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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.

NOTE: Thanks for sharing and reading our comments. To ensure this is a welcoming and productive space, all comments are manually approved by staff. BikePortland is an inclusive company with no tolerance for meanness, discrimination or harassment. Comments with expressions of racism, sexism, homophobia, or xenophobia will be deleted and authors will be banned.

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Huey Lewis
Guest
Huey Lewis

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.

Richard Risemberg
Guest

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

Nicholas Skaggs
Guest
Nicholas Skaggs

$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.

matheas michaels
Guest
matheas michaels

car·nage
ˈkärnij/Submit
noun

the killing of a large number of people.

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

JNE
Guest
JNE

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.’

John Liu
Guest
John Liu

“. . . 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.

David McCabe
Guest
David McCabe

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.

TOM
Guest
TOM

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” )

john
Guest
john

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….

Chris Smith
Guest

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.

RH
Guest
RH

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….!!

Bike Commuter
Guest
Bike Commuter

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?

Brian Davis
Guest
Brian Davis

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.

John Liu
Guest
John Liu

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.

GlowBoy
Guest
GlowBoy

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.

Granpa
Guest
Granpa

$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.

jim
Guest
jim

Just don’t ride bikes on streets with tracks.

Paul in the 'Couve
Guest
Paul in the 'Couve

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.

Zaphod
Guest

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.

John Lascurettes
Guest

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.

Shoemaker
Guest
Shoemaker

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.

Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor)
Guest

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.

Champs
Guest
Champs

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.

Steve B
Guest
Steve B

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/

J_R
Guest
J_R

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.

Jim Lee
Guest
Jim Lee

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.

Alan 1.0
Guest
Alan 1.0

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.

Scott B
Guest
Scott B

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.

John Liu
Guest
John Liu

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?

Chris I
Guest
Chris I

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.

Nicholas Skaggs
Guest
Nicholas Skaggs

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.
Recommended 6

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/

jim
Guest
jim

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

jim
Guest
jim

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.

El Biciclero
Guest
El Biciclero

“…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.