Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

Bicycles versus streetcar tracks?

April 4, 2012 - 02:22 PM
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(Photo: John Hendel)

Although I normally avoid pitting one mode of transportation against another (a la "bikes vs. cars"), the onset of streetcar tracks in D.C. may, I'd suggest, create a real obstacle for the city's growing bicycling population. The Washington Area Bicyclist Association has observed the challenges of biking alongside the metal tracks in the past, and I've talked to bicyclists who encountered difficulty in navigating the tracks laid for the first 2.5-mile H Street/Benning Road streetcar line set to open next year.

This week, Reddit user JayBeas shares an account of the danger — "The grooves in the tracks are just wide enough to eat your bike tire," he writes ominously. Read his tale here: 

After voting today, I took a different route to work than I usually do, which took me along H Street NE. I was aware of the streetcar tracks and thought I would be able to angle my wheels over them whenever I needed to cross the tracks. I was incorrect. I apparently didn't turn my wheel enough at one point and my front tire became caught in the track, flipping me and my bike. I did a pretty badass-looking (in my head) crash and roll towards the curb. It's a shame there weren't more people to see it, because I'm sure they would have been in awe of my awesome wreck and not laughing at the goofy white guy crashing his bike.

I came out of it with only a few cuts and bruises, and my bike seems to have survived pretty well.

Anyway, if you find yourself riding near the H Street NE corridor, you probably should just avoid the street altogether - the tracks are dangerous and there isn't a bike lane. I have learned my lesson.

Luckily this bicyclist only experienced some cuts and bruises, but it's a cautionary tale for the many who ride through. Make sure to wear a helmet. You wouldn't want to be thrown onto the hard surfaces of H Street without one.

Don't imagine this problem will be isolated. H Street's tracks run a couple of miles but D.C. has plans to build 37 miles worth of streetcar in the coming years, which will magnify the biking challenge.

D.C.'s Office of Planning commissioned a $500,000 initial report on how the streetcar network will evolve and also notes the problem: "Bicyclists and transit vehicles often leap-frog each other at transit stops creating a weaving pattern that can slow transit operations and increase hazards for all roadway users. Streetcar tracks can also pose a hazard to cyclists, as bike tires can get caught in the rails." Maybe, the report suggests, we need better lane markings or should have bicyclists and streetcars run on parallel streets? The hazard was also well chronicled on Greater Greater Washington last November after City Paper's Alex Baca took a tumble, and people's safety suggestions included better signs, the addition of bike lanes, or even a mid-street cycletrack on those hazardous streetcar-tracked roads. The city features multiple Capital Bikeshare stations along this stretch of H Street, which will hardly discourage cycling in what are arguably unsafe conditions.

The District Department of Transportation will hold a quarterly meeting on the streetcar progress next week: Thursday, April 12, from 6:30 to 8 p.m. at Spingarn High School—Cafeteria, 2500 Benning Road, NE.

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