How Should Streetcars and Bikes Interact?

Bike lane or streetcar track? With rubber inserts, perhaps it could be both. Photo: DDOT via ##
Bike lane or streetcar track? With rubber inserts, perhaps it could be both. Photo: DDOT via ##

Streetcar service could finally begin this year in Washington, DC. Trial runs are already taking place. And the debate about how people on bikes will navigate the tracks is already raging.

Last week, the District Department of Transportation quietly proposed streetcar regulations that would ban bicycling within a streetcar guideway except to cross the street. Most immediately, that would prohibit bicycles on H Street NE, one of the city’s premier nightlife hotspots for young people, many of whom arrive on bikes — in part because the area has been underserved by transit until now. There are no fewer than seven Capital Bikeshare stations along the corridor.

But a bike ban on streetcar corridors could have far broader implications when DC builds out its full streetcar network, which DDOT dreams of building out the network to eight lines over 37 miles throughout the city.

DDOT clarified on its Facebook page that it was proposing to prohibit bikes “in the area of the concrete surrounding the rails (effectively the lane the streetcar is running in)… Not the entire street right-of-way.” That means, DDOT says, that cyclists can ride in the left lane — which would undoubtedly lead to conflicts with cars accustomed to seeing cyclists hugging the right edge. If DDOT is serious about that, perhaps they could paint sharrows to inform drivers that bikes have a right to be in the left lane.

Either way, a bike ban is not the best way to deal with what is, by all accounts, a thorny situation.

The Washington Area Bicyclist Association acknowledges that “streetcar tracks can pose a legitimate hazard to bicyclists” but insists that “banning bikes is not an acceptable solution.”

It’s a “solution” that came up earlier this year in Tucson and in 2012 in Toronto, where a cyclist died when his wheel got stuck in the tracks of a streetcar system that doesn’t even run anymore. Lots of cities have struggled to find ways to make the interaction between bicycles and streetcars less perilous.

As someone who has wiped out on streetcar tracks, I can attest that a solution is needed, or else H Street runs the risk of becoming a death trap for people on two wheels, sacrificing one form of sustainable transportation for the sake of another. Luckily, there are lots of options.

First of all, there’s no reason for cyclists to eat pavement because of abandoned streetcar tracks. Even if it’s expensive to remove the tracks, as cities usually claim, there’s no reason they can’t fill them in with cement.

Jonathan Maus at BikePortland, in search of a good solution for his city, found a German product called veloSTRAIL, a plastic insert for rail tracks designed to depress under a streetcar wheel but not a bike, but it’s designed for a different kind of rail than what they have in Portland.

Streetsblog’s own Steven Vance found an even simpler solution years ago. He advocates for rubber flanges in streetcar tracks that are depressed by the weight of a streetcar wheel but not a bike. The only place he knows of where it’s used in the U.S. is on the extremely low-traffic Cherry Avenue Bridge track in Chicago that sees no more than a few trains a month. Here’s a video that gives a pretty good idea of what it’s like to ride on these tracks:

WABA has talked to DDOT about the rubber idea, but it hasn’t really taken hold yet. Where streetcar lines haven’t been built yet, WABA demands that they be accompanied by separated bike lanes.

DDOT did build contraflow bike lanes on G and I Streets NE to divert cyclists away from H Street, but as WABA’s Greg Billing notes, “all the stores and restaurants are on H Street,” so at some point cyclists will leave those facilities and have to figure out a way to navigate H Street. Billing notes that riding on the sidewalk is a “very contentious issue in the community,” but given the astronomical number of crashes that have already happened since the tracks went in, it might be cyclists’ best option. After all, riding in the street could send cyclists to the hospital not only with their injuries, Billing said, but with a ticket — and insurance might not cover their medical bills if they were breaking the law by riding in the street.

Seattle has also seen a rash of crashes due to streetcar tracks. Although a lawsuit brought by six injured cyclists was ultimately thrown out, it did result in better designs for new lines. The First Hill Streetcar will run in the center lane where there is not a dedicated bike lane, and separate bike lanes will be installed along about a mile of the route [PDF]. The city also striped a new bike lane along the existing streetcar line. You can see how the city marked a safe 90-degree crossing for cyclists in this Streetfilm.

Other places are trying out far more innovative ideas. In the Netherlands, separate bike lanes are the norm, keeping bicycles out of streetcar tracks, and bike lanes are engineered to always cross the tracks at a right angle. Alta Planning + Design has compiled other best practices and recommendations for bikes and streetcar tracks [PDF], mostly focusing on separated bike lanes and center-running streetcar tracks.

Sounds like a good idea for DC’s seven unbuilt streetcar lines.

31 thoughts on How Should Streetcars and Bikes Interact?

  1. Separated bike infrastructure is always preferable, especially along what looks like a busy streets (of course, this street doesnt have separated train infrastructure either….), but that rubber seems like a good idea. Why isnt it in wider use? How often does it need to be replaced?

  2. Bikes and cars should be banned from streetcar lanes. It doesn’t make sense to make a big capital and operational investment in transit and then have it be trapped behind slow bikes and cars stuck in traffic.

  3. Cities could solve this problem by continuing their bus service instead of spending tens of millions to replace it with streetcars that are almost always slower. There are bus/bike conflicts to be sure, but a bus is a more maneuverable vehicle than a streetcar and doesn’t create a trench for bicyclists to fall into.

  4. Flangeway filling on active embedded tracks is only part of the issue.

    (Plus it seems the solutions may not be yet ready for prime time anyway: )

    Inexperienced cyclists — and even the very experienced! — can and will wipe out on steel rails when they are anything but bone dry. It’s simply in the nature of the physics of the materials.

    The answer for how cyclists and any steel in the roadway should interact is “with caution”, and “with great caution” when it is wet. The answer for how cyclists and any sort of non-perpendicular groove in the road surface should interact is “with great caution”.

    Luckily, we have the examples of hundreds of thousands of bicycle riders in hundreds of cities around the world to show that this can be done by normal human beings.

    Blanket bans, especially for the sort of stupid US “streetcar” low-frequency low-speed low-ridership joke civic vanity projects, are entirely counter-productive.

  5. In Hong Kong, there’s a tramway system running in the urban core on the Hong Kong island and it is pretty much the de-facto bike lane on the island. The government does not encourage bike use on the island nor has any plans to provide cycle paths there. However the tram system has dedicated lanes on many parts of the system and that cyclists use them to avoid very busy car, bus, and truck traffic on regular lanes. The trams run about 10-15 mph so the speed is very similar to the bikes.

  6. Fair point and just one of a multitude of reasons not build rail if it isn’t absolutely necessary, but even if no other rail line is ever built there’s still a matter of what to do with the trackway that does exist already.

  7. Except…is there any evidence that “streetcars…are almost always slower” than buses they replace? Even specific examples, let alone in general?

    To say the least, there is no reason bikes and transit – streetcars or buses or sometimes even respectively streetcars and buses – can’t each have their own lane.

  8. We should consider that 100 years ago, cities were full of streetcar tracks. How did the bicyclists of that era cope with the situation?

  9. A bus in an offset from the curb general traffic lane can go around a car that’s backing into a spot or double parked, stopped delivery vehicles, cars waiting for pedestrians to clear the crosswalk to turn, and cars just not pulled all the way into the parking spot. Streetcars can’t.

    Streetcars poorly done are slower and less reliable than buses.

  10. The article mentions a cyclist dying after an accident along an abandoned streetcar line in Toronto, then mentions that the streetcar system no exists. That is not correct, Toronto still has an active streetcar system that just started using new streetcars. That line where the cyclist died was converted to bus (I believe).

  11. Streetcar lines were always in the center of streets, which is where they belong and where they are in the Netherlands. Putting them to the right just creates problems, such as endangering cyclists, and guaranteeing that streetcars are delayed by double-parked cars, trucks, etc.

  12. Yes, I’m familiar with the meme (zombie idea?). But where, in practice, have streetcars been so “poorly done” that they ended up “slower and less reliable than buses”?

    Without dedicated lanes, buses themselves are pretty slow and unreliable. Paradoxically, they might need them more than streetcars do!

  13. I disagree that the streetcar tracks make it difficult for bicyclists to access H Street. I have biked up, down and across H Street and visited businesses on H Street countless times since the tracks were installed. (Indeed, millions of residents of Amsterdam, Munich, Zurich, Brussels, Vienna, Basel, Prague, etc., etc., etc. somehow manage to navigate cities with extensive streetcar systems without incident every day.)

    Since the contraflow bike lanes were installed on G and I Streets, it has never been easier for bicyclist to get to or through the H Street neighborhood. Even before the bike lanes were installed, I preferred those streets to H: less traffic, no buses, more shade, quieter, etc. The bike lanes cement it for me.

    As for accessing a business on H, I have come up with a pretty ingenious approach: I bike down G or I until I get to the cross street nearest my destination, then bike one block north or south to the corner of H, where I get off my bike and find a place to lock it up. I know I am a pretty tough and hardy person, but I I imagine that most bicyclists could also tackle the one block detour that this approach requires.

    I agree that DDOT screwed up by putting the tracks in the right lane rather than in a dedicate lane in the middle of the street. (But God forbid DDOT take away traffic lanes from suburban commuters, their most important constituency!) I also agree that banning bicyclists on H Street would be an even bigger mistake and that flanges of some type make sense. But I strongly disagree that the streetcar tracks make it difficult for bicyclists to get to or through the H Street neighborhood.

  14. Really does seem like a trivial issue. Put in perspective: streetcar tracks are less dangerous than, say, complicated right turns made by trucks (or buses), which nobody here bats an eye about.

    There is a real issue with streetcars though. They’re often quiet enough, at least in other countries, that you can’t hear them coming. Diesel engines on buses and trucks are louder. Clearly they must be banned. Everything that isn’t mandatory should be banned.

  15. H Street NE has always been problematic for bicyclists because of
    traffic volume and inattentive drivers. The proposed ban therefore
    just reinforces common sense.

    The easy drill is: 1) Bike east or west along G St NE or I St NE until you get to the numbered street closest to your destination. 2) Turn left or right to get to H St. 3) Get off your bike and walk it on the sidewalk the half block to your destination.

    You may have a problem after that, as there is currently little bike parking on H St. You will have NO problem crossing H St perpendicular to the tracks.

    Finally, what is the point of building a trolley line without a dedicated lane. It is seeing the trolley go faster than their gridlocked vehicle that will get people out of their cars and thereby reduce traffic.

  16. It’s not just that the tracks are dangerous, most bicyclists are also not aware that streetcars can’t just “stop” if something happens. I agree, it’s better to not have bicyclists on streetcar tracks. It makes sense, even if it goes against the bicycling mantra of being “everywhere”. It is not safe. And those rubber things would probably wear off quickly if there is a train every 10 min rather than every month. I am happier bicycling where it’s safe and where there is bike lane.

  17. In New Orelans, streetcars run in the neutral ground between roads or in dedicated railways in some places, but there are others where bikes, cars and streetcars coexist (and some of those areas like along Carondelet Street are much more tightly congested than H Street NE.) A few years ago, RTA put out a series of videos “Tracks Can Kill” — — highlighting the potential dangers for cyclists, joggers, and motorists.

  18. This is what is truly absurd. Electric streetcars do not put out the lethal fine particles that poison and kill an estimated 1,421 people in New York City every year.

    That would be motor vehicle drivers.

    If one is looking at a car’s exhaust, bear in mind that the smoke we see is composed of thousands of fine particles. Each one of them is like a lottery ticket. Breathe one in and you are playing the “Motor Vehicle Death Lottery.” There are 1,421 grand prizes awarded in New York City every year.

    Electric streetcars do not do that.

  19. This is a comment from The Transport Politic, a basically pro-rail website, from a story on streetcar development:

    But the difficult side of the story is that many of the projects are
    planned to be constructed in a manner that provides an inferior quality
    of service than the bus lines they replace. In one city, the transit agency proposed building a line with only one track,
    making it impossible to increase the frequency of service (the
    situation was fortunately resolved in a second grant); in others, the streetcar lane would be located in a section of the street vulnerable
    to considerable delays from backed-up and turning cars — because
    streetcars, unlike buses, are not able to navigate around sources of
    delay. Vehicles proposed for services have universally been of limited
    capacity, meaning they offer little improvement in terms of passenger
    space over articulated buses.

    My comment: If you give either a streetcar or a bus a dedicated lane, it will go faster, it will function more like a European tram. But that is rarely happening these days, with either mode.

  20. In many cases, streetcars are faster than buses. Particularly in heavily trafficked routes.

    Why? Because streetcars each have much greater capacity, and can even be connected together to form streetcar trains. Putting too many buses on a route causes them to get in each other’s way.

  21. The problem is none of those technologies is quite reliable yet, so putting them in might be worse than nothing. Youd have cyclists getting used to riding along rails, then the flange fillers would fail at the worst possible time. Not to mention beimg expensive.

    I think the status quo is actually ok. You can ride in streetcar lanes, you just need to be very careful when doing so.

  22. Nobody in his/her right mind is saying there aren’t problems with American streetcar implementations, most going back to frequency, but that still doesn’t say anything about whether they’re better or worse than buses they replaced.

  23. How about start with SEPTA route 15. Compare scheduled run times today with the buses before 2005.

    What is inherent about buses that makes them need a dedicated lane more than a less maneuverable vehicle?

  24. I don’t see an obvious place to find a historical bus schedule for Girard Ave., but I see the current schedule are about 4TPH, peaking around 6TPH. And daytime run times seem to range between 45m and 55m. Low-ish frequency, but hardly seems abnormal. Given the run is made in 28m at late nights, imagine what dedicated lanes and maybe some stop reduction could do!

    Maybe being perceived to be more maneuverable is the problem, causing drivers not to be arsed to get out of the way. Besides that, as much as being able to maneuver around an obstacle is an advantage for buses in some scenarios, I wouldn’t overplay it considering buses are inferior with regard to turns and acceleration.

  25. Thanks, but what’s the problem? It looks like anywhere from 4 to 10 minutes has been cut off the trip and frequency is up.

  26. Morning runs from Front and girard to 63rd and girard take the trolley ~43 minutes. For example, leave at 7:35 arrive at 8:18. The bus scheduled to leave at 7:38 arrived at 8:18, ~40 minutes

  27. So, people traveling terminal to terminal suffer a 3m penalty? :-p

    I see my comparison before was bad because of a terminal shift, but the time difference in the segment you selected seems to be due to the trolley looping. Midpoint trips, which are much more important, seem mostly to be the same or slightly in favor of the tram.

    Either way, almost all the differences are very negligible. But I don’t see a single negative change as far as service is concerned. Whether they need to or not, they’re roughly adhering to the old bus schedule.

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