Streetcars in Seattle, Or Why America Should Mind Its Transit Gaps

The rider went down — Boom! — just as she turned to see if the streetcar was getting close to her. Turning to look was her undoing, because her wheel got caught in the big gap between rail and street, toppling her hard. The big blue streetcar was only ten feet or so behind her, but luckily was slowing down and did not run her over. Scary though.

Shaken but apparently not badly hurt, the rider, a young woman in a light blouse and wearing a helmet, stood up to be greeted by the streetcar conductor, who offered not sympathy but angry hectoring. Didn’t she know that cyclists were not supposed to cycle in the streetcar lane?

Standing by and watching all this while preparing to board the streetcar in Seattle, I could only shake my head in sadness. We have such a hard time doing mass transit right in this country, particularly outside New York City. Seattle’s shiny new streetcar “system” was essentially brand new, but its flaws were already readily apparent.

Let’s start with the tracks. Isn’t there some system possible that does not leave what looked like a three or four inch gap between the track and the street it is imbedded in? I’m sure loyal Streetblog readers will supply me with the make and model of something. I remember seeing that old footage from Barcelona that showed all those cyclists swerving this way and that in front of the streetcar, with apparently no fear of getting caught in the track gap. Can’t we do that today? It certainly doesn’t make sense to exclude cyclists from a whole lane of a street, one that could actually double as a bike lane if built correctly.

Then there are the other problems.

The streetcar line itself is only a little more than a mile long. (The website says the line is 2.6 miles, but I think they are counting both directions.) And it’s pretty expensive — two dollars for what can be a very short ride. I boarded for what turned out to be only half a mile or so, in part because I’m still on a cane from my scooter accident. Otherwise I would have walked. No sooner had I boarded and paid my two dollars than we were there. I felt cheated. Minimal payment (or even no fare) would be better, which of course would require better government funding.

I feel guilty complaining about something that obviously took a lot of effort. The streetcars themselves are quite nice. I’m sure the organization is trying to do things well.

The central problem, as an official with a California transit agency recently told me, is that American cities and states tend to pursue transit in a fragmented and uncoordinated fashion. Different agencies representing different cities or states build different lines that often connect to each other badly, if at all. Imagine if highways were built as incoherently as rail systems. Somehow, the federal, state and local highway agencies manage to work with each other at least enough to have their projects connect.

Seattle has battled and warred over its transit systems. The city often supports transit in general but not in the particulars. Voters have approved a monorail system several times, only to see the transit establishment and political establishment help kill it. The city is nearing completion of an extensive light rail system, but it is one of the most expensive in the world. Downtown has this enormous bus tunnel — the product of one compromise between various interests. And now there’s the tiny new streetcar system, which, to be fair, may expand and become much more comprehensive. You have to start somewhere. Maybe they will figure out a way to make it more compatible with biking, which certainly should be the friend and not the enemy.

  • “I feel guilty complaining about something that obviously took a lot of effort. ”
    Don’t. Complain when something’s not done right. Working hard for rail transit, and then getting a rail line that only runs a block is not a good thing. It’s just setting up for failure, to be another example for anti-rail people to use, “Look how X failed!”

    2 bucks for 2 miles is ridiculous. I pay less than that to get two bus rides and a train all the way across Atlanta. The only good thing that can come from that is quickly making funds to expand it. But if they use they’re current pricing system, it’ll cost you the price of a tank of gas just to get across town.

  • I worry about the compatibility of bikes and streetcars, too. But we should recognize that some of the most bike-friendly cities have streetcars everywhere; Amsterdam is a prime example. And Wikipedia’s article on Critical Mass is illustrated with a picture of San Francisco Critical Massers in the streetcar lane.

    From what I’ve read (I’ve never really had to bike with streetcars in real life), these tracks are never perfectly safe for bikes, but there are ways to minimize the danger.

  • As Detroit gets closer to having a curbside streetcar line, I am very interested to know best practices for shared-use with bicycles. The track/bike tire issue is a big concern. Can anyone recommend resources that address this? I believe we’re still early enough in the engineering process to do things right.

  • Here in Portland, we’ve made any number of mistakes with Streetcar/bike interaction. Not all of them have been obvious in advance, but with each extension we’ve gotten smarter and come up with better design solutions for conflicts.

    A few learnings:

    1) If you have to route a bike facility near a streetcar platform, run the bike lane BEHIND the platform and grade separate it so pedestrians know when they’re stepping across a bike.

    2) Don’t run a bike lane (parallel) between rails and parked cars. Cyclists will feel like they have no where to bail out if a door opens. Use a cycletrack design that keeps the parked cars between the bikes and the rails.

    We have been tracking the development of ‘track filler’ technology. So far the rate of derailment is still unacceptable.

    Chris Smith
    Chair, Portland Streetcar Citizen Advisory Committee
    Member, Portland Bicycle Master Plan Committee

  • Galls

    As much as I love street cars, the answer to your question has rubber wheels and similar capacity.

  • In addition to Galls’ excellent point, it is possible to fill the flangeway of the streetcar track with a pliable rubber-like filling. Unfortunately, it has a number of drawbacks. It is expensive to install and maintain, and it increases the risk of derailment.

    Google for “flangeway fill”

  • alexjonlin

    I live in Seattle and I love the streetcar. The city knows it made a mistake by putting it in the curb lane but it specifically made the street a block over from the streetcar that used to be one-way a two-way street with bike lanes to compensate for this. Anyone who is still biking on the street with the streetcar tracks who’s not an expert is just being stubborn. And the light rail system is one of the most expensive in the world because it was made to be more of a metro than most light rail. Of the initial 15.7 miles, only about 4.5 are not traffic-separated (there is another mile of at-grade that is completely traffic separated and has gated crossings the whole way so it never has to slow down).

  • glugggg

    so, nothing about the high line today? Do you guys feel slighted because it wasn’t your idea or something????

  • Barry G. Smith

    A basic principle of driving or biking where there are car tracks is when you
    HAVE to cross them is to cross them at as mucn of a RIGHT ANGLE to the rail
    and flangeway which is that groove by the rails as much as possible! I learned this as a boy more years ago than I care to admit and we still had streetcars running! Also when you’re driving a motor vehicle on a car track
    straddle one rail (usually the one on the right) with all your wheels on the
    pavement. Following these simple rules can save you a LOT of grief!

  • Boris

    Jeffrey,

    Galls was talking about buses.

  • Mad Park

    Rather than starting with the tracks, lets start with the cyclists. We live in a mixed use street environment and will for decades to come. Cyclists must learn that and acknowledge that. Responsible, caring and thoughtful cyclists already do; the irresponsible and selfish ones don’t give a damn about anyone or anything else.

  • Blair Mastbaum

    Streetcar tracks are all over downtown Portland (where that photo above was shot) and it’s really not a problem. This is a created problem by people who don’t think they should take care of themselves on the road. There’s a lot more dangerous things than excellent transit tracks — cars? cops? cabs? hotel loading zones?

  • Blair Mastbaum

    Galls,
    Try living on a bus route. Then try living on a streetcar route. I think you’ll revise your suggestion for buses. They just don’t cause the same positive effect on the neighborhoods — the “I won’t abandon this area” investment of a city really makes a huge difference. There’s no comparison.

  • Greg

    The street car in Seattle is a disaster for cyclists. For everyone else it’s merely a waste of money.

    It makes South Lake Union – a new central business district that was supposed to be a big deal green development – pretty much a no go area for bikes. I’ve personally seen folks crash on the tracks – and you can bet that a novice cyclist who endos after trapping a wheel will not be coming back to cycling in the city.

    So basically it functions as a device for turning novice cyclists back into drivers.

    And no, the idea that all those folks that are falling on the tracks are somehow defective won’t go. I have it on good authority that a cycling journalist well known as an experienced Portland rider went down on them when he recently visited. So there’s something seriously wrong with the design.

    And even in Amsterdam the streetcar tracks are a source of pain (listen to the bit where the Dutch mechanic says what his main wheel repair is):

    http://marketplace.publicradio.org/display/web/2008/07/04/bike_mechanic/

    So let’s imitate the smart bits of Dutch society, not the dumb ones 🙂

    We need cyclists a lot more from a fiscal and environmental standpoint than we need toy trains. So let’s stop the streetcar before it stops any more cyclists. The South Lake Union Trolley has demonstrated that it’s expensive, useless, and dangerous.

    Want to build more of these horrors in Seattle? Fine. Fix the original travesty and we’ll talk.

    Until then, I’m one greenie that’ll be organizing all my friends to prevent any new ones.

  • I \v/ NY

    We have such a hard time doing mass transit right in this country, particularly outside New York City.

    wait, they do transit right in new york city? no one questions the high transit ridership in nyc but nyc transit construction is a joke. the city that hasnt built a major transit line in 60 years? the buses that run 3 mph? second avenue subway?

    not that seattle is any better, their plans for a major rapid transit line go back to the 1910s and almost mirrors the 2nd avenue subway in NYC with all the stops and starts.

    as for the seattle streetcar…
    why dont bikers just choose to not use the streetcar track lanes? ride in the left lanes, another street, or then at least ride super carefully in the streetcar lane.

    south lake union streetcar was entirely an inititive of the property owners in the south lake union area, its pretty much all of paul allens vulcan development company. it was their idea and they chose to pay the local contribution for the line. oh and the line is all about real estate development.

  • Greg

    alexjonlin

    I think you’re thinking of the light rail. Which I support also. Very different animal. The street car is slow as molasses and only goes a mile or so back and forth.

    And yet in going that mile it manages to occupy some critical routes to bikes. That’s why so many folks are crashing on the tracks.

    You would have had to work quite hard to cause any more damage to the liveability of the district 🙂

  • Chris

    I’m a bit surprised to read about the streetcar rails being dangerous. I don’t know what kind of tracks they’ve installed there in Seattle, but having lived in various cities with lots of streetcar lines, I’ve never ever had any problems with my bike. In my experience, as long as you cross the rail at an angle of more than 30 degrees or so there is absolutely no danger. True, once in a while someone who doesn’t know takes a fall. But, honestly, all you have to do is pay attention a slight bit and you are fine. In addition, I find that the streetcar tracks make great bike routes. Much safer than riding on the street with all the cars ….

  • Alex, 18 months ago you were of the opinion that “Good Streets Include Streetcars.” Now what? Good streets include only good streetcars? If this professional implementation doesn’t please you, what are we readers supposed to think about your original argument?

  • Jonathan, I’m not lamenting streetcars; I’m lamenting that we don’t know how to do them as well as we used to. Building a tiny streetcar line that costs a lot and topples cyclists is not good design. I still like streetcars and streetcar systems; but they need to be good ones.

  • But thanks Jonathan for digging up my old post. You’re an attentive reader.

  • Alek F

    As much as I feel sad for the cyclist who fell down
    (and I’m a bicyclist myself!)
    I have this message to fellow cyclists: STOP ACTING LIKE LUNATICS!!
    Seriously, please be careful; you don’t own the road, and you don’t own the train tracks!
    I can’t tell you how many close-calls I’ve observed because a bicyclist was riding so carelessly, with total disregard for everyone around!
    So,
    please – be careful, get a rear-view mirror (a vitally important tool!), and be respectful to other vehicles on the road!

  • Paul

    Don’t ride next to the tracks. It’s that simple. I cross multiple streetcar tracks every day and it’s simply not an issue if you mind them, and it’s not like they’re hidden.

  • Erik G.

    Your $2 in the machine gave you a ticket that IIRC you would have been able to use to ride other MLKC Metro buses for a set period of time after you paid the fare. So in effect you did the NYC equivalent of paying $2 to ride from GCT to Times Sq. whe you could have also go to 125th Street.

  • transitlover

    It is ridiculous to say that the proposed monorail in Seattle was killed by the transit and political establishment. The monorail killed itself by its failure to execute. It hatched its plan in secret and then unveiled it to the scorn of the previously supportive public. The final plan was a massively scaled down, barebones line that was going to be financed with junk bonds at very high rates of interest. The citizens voted down the plan by overhwelmingly electing board members who openly said their goal was to put an end to the monorail then and there before more money was wasted.

  • Mike Harrington

    If you tried riding your bike on a light rail lane in Houston, you’d get ticketed by police or run over by a fifty-ton light rail car. No one in their right mind would ever try cycling on the tracks here. That is no man’s land.

  • Greg

    A number of you you clearly don’t understand my concern. While I’m happy to hear that you’re fine about riding around tracks, you alone aren’t going to save me the tax dollars I’m worried about and get me the human scale city I want 🙂 I need lots more Seattlites to bike ASAP.

    And so when experienced cyclists are falling on the tracks in question that’s a annoyance. But when novice cyclists are being turned back into drivers then suddenly it’s a big problem to me.

    Heck, cyclists even crash on the tracks in Amsterdam. But Amsterdam has ways of convincing folks to cycle that no US city can even dream of, so it probably doesn’t matter much there. The Dutch still get to have their cost effective bike-centric system.

    Here in Seattle, on the other hand, we can’t even afford to keep our bus system running at planned capacity. We’re in the deepest recession in generations and oil is still 70$ a barrel. We need to convince people to save our tax dollars by biking more than ever.

    Here’s an example of what’s been happening here:

    http://slog.thestranger.com/2007/12/re_am_i_wrong_about_the_slut_tracks

    Jonathon’s pain should be taken to heart by everyone who pays taxes in Seattle 🙂 Cause his pain in the ribs is our pain in the wallet…

  • J

    I’m with the spirit of this post, but it makes me happy to live in DC, where DC/MD/VA have done a (largely) wonderful job of integrating transit projects. 3.35 will get me from one end of virginia to the northernmost suburb of MD in a reasonably efficient fashion. We still have some issues WRT local buses competing with the major player, WMATA, but by and large, they’ve done it right. heck, my metro picks me up in MD and drops me off in VA every single day with zero confusion or transfers.

  • A good model is the bus for urban areas and rail connecting communities and regions- that’s what we are working on for Missoula, a town of 100k. Rail makes some sense for the much larger cities- yet the tracks trapping bike wheels should be solved asap. -Bob, Missoula Institute for Sustainable Transportation

  • Comitant

    Potholes, curbs, grates, steel plates, man holes, gravel, sand, and many other things on the road make it “dangerous” to ride. We’re just used to those things because we’ve learned to ride with them. So buck up and cross those train tracks like a champ. If people in Amsterdam can do it, stop whining. Why does everything have to have a handrail and signs and bright orange paint screaming DANGER?

  • If streetcar tracks are next to the sidewalk, it’s inevitable that bikes will get caught in them. Bike riders are always taught to stay to the right, and it’s hard for them to remember that the rules are different when there are streetcar tracks.

    Traditionally, streetcar tracks go down the middle of the street. That’s what they do in Toronto, and that’s what they did in Brooklyn in the old days (I’m just barely old enough to remember trolley in Brooklyn).

    Putting streetcar tracks down the middle of the road creates problems of its own, of course. Drivers have to be taught that they should NEVER pass a streetcar that is stopped to pick up or drop off passengers. I’m not sure how to drum that into motorists’ heads, but evidently they behave OK in Toronto (and even in Brooklyn, many years ago).

  • Nathanael

    Agreed. Streetcars usually should go middle-of-road, not curbside. Or in pairs on different streets, in the left lane. On exclusive reservation when possible.

    Streetcars usually have platforms rather than street-loading now (which is good for wheelchair access anyway), so the platforms should be put at intersections with traffic lights — proper light design then prevents cars from running over pedestrians heading to the platform.

    This seems to be how most “light rail” systems are designed.

  • ARK

    In addition to streetcar rails, bicycles also crash on curbs, potholes, get hit by car doors, get hit by cars, fall on ice or other slippery conditions, crash into one another, etc. I have known experienced cyclists who have crashed on streetcar rails in various cities, but I have also known of crashes from all the other conditions as well. And I have had some big crashes myself (though never on the streetcar rails which lace my neighborhood in Philadelphia).

    Streetcar tracks are a type of cycling hazard, but they are only one of very many hazards. The solution is better design of cycle routes and better education for riders (which will help, though not completely prevent crashes). It isn’t so much the track that is the problem, but the design of the whole street cross section. To fixate on the rails is to not see the forest for the trees, I think.

  • Ned

    It seems the type of bicycles and tires used need to be considered. In that Barcelona short film you linked to there were visible gaps around the tracks but the bike being ridden across them were proper city bicycles with rather fatter tires than one would find on most of the drop handlebar road bikes one sees. Also almost all of the cyclist crossing the Barcelona tracks took care to cross at areasonable angle. I’ve more than once either gone down, once breaking an arm, or seen others go down when a skinny tire got caught in the gap between the concrete slabs on a roadway. Proper urban commuter riding takes appropriate traffic planning, rider, driver, and transit operator education, and the appopriate type of bicycle, tires included.

  • John

    They should route future streetcar lines in the traditional area of the middle of the street. The cities that never completely got rid of thier streetcar lines such as San Francisco use safety zones and platforms that are reached by crosswalks in the busy areas of downtown. This keeps the area near the curb free for parking and bicyclists and such. Having to weave the track in and out like a bus is a lot more trouble than it is worth.

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