Cyclists and streetcar tracks don't mix

cycling in Toronto
CC BY 2.0 Wikipedia/ Hallgrimsson

TreeHugger loves bikes, and we love streetcars too. The problem is, they often don’t play nice together. When riding my bike in Toronto, there is nothing that scares me more than to be stuck on a street with streetcar tracks and find that some big truck is parked, probably a construction vehicle with orange cones out, where cyclists are forced out into the streetcar tracks. Or turning left at an intersection where two streetcar lines cross; it is a mess of track spaghetti. I know many people who have got stuck in them and flipped off their bikes; a dear friend did it just last Thursday and is in bed now with a mild concussion, a shattered helmet and a few broken ribs.

Toronto has lots of streetcar tracks, and more and more cities in the US are installing them. Those cities should consider this recent study, Bicycling crashes on streetcar (tram) or train tracks: mixed methods to identify prevention that looked at how cyclists and streetcar tracks interact, and it isn't pretty. It was prepared by a team led by Kay Teschke of the School of Population and Public Health, University of British Columbia (previously in TreeHugger here and here) From the study:

We compared personal, trip, and route infrastructure characteristics of 87 crashes directly involving streetcar or train tracks to 189 crashes in other circumstances in Toronto, Canada. We complemented this with engineering information about the rail systems, interviews of personnel at seven bike shops about advice they provide to customers, and width measurements of tires on commonly sold bikes.

The number of cyclists having track-related crashes is significant, roughly a third of reported crashes in the study period. They looked at physical factors like the design of the tracks or the width of tires and found that narrow tires were involved in more accidents than wider, hybrid tires, but that except for fat bikes, all of the normal tires could get caught in the flange.

Boar in the CityBoar in the City/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

I can attest that when I tried out the Boar electric fat bike, I felt like the king of the road on streets with tracks, it was the first time I felt totally safe crossing them, which may well be a point in favour of using fat bikes in the city.

Left turn crashes are also common; this is why I always make a two-stage left turn like a pedestrian might, never going through the spaghetti. The study authors recommend this too and note, as we do again and again, that it is all about design:

Protected intersections, cycle tracks and designated rail rights of way all follow the Swedish “Vision Zero” transport safety principle: acknowledging the inevitability of human error and providing route designs that minimize its consequences. This vision aims to eliminate deaths and serious injuries related to transportation and is beginning to be adopted by other jurisdictions in Europe and North America.

The authors concluded that choice of tire could make a difference, but I have been on all kinds of bikes and really, you have to go fat for it to matter. They also note that many who got caught in tracks were inexperienced riders, so a bit of training would help. There is good information on the City of Toronto website here and on IBikeTO.

But the real answer is infrastructure.

Our results showed that route infrastructure makes a difference to the odds of track-involved injuries. Dedicated rail rights of way, cycle tracks, and protected intersections that direct two-stage left turns are policy measures concordant with a Vision Zero standard. They would prevent most of the track-involved injury scenarios observed in this study.

This is what is done in other countries; after Toronto cyclist Joe Mavec died after getting his wheel caught in streetcar tracks, I asked James Schwartz of the Urban Country how it's done in Amsterdam. He explained:

Here in Toronto it is common to ride alongside streetcar tracks and be forced to merge into the streetcar tracks. The Dutch largely ensure this won’t happen because they provide bike lanes that keep cyclists safely away from streetcar tracks. It should also be pointed out that the speed limit on this street is 30km/h. The streets in downtown Toronto with streetcar tracks that I navigate on a daily basis have a speed limit of 50km/h with cars often driving at speeds exceeding 50km/h outside of peak hours when traffic is less congested. Perhaps a healthy combination of bicycle infrastructure, rider education and lower speed limits is the solution to avoid unfortunate incidents like this one.

narrow bike spaceWikipedia/ Hallgrimsson/CC BY 2.0

The problem is that many of the streets with streetcars do not have room to do dedicated rights of way or separated cycle tracks. This is a common situation, you can see that there is not much room between the cars and the tracks. Someone opens their door or a wide truck parks and you are forced into the tracks. It's why many in Toronto are demanding a Maximum Grid where there are alternate safe routes. Or at some point, a decision will have to be made about whether cyclist safety is more important than storing empty cars on public property.

toronto hydro truckLloyd Alter/ Toronto Hydro sets up a temporary bike lane/CC BY 2.0

I would also add that there has to be some real education of the construction crews, utilities and others with wide vehicles who often force cyclists out into the tracks. One utility, Toronto Hydro, seems to be particularly thoughtful about cyclists, setting up bollard bike lanes for them. All the others? Go get yourself killed.

Cyclists and streetcar tracks don't mix
We love streetcars and we love bikes, but a third of the bike crashes in Toronto happen in the streetcar tracks.

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