Greater Greater Washington

There are many strategies for mixing bikes & streetcars

Earlier this month, Dan introduced us to one of the street design tools that planners use to ensure safe mixing of bikes and streetcars, the bike sneak. That's one of a whole toolbox full of strategies.


Photo by Dan Malouff.

Seattle's South Lake Union streetcar line runs along Westlake Avenue, which cuts diagonally across the grid. Because the street is a diagonal, almost every intersection is at an odd angle, meaning cyclists crossing Westlake could easily get their wheels caught in the tracks.

One solution that Seattle has applied is to use sharrows painted to encourage cyclists to cross at the safest angle. I'm not sure if this technique has an official name, but I like to call it the "sharrow serpentine."


Westlake "sharrow serpentine". Photo by Matt Johnson.

Portland employs a similar technique where one of its bike lanes crosses streetcar tracks:


Portland curved bike lane. Photo by Ritch Viola.

Portland also does some interesting things with streetcar stops. Lovejoy Street has a bike lane parallel to streetcar tracks, immediately to the tracks' right. With the bike lane between the tracks and the curb, something had to be done at stations. So they routed the bike lane onto the sidewalk, behind the streetcar stop.


Lovejoy sidepath. Photo by Matt Johnson.

Portland's solution for Lovejoy Street isn't perfect, because despite pavement markings the passengers waiting for the streetcar occasionally stand in the bikeway. But it certainly beats the alternative of forcing cyclists to merge into the streetcar lane to go through stations.

Seattle will take this idea one step further on its soon-to-be-built First Hill streetcar, which will share Broadway with a cycle track located behind the streetcar stops.


Broadway cycle track. Photo by the City of Seattle.

Closer to home, Arlington is designing its Columbia Pike streetcar with new bikeways on adjacent parallel streets. Instead of finding ways to mix bikes and streetcars safely, they'll put the bikeways one block over.

Arlington's parallel bikeways will be "bike boulevards," which are common on the west coast but will be the first local example in the Washington region. Bike boulevards are streets that cars and bikes share, but on which car traffic is calmed in order to optimize the street for bikes.


Portland's MLK bike boulevard, which allows bikes to go straight but forces cars to turn. Photo by BikePortland.org on Flickr.

Do you know of other solutions for mixing bikes and streetcars? Surely there must be some interesting examples from Europe. Please share your photos and ideas in the comments.

Matt Johnson has lived in the Washington area since 2007. He has a Master's in Planning from the University of Maryland and a BS in Public Policy from Georgia Tech. He lives in Greenbelt. Hes a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners. He is a contract employee of the Montgomery County Planning Department. His views are his own and do not represent the opinion of his employer. 

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I personally find bike/bus interaction to be much scarier. I'm from Pittsburgh, so I grew up thinking it was perfectly normal for 6-year-olds to play with their bikes on the streetcar tracks (not a good idea, of course, but it was normal). With streetcars, you know exactly where they're going, and when. So you can't ride directly on the track? No big deal. That is a minor gripe, compared to the streetcar's most wonderful asset: they absolutely cannot surprise you. And virtually all bike accidents begin with the phrase "I was surprised..." Buses, on the other hand, surprise me on a weekly basis with sudden stops, skids, and turns.

by Tom Veil on Nov 19, 2012 12:34 pm • linkreport

It seems like it would be possible to have spring-loaded strips embedded in the streetcar tracks which are stiff enough to stay raised so they are flush with the pavement when cyclists pass over them, but drop down when a multi-ton streetcar passes over them. Do such things exist? Seems totally doable and cheaply, too.

by daniel on Nov 19, 2012 1:11 pm • linkreport

@ Matt'

Just wanted to update you on Lovejoy Street since your last visit to Portland. That sidepath has been "decommissioned" as the street has been converted from a two-way to one-way couplet with Northrup Street two blocks to the north. Marshall Street (between the two) has been designated as a bike boulevard. So while the ramp is still there, the bike stencils have been removed and nobody uses it anymore.

by Reza on Nov 19, 2012 1:42 pm • linkreport

Also, another minor Portland correction. The bike boulevard in the last picture is Going Street. The cross street is MLK Jr Blvd.

by Reza on Nov 19, 2012 1:44 pm • linkreport

As much as I disliked the excessive windiness of the Lovejoy route in PDX, at least it doesn't launch cyclists right into the transit stop as is done on Roncesvalles in Toronto. Granted, in Toronto streetcars are like school buses -- all traffic must stop when the car doors open -- but that really takes "shared space" to an extreme.

I prefer the bike boulevard approach both on streetcar arterials and along arterials in general, and apparently even experienced cyclists in Portland agree. However, the Columbia Pike bike boulevards miss the most important part: the eastern end of the Pike, where it intersects with the Pentagon interchange complex and proceeds into Pentagon City. Arlington has very long term plans to connect roads from 12th St. over I-395, but it's a glaring hole in the bike network.

@daniel: Unfortunately, materials just aren't that durable. There are such "flange fillers" for freight tracks which are used maybe once a day by super-heavy trains, but a material that deforms (under a comparatively light streetcar) and reforms every 10 minutes just doesn't exist.

by Payton on Nov 19, 2012 2:58 pm • linkreport

@Payton: of course such materials exist; what is lacking is the money to develop this idea. This depends on whether people recognize the need.

by goldfish on Nov 19, 2012 3:06 pm • linkreport

@payton

I think @daniel was thinking of something spring loaded, as opposed to a material that simply deforms and reforms. It seems like a durable spring (like a shock/strut) must exist that's tough enough to take the punishment of so many compressions. I think the cost feasibility, though, is more questionable than the engineering feasibility.

by Falls Church on Nov 19, 2012 3:51 pm • linkreport

springs exist. springs that can sit in a puddle of salty water, which don't require constant maintenance, which are affordable, and which continue to fulfill their purpose and won't either break or seize up and derail the train, not so much. if it malfunctions and either derails a train or gets stuck down, it's probably worse than having nothing at all. (especially if people get used to the idea of not having to worry about the tracks, then suddenly hit a dangerous spot.)

by Mike on Nov 20, 2012 11:06 am • linkreport

@ payton It's not just a glaring whole in the bike network: the county's plans for a streetcar will significantly decrease the safety/usability of an already poor on-street route for...a wide sidewalk on one side of the street (maybe). Unfortunately, Arlington politicians (and the faux-smart growth set) want that "ribbon cutting" moment, so instead of sensibly expanding the capacity of the existing, popular bus network with bigger buses, we'll get unsafe streets short-term (from trolley construction) and long-term (by ignoring cyclists needs). What an unmitigated disaster!

by Columbia Pike Bike Rider on Nov 20, 2012 1:59 pm • linkreport

@Tom - Buses are a much bigger threat to cyclists, but trolley tracks can still cause some severe wipeouts if they catch cyclists off guard. This is a big problem in Toronto, and there have been some bad injuries involving bike wheels getting caught in trolley car tracks.

Where bike routes don't cross trolley tracks at right angles, at minimum, sharrows are needed to make cyclists aware. At best, keeping cyclists away from tracks all together is preferred.

by Car Free Baltimore on Nov 20, 2012 2:38 pm • linkreport

How charming that Portland has a street named after Rev. Lovejoy on "The Simpsons." I hope it intersects Ned Flanders Boulevard at some point.

by mm on Nov 21, 2012 11:11 am • linkreport

MWCOG studied this issue through their TLC program in 2011:

http://www.mwcog.org/transportation/activities/tlc/program/bikeped.asp#ArlBike

by MWCOG study link on Nov 21, 2012 3:40 pm • linkreport

See Alta Planning's study: http://www.altaplanning.com/App_Content/files/pres_stud_docs/Bicycle_Streetcar_Memo.pdf

Basically the conclusion is, don't put the tracks by the curb, put them in the center of the street.

by Dave on Dec 13, 2012 1:20 pm • linkreport

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