Urban Tribe - Ride with your kids in front.

ODOT looks to study safety impacts of streetcar tracks

Posted by on September 6th, 2011 at 4:22 pm

Conditions on Lovejoy-6

ODOT wants to know more
about safety risks posed by
tracks before they sign
off on future streetcar
(Photo © J. Maus)

In my continuing effort to bring more attention to the issue of how streetcar tracks impact bicycling conditions, a reader passed along an interesting tidbit.

Turns out that the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) is also concerned about the issue. The potential of a new streetcar line from Porltand to Lake Oswego on State Highway 43 has spurred ODOT to look into new research to determine how the presence of the tracks might impact vehicle users.

ODOT’s risk management department has requested a green light to go ahead with a research project titled, “Coefficient of Friction of Rubber Tires on Streetcar Tracks under Dry and Wet Conditions.” In the research problem statement (PDF here), ODOT lays out their concerns:

“Risk Management recommends the Highway Division to run rubber tire skid resistance tests on streetcar tracks to determine whether any mitigation is needed to increase the coefficient of friction of the tracks and/or the area surrounding the tracks. If the tracks have a low coefficient of friction, the Highway Division has the following safety concerns:
1. A car with the same track width as streetcar tracks skidding on the steel tracks especially in wet conditions; and

2. A car rotating due to braking with one tire on the track and the other tire on the concrete.”

While the problem statement lists cars specifically, after a bit of follow-up, I found out that ODOT would likely include bicycles in their research as well.

Back on January 31st, ODOT Region 1 Major Projects Manager Andrew Johnson wrote a letter to Metro as a comment to the Lake Oswego to Portland Transit Project Draft Environmental Impact Statement. Here’s an excerpt from that letter that refers to ODOT’s desire to study the safety impact of streetcar tracks:

“The addition of streetcar tracks onto OR43… will need further research, analysis, and development of bicycle and vehicle safety measures for installation on a State Highway, and obtain ODOT’s approval prior to construction.”

It’s interesting to me that ODOT seems to be more proactive about this issue than the City of Portland. PBOT has allowed many miles of streetcar tracks to be laid throughout the city, without ever delving into rigorous research on how those tracks might be impacting other users of the road. Not only has PBOT not done research but they have been slow to react to bike safety concerns brought to them by the community.

Stay tuned for more coverage.

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. Thank you — Jonathan

  • Ted Buehler September 6, 2011 at 4:39 pm

    Thank you ODOT!

    Please include bicycles in your study, especially leaning turns and “s” turns.

    Ted Buehler

    Recommended Thumb up 8

    • Ted Buehler September 6, 2011 at 4:44 pm

      Jonathan —
      Can you give us info for who at ODOT to contact on this to say things like “thank you” and/or “please include bicycles in your study”.

      Ted Buehler

      Recommended Thumb up 6

  • JJJ September 6, 2011 at 4:47 pm

    How about not wasting money on streetcars? Transit should have an exclusive ROW. Streetcars are buses that cant switch lanes to avoid obstacles.

    Recommended Thumb up 5

    • q`Tzal September 6, 2011 at 5:08 pm

      Even bus lines work as well as light rail, or better, with exclusive right of way.
      Then you can electrify the ROW and eliminate the petrochemical dependancy issue.

      Recommended Thumb up 2

      • Alan 1.0 September 6, 2011 at 10:05 pm

        Exclusive ROW may be worthwhile for something like the downtown “Transit Mall” (some would argue about that, but it does serve a purpose) but I don’t think it would work well everywhere that streetcars are destined to serve (e.g. east on Stark and Hawthorne, maybe past 50th). Many routes will necessarily share ROW with other modes. Personally I’d give priority on most old rail grades to active transportation uses (bike/ped) and route trolleys on existing streets.

        Electric power makes sense, and overhead lines help mark trolley routes, but investors in adjacent biz and residential act more confidently when a streetcar route is cast in stone, as with rails embedded in concrete. But instead of casting in hazardous 19th century iron-age technology, why not cast in guidance devices (wires or “X”) which sit flush or embedded in the concrete? The route can still be clearly and permanently marked in the concrete paving pattern. Run the trolley on rubber wheels for more traction and quieter operation without the need for tracks, and eliminate that outdated hazard completely.

        Rubber-tired trolleys can still have the same appearance and general operation as iron-shod coaches.

        Yeah, porcus aviatus.

        Recommended Thumb up 1

        • q`Tzal September 8, 2011 at 4:21 pm

          By economics and resource scarcity it is easy to see that exclusive ROWs, while potentially solving ALL human error issues, are unattainable due to a simple lack of real estate to deploy the many exclusive ROWs that would be needed to accommodate all transit modes.

          All that said:
          If we were able to replace a significant portion of a bus fleet the size of TriMet’s with electric buses like are mentioned on Tech Review’s Electric Buses Get a Jump Start or Cleantechnia’s Electric Buses that Charge at Each Stop we then have the option of doing quick charges at small exclusive ROW lanes (installed in high density, frequent stop areas with long dwell times) or having all the bus lines that pass through downtown collect a full charge as they travel the mall. See Guangzhou Bus Rapid Transit.
          By making the transit mall an integral part of the “fueling” equation it would be like “setting in stone” a permanent transit line.

          Said electrical supply can be through direct contact with cantenaries or with a modern surface embedded inductive power transfer.
          For induction, the smooth even grade of our transit mall would be conducive to a bus width pickup coil within 2″~3″ of the surface. By sealing all power contacts from the weather we can reduce maintenance and liability costs.

          Also: I’m not finding a translation for your latin other than something porcine.

          Recommended Thumb up 0

          • Alan 1.0 September 8, 2011 at 8:33 pm

            Roughly “when pigs fly,” though I know no Roman ever uttered it. I like those ideas, now all we need is a city to do it right.

            Recommended Thumb up 0

  • Brad Ross September 6, 2011 at 4:53 pm

    I broke my elbow on a MAX track up by the library when I first moved here in ’89. Just gotta learn that lesson the hard way I suppose.

    Recommended Thumb up 4

    • Tomas Quinones September 8, 2011 at 1:13 pm

      My girlfriend did the same thing just before the World Naked Bike Ride. She spent the evening in a cast rather than naked on a bike.

      Recommended Thumb up 0

      • Alan 1.0 September 8, 2011 at 1:35 pm

        As noted in today’s Portland Mercury piece on streetcars, Alta Planning and Design’s 2008 survey says, “Over 67% of respondents reported that they have experienced a bike crash on tracks, demonstrating that bike-track crashes are a major and underreported problem for Portland-area bicyclists. Most crashes do not result in life-threatening or permanently disabling injuries.”

        Recommended Thumb up 0

  • Alphonse September 6, 2011 at 5:00 pm

    They also need to look into the issue surrounding vehicles that adjust their line of travel to the right, to avoid their wheels rolling on the tracks. Too often I deal with cars IN the bike lane heading downhill on Lovejoy from the Broadway Bridge, as they straddle the new streetcar tracks.

    And I partially agree with JJJ. The more tracks are installed in and around the city, the less safe cyclists will feel, which will have an negative effect on Portland being a “bicycle town”.

    Recommended Thumb up 5

  • BURR September 6, 2011 at 5:09 pm

    All of the safety concerns regarding cycling on or near the streetcar tracks were on the table before the first inch of the first streetcar track was ever constructed.

    Saying that PBOT has been slow to react to cyclists safety concerns vis-a-vis the streetcar is an understatement; they’ve pretty much completely ignored the issue all along.

    The city’s own planning documents for the streetcar make virtually no mention of the potential conflicts and difficulties streetcar track construction will create for cyclists; the attitude at PBOT and PSI just seems to be cyclists should go ride somewhere else once the streetcar is constructed:

    Recommended Thumb up 10

  • BURR September 6, 2011 at 5:12 pm

    How about this little gem from the Portland Streetcar web site?

    “Portland Streetcar is owned and operated by the City of Portland in partnership with TriMet, which contributes a portion of operating funding.

    Portland Streetcar is managed by the Portland Office of Transportation, under the direction of the Commissioner-in-charge of Transportation. The City of Portland contracts with Portland Streetcar, Inc. to construct and operate the Streetcar system. Portland Streetcar, Inc. is a private non-profit corporation.

    The Streetcar system is staffed by a combination of City of Portland employees, TriMet employees and consulting staff from Portland Streetcar, Inc.”


    Obfuscation, anyone?

    Recommended Thumb up 2

    • John Lascurettes September 6, 2011 at 6:15 pm

      Right. So they’re a private corporation, which despite being “non-profit” has the legal obligation and charter to be a money-making machine (one way or another) that has very little government-by-way-of-the-citizens oversight. Lovely.

      Recommended Thumb up 3

      • Jon September 6, 2011 at 8:46 pm

        since when has transit been highly profitable? no need to worry about conspiracy theories of flush with cash streetcars taking over the world. i mean until this post the biggest concern i had heard with the streetcar was that no one paid onboard yet somehow Portland Streetcar is some evil corporation raking in the cash with no accountability. you might want to pick better enemies than organizations with 90%+ of the goals you desire.

        Recommended Thumb up 5

        • John Lascurettes September 7, 2011 at 9:58 am

          I didn’t say they were highly profitable, or even profitable at all. But as a private corporate entity with very little oversight, their main function (legally as part of the corporate charter) is to gather as much budget as they can for their survival. And since they have very little oversight, they care not about the complaints of a few bikers with broken bones. They don’t need to.

          Recommended Thumb up 1

        • John Lascurettes September 7, 2011 at 10:01 am

          … Nor did I name them my enemy. But I was pointing out why exactly they don’t seem to care about anything but completing their own projects at the expense (or rather without a care) of others.

          Recommended Thumb up 0

        • BURR September 7, 2011 at 2:11 pm

          I never said I expected mass transit to make a profit, but neither do I expect mass transit to propagate known hazards to cyclists all over town with little or no forethought or consideration.

          If they can’t do it right, they shouldn’t be doing it at all.

          One thing I do know about these public-private partnerships, is that they end up being unassailable and accountable to no one; perhaps some of you remember the Washington Public Power Supply System (pronounced Whoops!) fiasco, which during the 70’s and 80’s proposed and almost built 20 new nuclear power plants in the Pacific Northwest before it was finally stopped?

          WPPSS was another one of these public-private partnerships, which only finally failed due to financial hemorrhaging, with two of the original five proposed nuke plants remaining unfinished.


          Recommended Thumb up 1

  • Jon September 6, 2011 at 5:46 pm

    not surprising that ODOT, a highway agency that only cares about moving as many cars as possible as fast as possible, would put up additional roadblocks to non-motor vehicle alternatives. They dont give a rats a– about safety and convenience of ped, bike or transit whatsoever. it was motorist inconvenience that killed the old streetcar system (implementation of the one ways downtown) and the interurban to Oregon City (refused to replace the tracks on the rebuilt Hawthorne Bridge viaduct severing the line from Downtown).

    personally though the streetcar should stay off macadam and stay on the willamette shore trolley right of way.

    Recommended Thumb up 8

    • Unit September 8, 2011 at 4:03 pm

      Jon, you beat me to it. ODOT doesn’t want those pesky streetcars slowing down their through traffic, and this is simply another roadblock to throw up. Safety is a red herring. Anyone who’s talked with ODOT staff about the prospect of Portland adding tracks to their highways knows this. They simply do not like it.

      Don’t take the bait.

      Recommended Thumb up 0

  • Bike-Max-Bike September 6, 2011 at 7:45 pm

    Perhaps the moneyed folks in LO have no interest in providing non-car options for the masses to assail their estates? Thus the study. Just sayin’

    Recommended Thumb up 3

  • old&slow September 6, 2011 at 7:50 pm

    I have stated here for 2 years, what a waste of money and transportation dollars they were.
    All I got was grief from Jonathan and others here who just had to kiss Adams butt all the time.
    You need a study to find out how stupid and bad for cyclists these are?
    Just ride over them.
    How about you just go up north to Seattle and see how buses work on city streets without tracks!
    Jonathan should be embarrassed at how much he sucked up to our one term disaster of a mayor.
    Have fun riding over these things for years as you watch empty trolleys on the east side.

    Recommended Thumb up 5

  • old&slow September 6, 2011 at 8:03 pm

    I already posted a comment and you won’t publish it because it doesn’t suit your Sam Adams love affair.
    These are a disaster for cyclists, the same thing could be done with buses on electric lines as Seattle does, but it doesn’t fit with BikePortland’s agenda, which is has always been “pro Sam” , and screw the cyclists who have opposed this waste of money. I am sure you won’t print this either, as criticism of your patronage is never published here.

    Recommended Thumb up 1

    • Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) September 6, 2011 at 9:25 pm


      given the tone of your comments, I’d say your fortunate I’m kind to let you post anything here at all.

      I welcome opinions from all corners, but I feel your accusations of a “sam adams love affair” on my part are not only ridiculous but are not based in reality.

      please be a bit more considerate in future comments or I’m afraid I’ll have to simply delete them.


      Recommended Thumb up 17

      • spare_wheel September 6, 2011 at 10:27 pm

        the bojack of bike blogs.

        Recommended Thumb up 0

        • Andrew N September 6, 2011 at 10:52 pm

          Given the tone of some of these comments I’d have to agree.

          Personally, as someone who hates the domination, destruction, and waste of the automobile, and of car culture in general, I support the re-installation of streetcar lines in Portland. I also think that the track issues need to be studied –and fixed– pronto.

          Recommended Thumb up 8

  • Max September 6, 2011 at 8:31 pm

    It may not have been studied by PBOT simply because Hwy 43 has much higher traffic speeds than anywhere the streetcar currently travels.

    Recommended Thumb up 6

  • jim September 6, 2011 at 9:20 pm

    So now instead of cars vs bikes its bikes vs streetcars.
    I think the streetcar thing is a pet project by the current portland leadership that is just spending my money unnecesarilly. True it is making jobs, The cost to run the thing will be much greater tha the fares (just like the buses, but not as bad as max)
    I hate driving on the rails with my old car.

    Recommended Thumb up 3

    • was carless September 7, 2011 at 1:37 pm

      Sounds like you haven’t driven highway 43 during rush hour. And it is getting worse. Once I spent 2 hours commuting from Tualatin to Sellwood via that corridor – was not very happy.

      Hopefully the streetcar will be placed on its own ROW along the former Willamette Shore trolley line, so it gets its own dedicated space. Although I wish they were putting MAX vehicles there instead of the streetcar.

      I’d also like to see vastly improved bicycle access in the same corridor.

      Recommended Thumb up 0

  • old&slow September 6, 2011 at 9:46 pm

    Jonathan, how can you not say you have been a suck-up to the current mayor?
    Sorry, but I have read your website for the last 4 years.
    You supported him, did “softball” interviews. supported the streetcars (until a bunch of cyclists complained about them.)
    My comments are factual, not out of line, just not “in line” with your support of this administration.
    Can you honestly say, you have not been a big supporter?
    And he had done what for cycling?
    He has spent millions on streetcars and painted a few stripes and signs in the roads.
    Big Whoop!

    Recommended Thumb up 2

    • Unit September 8, 2011 at 4:07 pm

      You ask what Adams has done for cycling, really?

      The city is more than doubling the mileage of bike boulevards in the city under Adams’ leadership (they were doing zilch under Potter).

      But maybe you just like to complain.

      Recommended Thumb up 1

  • old&slow September 6, 2011 at 9:59 pm

    As a followup, you wrote glowing articles when he was running for mayor about what a “cyclist” he is .
    When it was reported he received $1100 of parking tickets in his first year, you glossed over it.
    Now that he has gained about 40 lbs. from “riding” a bike all the time, you say what?
    He is a phoney, who has set BACK cycling in this city.
    The streetcars, the backlash against cyclists which is occurring under his watch, because of his poor leadership, you sweep under the rug.
    He can’t leave soon enough, but you will continue to sing his praises, for some reason?

    Recommended Thumb up 4

    • Kristen September 7, 2011 at 8:18 am

      Please stay on topic; your current posts are more suited to an email or phone or in-person conversation directly with JM than here.

      Or, move it to the forums.

      Recommended Thumb up 9

  • Paul Johnson September 6, 2011 at 11:58 pm

    I’m not sure this is “interesting to see” that ODOT is taking such an interest; more like “obvious.” The vast majority of the existing streetcar network is on city streets, not state highways, and all of it so far is 30 mph or less, with the vast majority being 20 or less. OR 43 is a much faster road where tire on rail traction is a more significant factor than on roads that rarely-to-never exceed bicycle speeds.

    Recommended Thumb up 3

  • Peter W September 7, 2011 at 1:11 am

    ODOT concerned about cars, still.

    Not really surprising.

    But glad to be informed; thanks, as always, Jonathan.

    Recommended Thumb up 0

  • Chase September 7, 2011 at 5:29 am

    Why does ODOT need to spend money to do research? Streetcars have been around since the late 1800’s, and many cities, mostly in Europe but some in the US, still have extensive systems, so I find it very difficult to believe that this kind of research has never been done anywhere in the world over the last 100 years. Wouldn’t it be more cost effective to see if there’s existing research data? And even if they find there is an issue, a hazard, what are they going to do about it? Stop building rail transit systems and rip out existing ones? That’s never going to happen, sorry.

    Bottom line, there are thousands of miles of light-rail/streetcar tracks in hundreds of cities worldwide. If every other such city in the world can tolerate having metal rails in the street, we can too. If you are driving on them, you should drive carefully, just as you should drive carefully on every other street everywhere, and if you don’t and something happens it’s your own fault, the presence or absence of rails notwithstanding. And yes, this applies to cyclists too.

    Recommended Thumb up 3

  • Chris I September 7, 2011 at 8:10 am

    The Lake Oswego Streetcar is a terrible idea, and running portions of it down Macadam is even worse. If they are going to use the Willamette shoreline ROW, they should just leave the streetcar next to the river, Macadam will just slow it down. And don’t run it to Lake Oswego, ridership cannot possibly justify the cost. Perhaps running it across the new bridge into Sellwood…

    Recommended Thumb up 0

    • was carless September 7, 2011 at 1:40 pm

      That would be redundant; the Milwaukie MAX will serve Sellwood (albeit with stops along a highway).

      Recommended Thumb up 0

      • Chris I September 8, 2011 at 11:24 am

        Not at all. Streetcars compliment MAX, they do not replace it. MAX should have stops spaced about a mile apart, while streetcars have stops every few blocks. The MAX station near Tacoma will be roughly 1 mile away from Sellwood. MAX for long-distance connections, streetcar as local circulation.

        This is precisely why the “Rapid Streetcar” to LO is a terrible idea; it is the wrong tool for the job.

        Recommended Thumb up 0

  • Bob_M September 7, 2011 at 9:05 am

    On top of the wheel eating tracks, and the traction eliminating rails the glaring flaw with the streetcar is that it does not work during really bad weather. During snow events when a method of moving people is most necessary the streetcars are stopped. Beyond being able to get out of their own way, they block streets denying capable road users of mobility.

    To install this type of disfuncnction on Macadam, a busy N/S highway would be beyond stupid. I fully expect it to be installed without question.

    Recommended Thumb up 0

    • Chris I September 7, 2011 at 11:28 am

      With the exception of major freezing rain events (which would make moving around via any mode nearly impossible), there is no reason why light rail should not be functional. The problem here is that we rarely get freezing temperatures, so the systems were not designed with the proper switches. Trimet has started to fix this problem with MAX.

      Recommended Thumb up 1

      • was carless September 7, 2011 at 2:08 pm

        Streetcar tracks accumulate snow and ice, which refreeze and fill in the gap between the rail and flange, making it impossible for streetcars to use them (they would derail).

        Normal track tracks, with their tracks raised above the ground, have less of a problem, where the switches are the weak link. Note that both MAX and Streetcar operate as streetcars downtown, and do not have heated rails, so they can both fail during extreme events.

        Recommended Thumb up 0

  • al m September 7, 2011 at 10:02 am

    Blasphemers! Heretics! Rail construction is the savior of mankind! Woe to you non-believers!The God of light rail will will seek its vengeance on all who take my name in vein!

    Recommended Thumb up 1

    • matheas michaels September 7, 2011 at 12:46 pm

      tell ’em!

      Recommended Thumb up 0

    • Opus the Poet September 7, 2011 at 4:38 pm

      Name in vein? Must be some kind of bleeding-heart thing. I think the word you were looking for is vain.

      Recommended Thumb up 3

      • Alan 1.0 September 7, 2011 at 8:05 pm

        Or maybe it’s like a drug, spiked into the mainline.

        Recommended Thumb up 0

    • q`Tzal September 9, 2011 at 10:00 am


      Recommended Thumb up 0

  • RH September 7, 2011 at 10:21 am

    I think folks just need to bike responsibily and adjust to their current surroundings. If you see tracks, be a bit more cautious or bike over one block….it’s the real world out there…we don’t need our hands held for everything. Even if they put some type of traction or rubber in the tracks, I’m still going to be very cautious near them.

    Recommended Thumb up 6

  • GlowBoy September 7, 2011 at 12:49 pm

    I don’t expect much from ODOT in terms of bike safety. They can’t even get vehicle detectors to properly sense bikes at a lot of state route crossings, and they haven’t bothered to put bike lanes on Beaverton-Hillsdale Highway (between Scholls Ferry and 217) even though their own design standards show there’s more than enough room.

    As for the streetcars themselves … yeah, all our rail crossings are THE main reason I won’t run less than 38mm wide tires on a commuter bike. Definitely an annoyance, but unlike (apparently) a lot of folks on this thread I fully support what we’re doing with MAX and streetcars. I just wish PBOT would pay more attention to the bike dangers the new tracks pose. They could mitigate a lot of them if forced to.

    Recommended Thumb up 1

    • was carless September 7, 2011 at 2:15 pm

      I run on 32mm Bontrager H2’s and I’ve never had a traction issue on rails.

      Recommended Thumb up 0

  • Joe September 7, 2011 at 1:11 pm

    When will ODOT do a study on the safety of their state roads for pedestrians and bicycles? SW Macadam, SE Powell, and 82nd Ave.. dangerous with or without streetcar tracks.

    Recommended Thumb up 0

    • Paul Johnson September 7, 2011 at 1:15 pm

      The roads aren’t what’s unsafe, it’s the vehicle operators. Especially on Powell, where wrong-way bicycles add to the confusion as much as idiot motorists. ODOT would be wise to step up enforcement efforts and get bad operators off the road permanently.

      Recommended Thumb up 3

  • Joe September 7, 2011 at 1:17 pm

    What about areas near the freeway on and off-ramps. Also dangerous. Thanks ODOT for caring about people.

    Recommended Thumb up 0

  • Stop Public Waste LLC September 7, 2011 at 3:42 pm

    Streetcar is not only dangerous to bicycle riders, it is also great danger threatening every 8 minutes lives of children, pets and handicapped persons in their own backyard. Instead of throwing money on unneeded Streetcar, city should spend 1% of the cost of Streetcar i.e. $4.58 millions on increase bike lanes, bike parking etc.

    Recommended Thumb up 0

  • Ted Buehler September 9, 2011 at 9:02 pm

    There’s a number of things that could be positive for bicyclists with this study.

    Even if they don’t include bicycle-specific dynamics (such as stability of two wheel-vehicles — not an issue with cars), it would still be helpful.

    The oft-touted Alta Planning study didn’t look at the vertical position of the rails in the streets. This will come under scrutiny with the ODOT study — the current industry standard is to raise the streetcar rail 1/4″ above street level.

    This has obvious implications for bicycles, as we are bumped “sideways” whenever we cross the rails at something other than a 90 degree angle. The sideways bump” varies on a couple things — the height of the rail (anywhere from 0″ to 3/8″), the wetness of the rail, and whether the pavement leading up is smooth or rough (if it’s rough then you’ll be bouncing and have a higher degree of uncertainty in how much of a sideways bump you’ll get). The variability in the sideways bump is what will take you down. After you’re bumped sideways, you have a very short amount of time to turn your front wheel to correct the bump and keep the front wheel under you, otherwise your bike falls down.

    But it also impacts cars — since the rails are raised above the pavement, a greater amount of the weight of the car is resting on the rail than the adjacent pavement, and this reduces traction. If the rail was flush with the pavement, traction for cars would be improved.

    And if the rail was flush with the pavement, then bicycle travel would be much safer, too, as bicycles could cross rails with much more confidence.

    (And, even if ODOT doesn’t include bicycles at all, having the physics of the problem, the rail dimensions, the skid resistances of the materials involved will make it easier for a study of bicycle dynamics on rails).

    I look forward to learning more about the study,

    Ted Buehler

    Recommended Thumb up 0