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A "bike sneak" helps bicyclists cross streetcar tracks

Streetcar tracks can sometimes be dangerous for bicyclists to cross. A new type of intersection design called a "bike sneak" may reduce the risk, by directing cyclists to cross at the safest angle.

Seattle's Yesler Way bike sneak. Photo by Toole Design Group.

Streetcars and bicycles both promote livable urban communities. They can and do coexist in many cities around the world, most notably Amsterdam, which is a global leader for both bike and streetcar infrastructure. Nonetheless, the grooves of streetcar tracks are a potential danger to bicyclists, so careful planning is necessary where the two mix.

One possible solution is a so-called "bike sneak". The safest way to cross streetcar tracks on a bike is to cross at a 90ļ angle, with the bike tires perpendicular to the tracks. A bike sneak is a special ramp that directs bicyclists onto a path that will take them across streetcar tracks in exactly the right perpendicular angle.

Seattle is experimenting with its first bike sneak now. They opened their first streetcar line in 2007, and have a 2nd under construction.

At one point along that 2nd line, the streetcar turns off of Seattle's Yesler Way and on to 14th Avenue, jutting in the way of a bike lane on Yesler that continues straight without turning. Without some sort of special intersection design, the straight bike lane would cross the curving streetcar tracks at a dangerous angle that would be likely to snare many bike tires. Thus Seattle has installed a bike sneak, which directs bike riders to turn slightly in order to cross at a safe angle.

Yesler Way bike sneak. Image by Alta Planning & Design.

Seattle Bike Blog describes how it will work, and includes another picture:

"The bike lane will feed you up this curb for a couple feet, then let you back down to street level where the cone is on the far side. Paint will direct you across the tracks at a safe angle so you can carry on up Yesler."

Yesler Way bike sneak. Image by Seattle Bike Blog.

Seattle Bike Blog notes that good signage and street markings will be necessary so bicyclists clearly understand what they're supposed to do. That's a good suggestion. Hopefully Seattle will add that, and the bike sneak will work.

Obviously this solution isn't right everywhere. It doesn't address places where bikes and streetcars run parallel to each other, for example. For those situations something else will be necessary. Seattle is putting in a cycle track, which is one solution. Another is bike boulevards on parallel streets, which is what Arlington is considering for Columbia Pike.

But surely as streetcar and bike lane installation both become more common, there will be cases in the Washington area where a bike sneak may be a good solution. When that day comes, maybe DC can use this idea.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Dan Malouff is a transportation planner for Arlington and professor of geography at George Washington University, but blogs to express personal views. He has a degree in urban planning from the University of Colorado, and lives in NE DC. He runs BeyondDC and contributes to the Washington Post


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I haven't lived in cities with streetcars, but biking there when visiting friend, I never experienced much trouble. I am not sure if Amsterdam, The Hague, Delft and other cities have certain design rules, but all in all, you just have to pay attention when biking. Potholes, bumps, and streetcars just fit in that range of things you have to pay attention to.

by Jasper on Nov 2, 2012 2:29 pm • linkreport

It should be noted that right turns are streetcar-only there. I'm not sure the design would be a good idea if cars were also making right turns. After all, it will appear as though the person biking just went up onto the sidewalk, which could fool or confuse people who might not expect them to suddenly enter to roadway again.

by Tom F on Nov 2, 2012 3:52 pm • linkreport

Jasper, Vancouver recently determined that some very high percentage of crashes were related to streetcar tracks

by David C on Nov 2, 2012 4:11 pm • linkreport

As Tom F. mentioned, this only increases safety with dedicated-lane streetcars. The diagrams also shows dedicated bike lanes next to the dedicated streetcar lane. Neither of these are planned for the Columbia Pike streetcar in Arlington.

by Tom Thomas on Nov 2, 2012 6:05 pm • linkreport

@David C: isn't that the point of this post, though? I'm assuming that many of the bikers who crashed in the Vancouver study were trying to cross (or were forced into) the streetcar tracks at shallow angles.

I don't think Jasper is challenging the notion that streetcar tracks can't pose a risk to cyclists. Bikers need to be aware of the risks posed by the tracks, just like any other danger out there, and ride accordingly: don't ride parallel to the tracks; cross them at right angles, or designated safe crossings (like this bike sneak). Designers need to create, and then highlight, appropriate locations to cross the tracks.

I don't know, I could be wrong. my experience with streetcars is limited to New Orleans, where the tracks are probably the least likely of many, many things that can kill you while biking.

by Steven Harrell on Nov 2, 2012 6:37 pm • linkreport

@David C: the study was about Toronto, but conducted by UBC researchers in Vancouver (which has trackless trolleys, not streetcars).

by Payton on Nov 2, 2012 10:21 pm • linkreport

I lived in Portland for five years and regularly commuted by both bike and streetcar - heading the same direction (the Pearl District) - from downtown. And streetcar tracks are dangerous - I had to help one woman who was badly bruised after she caught a tire in the track. I caught my tire once or twice as well, even when conscientiously trying to cross at a less acute angle. There were signs warning bikers of the tracks, but when traveling in parallel to the streetcar, and needing to swing across, it's hard to find the right angle without careful riding.

by Michael on Nov 3, 2012 7:11 pm • linkreport

How long before we see "a war on streetcars"?

by SJE on Nov 4, 2012 12:48 pm • linkreport

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