewer streetcar lines and reduced access for cyclists. I think both of those are bad results.

      I am not an 20-something, nor am I a bike messenger, nor am I by any means an elite or even semi-elite cyclist. My wife has actually had a spill, so I agree the tracks present some danger.

      But mixing automobiles and bikes also presents some danger. In fact, I think you will find a large part of the public who think bikes belong on sidewalks. And you can make a very good case that isn’t safe either. Anyone who has been a pedestrian on the Hawthorne bridge can testify to that.

      So you are left with the notion that bikes, pedestrians and motor vehicles (whether streetcars or autos) should all be limited to their own ROW. I think cyclists are going to end up the big loser if we adopt that level of safety as the standard.

      I also think one of the problems here is the notion that people should ride between the rail and the curb. I think taking the lane between the tracks ought to be the expected behavior. I don’t know if that fits the streetcar’s expectations or not.

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  • Alan 1.0 September 7, 2011 at 11:09 am

    Based on the reports that AROW has received, the two things you can do that will most increase your risk of crashing are to ride in the lane with the tracks, either to the right of them or in the middle. It’s much safer to ride in the other lane entirely. So the right lane on a streetcar street should not be considered any kind of bikeway.
    (The third is to cross tracks at an oblique angle, but that’s pretty much unavoidable in some places.)

    I’m sure that’s good advice as far as the tracks are concerned, but riding in the left lane is not where cars expect to see bikes and may result in cars following too close, passing on the right and related hazards, and I don’t think it’s clear how the police or courts will view bikes traveling in the left lane.

    Interesting data, though…thanks!

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  • Ross Williams September 7, 2011 at 11:29 am

    Alexis –

    I am not sure what you are saying. It seems obvious that the most obvious thing to do to avoid crashes on tracks is not to ride where there are tracks, whether in the left lane or another street. Whether it is safer overall to ride in the non-tracked left lane on streets that have tracks is pretty questionable. On MLK/Grand I wouldn’t think that would be true most times of the day.

    The form on the AROW site doesn’t appear to be collecting data on this, so I assume your comments are based on evaluating the descriptions. Can you provide a link to the data you used? I looked at the AROW site and couldn’t find one.

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    • Paul Johnson September 7, 2011 at 11:44 am

      Of course, the presence of streetcar tracks doesn’t change the fact that 99E in Portland isn’t a very good route for cyclists to start with, and one that’s easily bypassed save for the last block if your destination is on it.

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  • Sarah Skanchy July 25, 2014 at 10:49 am

    I’m doing a research project to an efficient solution to a dangerous railroad tracks crossing on a road in Draper, Utah, where many bikers have had serious accidents. Does anyone know how much a rubber flangeway filler would cost on a distance of about 200 feet?

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