Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

The District isn't quite sure how to balance streetcars and bikes

April 12, 2012 - 09:45 AM
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(Photo: DDOT)

This week, the District Department of Transportation released copies of its design criteria and standard drawings, which amount to hundreds of pages from January about how the proposed 37-mile, eight-line streetcar network will run. These documents provide a great peek into how city officials are imagining the network, the first line of which is supposed to open on H Street next year, but one big question remained as I looked through the pages — how the hell are these big clunky streetcars and their obtrusive tracks going to coincide with D.C.'s bike commuting population?

The H Street tracks (placed alongside multiple Capital Bikeshare stations) have already caused bicyclist accidents here in D.C. My conclusions after looking through all these documents, among others, is that while DDOT remains very aware of the concern, there's hardly any sort of silver bullet that'll fix the conflict between these two modes of transportation. Multi-modal is all fun and games until the modes start crashing into one another.

What of bike lanes? Many suggest those may solve the problem. Simply allow bicyclists to ride apart from the hard tracks, and transportation life will be easier for all. Except that idea of bike lane safety is not quite borne out by the critical documents that DDOT is basing its plans on.

Blurry sketches. (Photo: DDOT)

Portland, Oregon faced this bicyclist-streetcar conflict already, and Alta Planning + Design produced an Oct. 17 2008 report called "Bicycle Interactions and Streetcars: Lessons Learned and Recommendations," which addresses the concerns. DDOT, wisely enough, points to this report among its codes and standards in developing our own streetcar network and says our system should be "consistent" with its conclusions. Yet the Portland report doesn't suggest much harmony between the two modes.

"Research to date demonstrates unquestionably that streetcar tracks pose a safety issue for bicyclists," the Portland memo concludes.

And bike lanes?

"If a bike lane is provided on a street with right-running tracks, bicyclists are still subject to a heightened risk of crashing on tracks because any left turns or evasive maneuvers from the bike lane result in a shallow crossing angle. Analysis of survey crash data indicates that a large percentage of track crashes occur because of bicyclist evasive maneuvers."

Damn. Portland's streetcar designs "have not provided adequately," the '08 report continues, and "many cyclists report having crashed on tracks and experiencing anxiety and fear about the possibility of a crash." In September of 2011, Jonathan Maus of Bike Portland wrote of the ongoing problem there: "The way I see it is, doing nothing is not an option. The tracks are in the ground, and people continue to get hurt ... Imagine if this traffic hazard occurred in some other context." In Alta's survey of 1,520 Portland cyclists, over 67% reported crashing their bikes on the streetcar tracks, and while 7 out of 10 injuries were minor, close to a hundred respondents reported broken bones or serious joint injuries. Two dozen reported head or neck trauma. Portlandia actor Fred Armisen stopped bike commuting because the idea of Portland's streetcar tracks "put the fear of death into me."

Other major safety possibilities, which the D.C. Office of Planning and DDOT note, include cycletracks — separated from traffic — and parallel routes for bikes and streetcars. Yet the initial drawings suggest and anticipate mixed-use scenarios involving both bikes and streetcars. One feature of many drawings is the inclusion of dedicated bike lanes, which is better than the current mess on H Street (tracks without bike lanes and without even streetcar transit to show for it). But adding this new mode of streetcar transportation, with its more dangerous infrastructure, still poses acknowledged risks even with bike lanes. The city naturally suggests education for bicyclists and positive steps like better signage for all (such as a proposed sign that says "Shared Lanes: Street Car and Automobiles, Be Alert"). But these steps don't eliminate the infrastructural challenge or reduce the core risks of juggling these modes of transportation. Perhaps it's a risk D.C. will learn to live with and can alleviate with education? The District, based on plans so far, is not separating bikes and streetcar tracks. H Street features Capital Bikeshare right there next to them. New drawings show bike lanes and bike parking at streetcar stops. Is there carelessness in promoting biking alongside streetcar tracks without the appropriate safety warnings, education, and infrastructure? That's what's happening now on H Street.

A New Orleans PSA released last month, on the other hand, warns bicyclists to steer clear of streetcar tracks because "tracks can kill."

The 2008 Portland recommendations, which inform how DDOT is talking about these mode interactions now, are:

• Streetcar tracks and platforms should be center-running or left-running wherever possible.

• Bicycle facilities should be separated from streetcar tracks as much as possible by:

a. Developing a parallel, excellent bicycle facility.

b. Creating high-quality cycle tracks or bicycle lanes adjacent to streetcar tracks.

c. Offering 90 degree track crossings whenever possible, by positioning the bike lane or cycle track to cross at 90 degrees (see photo on page 9); signing and/or marking the best angle for tuning (see photo, above) and creating “Melbourne left turn” opportunities (see page 15).

• Develop a policy framework for future bicycle and streetcar integration, including:

a. Developing policies related to bicycle integration in streetcar planning processes.

b. Developing innovative design guidelines for integrated streetcar and bicycle facilities.

c. Developing performance measures to evaluate safety.

• Create supporting programs for education and wayfinding.

DDOT has, to the department's credit, absorbed some of the suggestions and refers to specific elements its officials will consider: "Skew angle between the bike lanes and streetcar tracks shall be near perpendicular (no less than 60 degrees) to minimize interaction between the bike wheel and track flangeway, and reduce slippage on wet rails," DDOT writes in one significant part of its design criteria. "Bike lanes shall avoid track switches and tight radius curves." Let's hope these ideas, as well as others about signage and coordinating streetcar stops and bike lanes, collectively cut the risks down to negligable levels.

Remember though, we'll eventually be facing 37 miles of these streetcar tracks throughout the District of Columbia in all eight wards. The mode conflict may seem minor now, but tomorrow will be here before we know it. "Designing streetcar lines without serious consideration of bicyclists," writes Mia Birk, an Alta planner and former bike coordinator of Portland, "will cost more in the long run, as it’s always harder to fix things than doing them well in the first place." Amsterdam, several suggest, is one city that successfully separates its bikeways from its streetcar tracks and frequently sets up the crossing of tracks and bike paths at safer perpendicular angles. Often, however, the perils of urban geometry, as Jarrett Walker has observed, prevent such innovations. Portland, three and a half years after its bike-streetcar report, still hasn't solved the problem, apparently.

Luckily D.C. notes that these documents are very much living and subject to revision. The debate on how to successfully integrate the two modes will hopefully continue and receive plenty of input from the city's residents at large, especially as the District's many robust bike infrastructure projects continue as D.C. streetcar rides forward.

Chocolate strawberries
Phase 3 of D.C. Streetcar. (Photo: DDOT)
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