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NW Portland has a problem with exposed rail tracks in the street

Posted by on April 12th, 2016 at 2:47 pm

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Exposed rails on NW 12th Avenue near Irving.
(Photos: J. Maus/BikePortland)

Part of NW Portland Week.

Our community has known for years that streetcar rails embedded in the pavement on northwest Portland streets are a major hazard. Activists have organized and worked with the City of Portland to raise awareness about the problem. Two years ago the city officially acknowledged the issue and promised to work on making them safer.

Today during my daily bike-about I discovered a new front in the battle against this hazard: old rails that are being exposed due to deteriorating pavement. Unlike the streetcar rails, I’m not aware of any organize advocacy campaign to have these removed nor am I aware of any effort by the City of Portland to address the issue (beyond their standard street paving plans).

Yesterday I mentioned some exposed freight train rails on NW 15th; but not many people use that street so it doesn’t feel like an urgent issue in that location. Today however, while biking on 12th south of NW Johnson I was shocked to see them right in the part of the street where people typically bike.

In a bygone era streetcar and freight rail lines were as ubiquitous as today’s bus lines β€” especially in this former industrial part of our city. Now, as pavement maintenance gets neglected and the roads deteriorate, those old rails are beginning to emerge. For every other user of our streets they are really no big deal. People using cars, trucks, buses or walking with their feet can pay them no mind. But for people using bicycles (and even motorcycles!) these tracks are a major hazard.

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Looking north on 12th toward Irving.

As you can see in the images the tracks on 12th go for several blocks south of NW Johnson. In some places they are about two inches deep. Anyone using relatively narrow bicycle tires would not stand a chance of staying upright if they hit these at the wrong angle. Add in a bit of rain or moisture it’d be an instant crash.

In a few months we’ll be putting hundreds of bike share bikes on these streets. It’s simple: If we want to encourage people to ride bikes we have to fix stuff like this.

I’ve noticed other (but thankfully less severe) examples of this on SW 4th Avenue near Burnside. Have you seen these around town? I’d love to hear more of your thoughts about them. I’ll update this post when/if I hear more from the city or others about efforts to fix the problem.

β€” Jonathan Maus, (503) 706-8804 – jonathan@bikeportland.org

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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 β€” Jonathan

34 Comments
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    Ted Timmons (Contributor) April 12, 2016 at 2:51 pm

    I was at the dentist about this time last year, getting some bike-crash-related work done, and the dentist assumed it was from streetcar tracks.

    And yes, tons of exposed tracks. I even saw them well up in the West Hills once. But I’ll take exposed streetcar tracks over inattentive or aggressive drivers every day.

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      Dave April 12, 2016 at 3:45 pm

      True, the drivers don’t become less of a problem when you put 35c tires on your bike!

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      Tom Hardy April 12, 2016 at 6:34 pm

      At least the rail lines along NW 12th. are about the right distance to stay out of the doors of parked cars.

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    Jeff J. April 12, 2016 at 2:52 pm

    Where else? SE Water north of OMSI in the bike lanes.

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    Paul Atkinson April 12, 2016 at 3:11 pm

    Recognizing that the city isn’t about to do this work correctly, is there an inexpensive fix that could be done? What kind of work are we asking them to do if we accept that they’re not going to tear up the pavement and remove the offending rail lines?

    I’m not a roadway engineer, so I don’t know whether there’s a fill material that one could lay down here to make the situation better for a small cost.

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    • Adam H.
      Adam H. April 12, 2016 at 3:18 pm

      45c tires. πŸ˜‰

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        Champs April 13, 2016 at 10:19 am

        This is fine for you but some day you may come to realize that it isn’t practical for everyone to own a separate “city” bike to cover a fraction of the thousands of miles they ride every year.

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        • Adam H.
          Adam H. April 13, 2016 at 10:26 am

          I don’t own a separate city bike. Nearly all of my riding is to work, bars, restaurants, shopping, etc. so my city bike is my primary bike and the one I ride 99% of the time. I was merely suggesting that if you find yourself riding over a lot of streetcar tracks to consider getting wider tires. They definitely help.

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      Gary B April 12, 2016 at 3:52 pm

      I think there are two issues, both shown in the pics above–the rail with a gap that tires stick in, and the exposed rails that have traction issues. Both are dangerous, but n my opinion the gap is much more so. I’d prioritize filling those in, which would seem a relatively easy fix (insert concrete?).

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        gutterbunnybikes April 12, 2016 at 4:04 pm

        A simple fill job with concrete is just a temporary solution, water will filter through the slight gaps of the tracks and new infill caused by temperature fluctuations and road use vibrations and you’ll be right back here in a couple years.

        To fix it is to redo the entire road.

        Or remove the parking and weld bollards to the track for a protected bike lane.

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          lop April 12, 2016 at 7:11 pm

          There are plenty of streets in Portland with rail tracks underneath that aren’t exposed. Why not? Has NW 12th gone longer between repavings? More trucks on 12th? Grind off the asphalt and repave 12th with a thicker overlay than last time, and do this every X years to keep the tracks from being exposed. Unless you need to put in a new sewer line or something that has you ripping everything out anyway I doubt that it would be cheaper to take out the rails than to maintain the street with them underneath.

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      wsbob April 13, 2016 at 9:20 am

      “Recognizing that the city isn’t about to do this work correctly, is there an inexpensive fix that could be done? …” atkinson

      Absolutely: ride the center of the lane, or at least a foot or more away from road hazards that include depressions in the pavement, whether it’s rails exposed, or potholes.

      A line of travel for biking, relative to parked cars, similar to the exposed rail in this story’s picutures, I feel is a bit close to the door zone. Do what you want, but myself, I’d probably not ride that close to parked cars.

      Standard riding practice should include actively looking both far in advance, and close in front of the bike to be prepared to divert away from any and all hazards to riding.

      In advance is important, not just to avoid the hazard, but also to allow time, if at all possible, to raise an arm for a hand signal to let other road users know in advance of any needed change in line of travel.

      Appraising condition of the road ahead is hard work, harder and more critical for riding than it is for driving. Easier to do that though, than crashing into pavement fissures and breaks, or waiting for who knows how long for the city to be able to come up with the cash to fix all pavement issues promptly.

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    Todd Boulanger April 12, 2016 at 3:34 pm

    Dust them off and run the streetcar on them…’-)

    How about daylighting the old belgium block or bricks on this street as a “traffic” tool…some of the regional traffic might seek other routes.

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    Todd Boulanger April 12, 2016 at 3:35 pm

    PS. Welcome to the NW…these tracks have been showing themselves for at least 8 years…

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    Dwaine Dibbly April 12, 2016 at 5:42 pm

    The rails on 12th have been exposed for several years, at least. They’re another reason to take the lane. Anything to the right of the rails is in the door zone, so there’s really no choice.

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    Eric April 12, 2016 at 5:57 pm

    Also tracks are exposed on Milwaukie Ave. between SE Holgate and SE Powell.

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    RF April 12, 2016 at 10:30 pm

    The tracks on 15th are deadly when wet unless one is very careful. at least one broken wrist in my circle that I know of there.

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    Michael S April 12, 2016 at 10:50 pm

    In my opinion, as a cyclist you have to get used to actively used tracks. That’s the price we have to pay for good public transport. There’s research going on (e.g. in Zurich, Switzerland) with rubber fillings, but that will need some time, I’m afraid. Old unused tracks should be treated like potholes, whether in the door zone (as shown here) or not.

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    Champs April 13, 2016 at 8:43 am

    If you live or work in the Pearl like I have, this does not come up. You take the lane or use 13th/14th. If there is such a thing as a good place to have exposed rail, I’d put the door zone of a street with superior nearby alternatives at the top of the list.

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      Social Engineer April 13, 2016 at 8:58 pm

      Spend 10 minutes at 12th and Flanders during PM peak and you’ll see many bikes go by northbound on 12th. It’s a popular street with or without tracks. There are nebulous plans for a bikeway on 12th Avenue in the TSP, but PBOT does not have any designs on what this might look like.

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    JJJJ April 13, 2016 at 9:02 am

    Looks like a fantastic way to keep people out of the door zone. The last picture shows that the placement is perfect

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  • Adam H.
    Adam H. April 13, 2016 at 9:15 am

    I love seeing the old streetcar/rail tracks. Reminds me of a time before the private car took over.

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      Ted Timmons (Contributor) April 13, 2016 at 9:18 am

      Agree. A little wistful, but I get a little delighted when tracks or brick is peeking through in a new place.

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    Paul Wilkins April 13, 2016 at 10:50 am

    NE 30th between Killingsworth and Alberta had these rails for many years. A couple of years back, they were removed. Due to the viscosity of asphalt and the bus line, the tracks were exposed in some areas and also led to some serious washboard action approaching Killingsworth from the south.

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    Munkey77 April 13, 2016 at 11:27 am

    Whatever happened to city grant application to study the issues? Even without the grant the issue still needs to be addressed and has been for a very long time. I’d love to find out from area hospital how many people show up with bike at track related injuries.

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    rick April 13, 2016 at 1:10 pm

    Do the metal-studded tires help this situation?

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    Mike Sanders April 13, 2016 at 7:13 pm

    When the original Max lines were built downtown, they excavated the then-extant streets and discovered old bricks that once were used to pave the street, a century or so before. These bricks were recycled and used to mark the Max lanes on SW/NW 1st, and SW Morrison / Yamhill. (The 1st Avenue repair job next month will remove most of those bricks.) The exposed rails in much of NW date from this period, more than likely. Unless there are plans for streetcar extensions – not likely given the political climate at the moment – the solution to the problem of these exposed rails would be to excavate these streets and rebuild them.

    Also keep in mind that Glisan St. on the Eastside once had a streetcar line running along it. There used to be a station at Joan of Arc Circle (39th/Chavez & Glisan). To make room for the station, the Joan of Arc statue was moved off center within the circle. When the station was removed and the circle was filled in, they left Joan standing off center. If we ever get a new streetcar line there, that circle might, once again, house a streetcar station!

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    Branden April 13, 2016 at 10:04 pm

    I wrecked once on an old streetcar rail (but landed on my feet, I know weird) but i was on Thursday Night Ride and I did however have my sixth or seventh beer of the night in my left hand at the time, so other than for joyful revelers I have a hard time believing this is even an issue. As an aside unplanned dismounts are sometimes my favorite coincidental incidences on a ride.

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      Branden April 13, 2016 at 10:12 pm

      *incidents

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    K'Tesh April 14, 2016 at 9:01 am

    Dear PBOT… Look up the name Jeffery Totten, and see if you can justify the expense of repairing the road, or do you want to meet with lawyer of the person after something happens.

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    patrick April 14, 2016 at 12:18 pm

    There were similar exposed rails on NE 28th, running from Burnside all the way to Broadway. I wrote the city a few times about it and they were fairly responsive, to their credit. A couple of years ago during a complete repaving of 28th, the rails were covered up (though I don’t know if they were actually taken out, or just filled in/covered up). Wow, is it so much nicer to ride on now!

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