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Old 01-11-10, 09:55 PM   #1
SweetLou
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Streetcar Rail Hazard

It looks like my hometown is planning on installing streetcars. Of course, the rails will be parallel to the travel of vehicles on the road. Whereas motor vehicles will have no problem crossing over the rails when changing lanes, a bicycle will have to overcome this hazard.

I'm just wondering about the legality of a city to intentionally install a road hazard? Has anyone ever heard of a city, county, etc. being sued because of a bicycle crashing due to the parallel rails?
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Old 01-11-10, 10:24 PM   #2
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It looks like my hometown is planning on installing streetcars. Of course, the rails will be parallel to the travel of vehicles on the road. Whereas motor vehicles will have no problem crossing over the rails when changing lanes, a bicycle will have to overcome this hazard.

I'm just wondering about the legality of a city to intentionally install a road hazard? Has anyone ever heard of a city, county, etc. being sued because of a bicycle crashing due to the parallel rails?

It's not the rails, it's the depression beside the rail for the wheel flange to drop into, that causes most bicycle related incidents. Streetcars typical run on fairly wide roads, so avoiding the tracks in parallel is not difficult, as long as your aware of how to treat them properly when crossing them. Never cross a rail at an angle of less then 45 degrees the closer to 90 degrees the better. This means the best way to handle left turns is to box the corner rather then using the left turnout. Boxing a corner means you stay on the right side, go through the intersection, then turn your bike in the new direction and proceed while staying on the right side of the lane. Hopefully the city uses PSA's to tell cyclists how to deal with the tracks. The danger zone is typically the 10cm on either side of the gap beside the rail.
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Old 01-12-10, 12:25 AM   #3
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I believe Seattle is facing claims over its streetcar rails. Streetcars have been around since before bicycles, and they coexisted for decades on city streets before the private car became king, so you probably won't be able to keep rails off your streets, but there are many things that can be done to reduce the hazards streetcar rails pose for cyclists, wheelchairs, etc.

I know both Seattle and Portland have active cycling communities that have had something to say about their streetcar lines, might be worth your time to connect with cycling organizations and cycling injury attorneys in those cities.
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Old 01-12-10, 08:15 AM   #4
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Little Rock installed trolley tracks and trolleys in its downtown & River Market areas in 2004. This is a pretty high-traffic area, with very narrow (10-foot) traffic lanes. On long stretches of street it makes it nearly impossible for bikes, since you simply have no place to go, and no space to get your wheels perpendicular to the tracks to cross them. I've lost count of how many diverting falls, broken collarbones, and other fractures these things have caused. I will ride a couple blocks out of the way to avoid these things...
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Old 01-12-10, 10:29 AM   #5
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I live in San Jose where we have a light rail system, with most of the tracks running down the center divide between traffic lanes. In many areas, there are physical barriers which prevent other vehicles from driving over where the tracks are, which means that from a bicycle perspective, there is no need to worry about changing lanes. The light rail has provisions for bicycles so that you can bring your bike on board the train and although I don't take advantage of it that often, this greatly extends my wife's car-free range.

I would look at the installation of streetcars as being a positive development, but do make sure that they consider bicycles in the planning.
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Old 01-12-10, 10:49 AM   #6
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I've ridden both San Jose and Little Rock, and San Jose definitely has a better setup on th elight rail business. You can actually go somewhere useful on the San Jose system, whereas Little Rock's trolley just sort of circles the downtown area at s l o w speed. I can always get there faster on the bike than by trolley, even after taking detours to stay away from the trolley tracks ;-)

LR simply laid the tracks down the center of a narrow traffic lane, so there's always conflict between cars, bikes, and trolleys. The trolley is separated only when it goes over the River Bridge on Main Street.
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Old 01-12-10, 11:25 AM   #7
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The San Jose method seems pretty good. It seems like anytime you need to cross the rails, you will be doing it near perpendicular. It sounds like the plan for my hometown will be more like Little Rock's though. It will be going from the river, through town then up to the university. Coming from the university is a long steep hill. There are no wide roads up the hill, so I assume they will be just adding the tracks to the narrow lane. To widen the road would cost a lot of money, where they could. A lot of excavation of the hill would need to be done. Also this is kind of an older area and there is just no room to widen the roads without tearing down the houses.
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Old 01-12-10, 11:55 AM   #8
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I live in San Jose where we have a light rail system, with most of the tracks running down the center divide between traffic lanes. In many areas, there are physical barriers which prevent other vehicles from driving over where the tracks are, which means that from a bicycle perspective, there is no need to worry about changing lanes.
Note, this is quite a bit different than streetcars. Light rail systems are designed so that they do not interoperate with traffic. They run in their own right-of-way (in your case, between lanes), and are even sometimes grade separated.

A street car is designed to operate in the same lanes as other traffic. They are supposed to mingle with existing vehicular traffic. These are the type of rails that cyclists would have troubles with.

Street cars are cheaper than light rail systems and have less of an impact on existing neighborhoods. Denver is looking at streetcars in its old five points neighborhood as well as along E Colfax Ave to relieve congestion along bus lines in these areas without the cost or impact a light rail system would have.
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Old 01-12-10, 12:09 PM   #9
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This is merely a thought, and I haven't checked the FRA regs. in regards to this:

Considering the weight of the railcars vs. an 175lb person on a 20 pound bike, what prevents a strip of rubber - hard enough to remain rigid under a bicycle and its rider, but soft enough to deflect from the wheel flange of a 50 ton railcar - from being inserted in any gap that doesn't contain switch points?

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Old 01-12-10, 01:01 PM   #10
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This is merely a thought, and I haven't checked the FRA regs. in regards to this:

Considering the weight of the railcars vs. an 175lb person on a 20 pound bike, what prevents a strip of rubber - hard enough to remain rigid under a bicycle and its rider, but soft enough to deflect from the wheel flange of a 50 ton railcar - from being inserted in any gap that doesn't contain switch points?

-Kurt
Nothing -- that's called flangeway filler, and it's a commercially-available product. It costs more and does wear out eventually, so it's usually used only at intersections, not along an entire line.

Last edited by jputnam; 01-12-10 at 01:05 PM.
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Old 01-12-10, 05:47 PM   #11
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The San Jose method seems pretty good. It seems like anytime you need to cross the rails, you will be doing it near perpendicular. It sounds like the plan for my hometown will be more like Little Rock's though. It will be going from the river, through town then up to the university. Coming from the university is a long steep hill. There are no wide roads up the hill, so I assume they will be just adding the tracks to the narrow lane. To widen the road would cost a lot of money, where they could. A lot of excavation of the hill would need to be done. Also this is kind of an older area and there is just no room to widen the roads without tearing down the houses.
There is quite a bit of work to do to the street anyway, streetcar tracks need a concrete foundation, the cars are quite heavy and the contact points are small, essentially they dig out the street, any utilities that are directly below where the tracks need to be are relocated to the sides, digging up the tracks for a watermain repair is NOT an option. Now you fill in all the holes, putting a concrete footing under where the tracks go, on top of this you place railway ties, sometimes they use metal, sometimes treated wood, the tracks go on top of this, usually continuous welded rail, you bury the whole thing up to the tracks in concrete. The road on either side is also often concrete underneath so that the whole thing doesn't settle at different rates, which would produce a major traffic hazard. All this takes months or years even when the street is either closed or you need detour lanes. The road allowance is probably a lot wider then you think, it's been common for at least the last 75 years or so, to make the road allowance for a 2 lane road, a chain (~66') wide. Within this chain width you have the road lanes, the sidewalks, utility poles, utility lines and anything else the city needs, and typically there is 3' of working space on either side.
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Old 01-13-10, 06:39 AM   #12
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Here in CHicago we have a short industrial freight branchline that runs down the middle of a few secondary streets. This is an actual freight railroad, they only operate a few times a week with a smaller switcher locomotive pulling a handful of cars. It can be tough riding along as one of the streets is already poorly maintained. It is composed of three branches, one of which goes through a very upscale neighborhood. All the yuppies really hate it and b-itch about it.
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Old 01-13-10, 07:13 AM   #13
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Having grown up in Melbourne AUS and now living in Hong Kong (both cities with trams), I have to say that it is not too hard to avoid the tracks if you have your brain in gear.

Sure, I've had at least one good accident involving a 700x23 tyre and a tram track (you just slot right in!), but it ain't rocket science to learn how to jink the front wheel so that it crosses at a big enough angle not to cause a crash.

Learn. Deal.
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Old 01-13-10, 10:03 AM   #14
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All the yuppies really hate it and b-itch about it.
#1: Not because of the gap between the rails.

#2: They shouldn't have purchased houses in the neighborhood if they don't like it - the line was undoubtedly there before them, and would have been apparent enough to any prospective home buyer.

#3: Yuppies, as a rule, dislike all rail traffic, because it "delays" them (sound familiar?) Pity for them, since rail transport is responsible for dragging their electronic gismos from the ports of California to distributors throughout the U.S. - no railroad, no Ipod, no Bluetooth.

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Old 01-13-10, 10:59 AM   #15
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Has anyone ever heard of a city, county, etc. being sued because of a bicycle crashing due to the parallel rails?
Slightly off topic: I once sued a large group of people for triggering my agoraphobia.
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Old 01-13-10, 11:15 AM   #16
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Slightly off topic: I once sued a large group of people for triggering my agoraphobia.
Good one. Yes, tort reform is needed in the U.S.
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