Eyes on the Street: When Bicyclists Get Derailed by Streetcar Tracks

IMG_1720_1.jpgA bicyclist recuperates post-crash. Photo: Michael Rhodes

Bicycle wipe-outs at intersections with streetcar tracks, like Duboce and Church or 17th Street and Church, are so common that I could hardly compose a post about the phenomenon without overhearing the familiar thud and "Are you okay?" of a bicyclist taking a spill. In fact, that’s exactly what happened outside my window just now as I sat down to write.

Most of the time, cyclists are a bit shaken up, but okay. In the worst cases, I’ve seen people tumble head-first into parked cars and bounce off. Still, the worst damage is usually to their bikes, not to their person.

It’s not hard to imagine someone getting seriously injured in such a spill, however. Even the damage done in the routine wipeouts that happen nearly every day is rattling enough to merit greater attention.

Experienced bicyclists tend to figure out the best way to navigate the tracks, but what can be done to prevent less-experienced bicyclists from getting stuck in the rail depressions so regularly?

In Toronto, where bicyclists also have to contend with a maze of tracks, several at-grade railroad crossings are equipped with a rubber flange filler that is jammed down into the cracks of trolley tracks. The rubber is firm enough that it doesn’t compress when a bike passes over it, but when a streetcar comes it squishes down and doesn’t cause the train to derail.

The material is not used for Toronto’s extensive network of streetcar tracks in the city’s core, however, and bikes routinely get caught in the tracks. "The at-grade railroad crossings do have some of that incorporated, but certainly not the main hazards to cyclists, which are the arterial road streetcar tracks," said Yvonne Bambrick, Executive Director of the Toronto Cyclists Union.

"There’s a lot of places where several tracks meet and turn. They’re trickier to navigate, but folks that have been at it for a while have figured out how to do it. It’s not that hard: you pay attention and learn how to do it, it’s all good. It does catch people fairly regularly."

Like San Francisco, Toronto is struggling to implement its bike network plan. Bambrick says that the solution to the tracks hazard should be part of that plan. "Within a network we could definitely address the issue in a site-specific kind of way," said Bambrick, "but I think if we’re just looking at roads as they are now across the city, that’s not as likely to be addressed. I think it has to be looked at in a wider sense of a dedicated cycling network."

Short of a miracle material, which could pose a challenge to maintain in an extensive network of streetcar tracks like San Francisco’s, the solution could lie in marked pathways on the roadway to guide inexperienced riders.

"With an infrastructure upgrade … in those pathways where cyclists can be predictably going through, you can have something in that point on the tracks to help alleviate the issues of the crossing," said Bambrick. In San Francisco, that might mean a miniature version of sharrows, which are normally used to indicate to bicyclists the ideal place to ride to avoid being doored by parked cars.

Once the bike plan injunction is lifted, 17th Street is due to be striped with bike lanes. The lanes’ design takes into account the dangers of crossing Church from 17th Street, but not the danger of turning right onto 17th Street, westbound, from Church. The streetcar tracks at Duboce and Church will be completely replaced beginning next year, but without a solution to the bike wipeout problems. Neither of these projects have started yet, however, so there could still be time to advocate for designs that could avert this perilous problem.

2285643954_3f98494e23_o.jpgBicyclists must navigate a maze of tracks at Duboce and Market. Flickr photo: theoverheadwire
IMG_0396.jpgVictims of another wipeout on the curving streetcar tracks at 17th St and Church.

  • Paul

    I know how that is. I’ve been one of those poor champs on the floor. But its one of those things that you learning and hope you don’t make the same mistake twice. I feel bad for that person though.

  • great to see this issue getting some attention. i’d love to find out more about those Toronto rubber flange fillers — see some pictures, and get some put down so we can try them ourselves.

    with so many towns looking at streetcar systems, i’m inclined to think the best way to provide for safe cycling is to make the streetcars run in the middle traffic lanes. not sure how train/transit folks would feel about that.

    the alta planning doc is good (pdf):

    http://www.altaplanning.com/App_Content/files/pres_stud_docs/Bicycle_Streetcar_Memo.pdf

    Here’s some snippets from their questionairre:

    Bike Plan Source Streetcar Track Question General, US http://www.bikeplan.com/traxq.htm

    San Francisco Bicycle Plan, Policy Framework
    (2007 update, currently in litigation) San Francisco, CA http://www.sfmta.com/cms/bproj/documents/Draft_Entire_Plan_000.pdf

    Action 2.17: Inventory railroad tracks parallel or intersecting bicycle route network. “Appropriate measures should be undertaken to mitigate the impact of track crossings to bicyclists. Removal of unused tracks along the bicycle route network should be undertaken.” Also recommends “covering” tracks in asphalt paving if removal not feasible. Cross-section depict warning signage for track crossings.

    some more stuff in the report from the 97 SF bike plan.

    this velostrail stuff is mentioned in the report, too:

    http://www.strail.de/index.php?id=197&L=1

  • Michael Baehr

    One of those things you just have to learn to deal with. I’ve taken one spill in the tracks (at 11th and Market). The lessons learned: look down when there’s tracks nearby. And don’t crash near a bunch of cops! I wanted to crawl into a hole and die after the fourth one was all “OMG ARE YOU OK?”. The shame 😛

  • Aaron B.

    Maybe they could put a sign at Duboce & Church where cyclists enter the intersection on either side of Duboce that says something like “cross tracks at 90 degree angle”. On a straight shot from the bikeway to the right side of the street, there shouldn’t really be any parallel tracks, it’s just bumpy.

  • Nick

    You can add eastbound Ocean Avenue to the list (at the Balboa Park Station, with the 280 entrance on your left). There’s 3-4 overlapping sets of tracks in a bicyclist’s lane of travel, all centered on one small area of pavement.

    I’d say it’s worse than the rest, although there is less bike traffic.

  • Mario

    I got my ACL (knee ligament) torn and in need of reconstruction after a fall durin a left turn on 30th and San Jose (after going east on 30th). The J Church tracks turn right, 30th Street is slightly downhill, it was dark early in the morning, it had rained and I could feel how my front wheel got pointlessly stuck in the gap. An outbound J Church was headed towards me from behind, from a block a way at the moment of fall, and the operator had to stop and call the ambulance for me, but it could have been worse if it was closer.

    My girlfriend had her fall just one block away at 30th and Dolores, but thankfully could get up and continue biking with just a scrape on the knee.

    I am surprised how a lot of people I speak to are aware of the issue, yet despite our comparatively strong bicycle culture it is not one of the top bicycle safety priority.

  • thegreasybear

    During my year and a half of cycling roughly 15 miles daily, my only fall has been on the F Market tracks at Sutter. Nasty, nasty flesh wounds.

  • Spokker

    “I wanted to crawl into a hole and die after the fourth one was all “OMG ARE YOU OK?”.”

    Woah, a cop caring about your well-being?! That’s amazing. With the way people talk on these blogs you’d think he was going to start beating the shit out of you for falling off your bike.

  • bm

    “Experienced bicyclists tend to figure out the best way to navigate the tracks”

    Yes, it’s called a street with no tracks running parallel to your direction. As bikers need to maximize their ability to change position in the street and stay out of the door zone, bikes and tracks just don’t mix. Ride on a parallel street with no tracks.

  • amy

    I agree with Aaron B. about putting signs near the tricky crossings, but when there’s a multitude of tracks, it’s hard to know which ones to angle your bike toward.

    Another thing I’ve noticed is that spills tend to happen when the car waiting in the intersection makes a sharp turn or honks at the cyclist, forcing them to rush across without properly aligning themselves first. At least, on Church and Duboce, it seems either you risk getting run over because you take too long to cross, or you jam your wheel into the tracks because you tried to go with the flow of impatient traffic.

  • Count me in the chorus here. The only spill I’ve taken in the city is at 30th and Dolores during a downpour while trying to pass a stopped Muni bus that was taking on passengers. I didn’t pay enough attention to the tracks, caught my front tire and went down on my arm, scraping my elbow up pretty good. Still have a scar from it. I now have a hearty dislike of my flesh meeting pavement and a significant fear of god where Muni tracks are concerned.

  • ZA

    My old bruised ribs ache in sympathy.

  • g

    I crashed on market on the tracks it was a little rainy then the bike suddenly disappeared and it was just me and the pavement. There was a messenger behind me who laughed and a bus that luckily had just stopped.

  • g

    In terms of liability, the City is apparently sued for the tracks quite a bit, least that’s what I’ve heard. These actions are typically not successful because they are an obvious, know danger that is part of the street’s design. Right there for everyone to see.

    Rubberized tracks seem interesting but hard to maintain? There are also a lot of tracks, all over town. Same with warnings, lots of tracks, that’s lots of signs and money which=dollars.

    It seems education is the best way to approach this problem. But that too is kind of difficult because especially when wet the tracks are dangerous no matter what your skill level.

    There is not much ice around here but that of course can be bad too. Ice and metal.

    Bike network streets could maybe be rubberized/warned leave the rest. Lots of tracks in town.

  • rzu

    Signage in NZ for this exact problem. Hard to ignore, I suppose, but I don’t think it actually addresses the problem.

  • Aaron B.

    @g: signage shouldn’t be that expensive if it’s specifically targeted at heavily bike-trafficked areas with track – like, i mentioned before, Church & Duboce.

    Might as well throw my track story in there too – it was dumb – riding on judah out of 711 with a beverage in one hand, saw myself heading toward the tracks but couldn’t adjust in time with one hand. Still have the elbow scar as well.

    P.S. Today I got rear ended! Bent my new wheel I built like two weeks ago. But he drove me to where I needed to go, including two bike shops. It happened because the guy was a tired driver. If he had taken Muni he could’ve slept…

  • This was looked at by MTA bike program folks and I think the conclusion was that nobody is making any filler for that size track. Maybe that’s why Toronto hasn’t implemented it for their streetcars. If so, the company that makes them for the larger track size needs to make them for streetcar size too. Wonder who it is….

  • Jen

    I’m glad we’ve all got those stories. Mine – when I had just moved to SF, despite being a cyclist in other areas of the country (with no tracks), my boyfriend and I were out for a ride down Market. He asked me if I knew how to deal with tracks and gave me the “don’t get stuck in them” lecture, and not five minutes later I crashed in them because I just wasn’t paying attention. Luckily it was very late and we were all the way at the end of the street, so no one was around. Threw a foot into the back spokes as I went down and got all tangled in the bike. Not cute; not smart.

    The scariest one to me isn’t Church, it’s turning left onto Valencia from Market. The traffic is frustrating and trying to turn sharply into that left turn lane has made me occasionally fear that I’m not crossing at a severe enough angle. Almost bit it a few weeks ago, even though I take that intersection all the time.

  • Many of these problems seem to be caused mainly by automobiles. If they are making you crash, they are not sharing the road. How about if cars have to slow down around tracks? This would help alleviate pressure on cyclists to get through track areas quickly.

  • joe

    Great post… I’ve shared it with Toronto cyclists on the BikingToronto Forum.

  • poncho

    IMO you really have to try to take a parallel route, considering streetcars and good biking communities are built on the grided street pattern it is very simple to find a parallel route (often they have much less traffic and allow faster bike travel). if you must ride on a streetcar street then use extreme caution and preferably ride in the non-streetcar track lane even if it is the so-called “fast lane” (there is no such thing as a fast lane on regular city streets). i agree new streetcar tracks on two-way streets should be placed in the center of the street not the curb lanes. this is the case on most SF streetcar streets that are wider than 2 lanes total in each direction.

  • NoeValleyJim

    I too have crashed at 30th and Dolores. Funny how we all have that same story. I was flying down the street and my wheel actually got stuck and I was thrown over the handlebars. Had to wear shorts for two weeks while the road rash healed.

    I also hate that intersection at 30th and San Jose and don’t take it anymore.
    Instead I turn left at 30th and Church (which is a maze of track also, but at least I can take it slowly and not get buzzed by cars) and then ride down to 29th and cross San Jose there.

  • amy

    I haven’t taken a spill yet at 30th and Dolores, because I always avoid it, but I’ve seen quite a few near-accidents while crossing Market heading towards 16th + Church. The light is never long enough and forces cyclists to rush through the tracks, which can sometimes be dangerous.

    The most dangerous intersection for me = Junipero Serra coming from West Portal, where the KT turns towards Balboa Park, the M crosses for Stonestown and both merge towards West Portal inbound. Ugh.

  • I’d love to say “I’m a great experienced rider and I’d never wreck on streetcar (or rails) period! Only a dunce would”… but that would be a bit zealous!?!?!

    I’ve wrecked half a dozen times, even on tracks I’m super familiar with. I love LRT,Streetcars, etc, but jeez the tracks are frustrating sometimes.

    Also my Girlfriend took a serious spill here and got cut up, bashed up, and a little lacerated here in Portland too. We live right on the streetcar line downtown, and even though we know it is there, we still biff it sometime.

    It would be nice to have a solution to it…

    …but in a sense I think the intermittent minor (the major ones just suck) wrecks make us pay more attention and keep us alive in more dangerous areas & environments.

  • Transity Cyclist

    Toronto Streetcar tracks do not have rubber flanges. I suspect that the lack of implementation would be due to our snow, salt, and ice damage during winters. But then again, why would rubber flanges even exist in Toronto in the first place?

  • Oh well, I guess I am NOT an experience cyclist. What constitutes that exactly? Last week in Toronto, I was about to turn left (southbound) on Parliament Street coming from Gerrard Street. My front wheel caught in this particularly busy with streetcar tracks’ intersection and since I didn’t have speed, I feel opposite the direction I was heading and broken my tibia plateau and damaged my knee’s cartilage.

    OK, I may not be an experienced cyclist, yet, it doesn’t take away from the danger that streetcar tracks poses to us all.

    Ouch!

    Martine

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