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Can Westlake’s streetcar tracks ever be safe for people biking?

Fatter tires (like the ones on Pronto bikes) are less likely to get stuck in streetcar tracks. But tracks can still be dangerously slick when wet.
Fatter tires (like the ones on Pronto bikes) are less likely to get stuck in streetcar tracks. But tracks can still be dangerously slick when wet.

Seattle plans to speed up buses and the South Lake Union Streetcar by making the curb lanes on Westlake Ave transit-only between 6th Ave/McGraw Square downtown and Valley Street/Lake Union Park. This is great news for transit reliability and could support some transit route restructures to greatly improve transit service on clogged streets in the area.

But any mention of this stretch of Westlake Ave (different from the segment to the north that is getting a bikeway) brings up cringes for the many people who have crashed while biking over the poorly-designed streetcar tracks. The gap in the tracks is wide enough to grab skinny and some medium-width bike tires, effectively locking people’s wheels and sending them into extremely dangerous falls, often over the top of their handlebars. Even if a tire is not “grabbed” entirely, wet rails can be surprisingly slick, causing slide-out style crashes.

And it happens to people of all levels of biking experience, even people who think they know how to safely bike around the tracks.

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“It’s not a problem until it is, and that moment can happen very very quickly,” said Bob Edmiston, a Seattle Neighborhood Greenways organizer who crashed on the Jackson Street streetcar tracks in January. He broke his collarbone and has not yet been cleared to get back on his bike. (We spoke yesterday as he walked home after the bus system ground to a halt. A commute that takes 20 minutes by bike took him an hour and a half.)

“I’ve been riding on two wheels since I was six,” he said. “Going around railroad tracks at a 90 degree angle is no problem … When I made a left turn across the rails, that’s when my back wheel got caught. I thought I was in the clear, but watching the video, I clearly wasn’t.” Here’s that video from his rear-facing camera:

At least the streetcar tracks on Jackson are in the center lanes, and Jackson is aligned with the standard street grid. It’s easier to cross them at a safe 90 degree angle, and it would be easier for the city to build quality bike infrastructure around them (it was a big missed opportunity not to do so in the first place).

But planners made a terrible mistake when they designed the Westlake streetcar. Not only did they fail to build bike lanes to accompany the streetcar tracks, but they placed the tracks exactly where people biking usually ride: The right-hand lanes.

Many people don’t know that streetcar tracks pose a hazard until it’s too late. Others who know how make quick dodges across the tracks only need to make a small mistake to get caught. People have been and continue to be injured on these tracks. A group of people injured even (unsuccessfully) sued the city over the dangerous design.

Though they lost the suit, they were a big reason the city used a different strategy in designing the First Hill Streetcar, which includes a separated bikeway on Broadway (though, as we noted above, not on Jackson).

But what about Westlake? Isn’t there anything we can do to reduce the hazard it presents to people on bikes? Could this upcoming transit study be a chance to look into our options?

Bike lanes on Westlake

We threw this image together using Streetmix. Dimensions are approximate
We threw this image together using Streetmix. Dimensions are approximate

The absolute best practice for avoiding bike hazards when building streetcar line is to provide quality, protected bike lanes safe from dangerous rail crossings. This is the best option, but it’s not going to be super easy on Westlake.

And the benefits would go beyond bike safety. For example, even if the curb lanes become transit-only, people will still need to drive in them to reach the parallel parking spots. And poorly-parked cars that stick out into the street can bring the streetcar to a halt. By replacing all the on-street parking with bike lanes, this issue would go away.

Westlake is the most direct route from Lake Union Park to downtown.
Westlake is the most direct route from Lake Union Park to downtown.

For a neighborhood with a serious traffic problem and high demand for parking, it might seem counterintuitive to remove all the on-street parking from Westlake. And there would certainly be some pushback on the idea.

But the future of South Lake Union is not in cars. Perhaps more than any other neighborhood, it needs safe and direct bike routes and efficient transit as soon as possible.

Most importantly, though, Westlake needs to be safe. Without action, people will continue to crash and be injured on Westlake. Protected bike lanes on 9th Ave N are a great idea, but even they won’t prevent people from also biking on Westlake. Westlake is both full of destinations and the most direct and obvious route.

Bike lanes on Westlake would not only provide a very desirable connection, they would also mitigate a hazard the city created less than a decade ago. It probably won’t be easy or super cheap, but so far the city’s strategy for dealing with injuries has been to shrug their shoulders (and fight lawsuits in court). That’s not good enough.

At the very least, the city could use this as an opportunity to study the options and see what’s possible and what it might cost.

Ideas that aren’t so promising

We made this image back in 2012.
We made this image back in 2012.

In the past, we proposed an idea modeled on bike lanes on Pennsylvania Ave in Washington DC that would have routed people biking in the two center lanes of Westlake. But turning the streetcar lanes into transit-only lanes would make these center-lane bike lanes impossible. Well, unless the whole street goes car-free, of course.

Image from the VBZ agency in Zurich.
Images from the VBZ agency in Zurich (translated).

Another idea that seemed promising in the past involved a rubber insert that would depress under the pressure of a streetcar wheel, but not under the weight of a bicycle wheel.

The City of Zurich recently tested the concept (Google Translate), but initial results were not super promising. In a short period of time, the rubber filling was damaged and perhaps even more hazardous to people biking. To work, they would need to be replaced regularly. And the fillings still don’t do much to prevent wheels from slipping on wet tracks.

1399987940146Perhaps different materials and designs will someday work better, and I certainly hope studies continue. But Seattle shouldn’t wait for a bike-safe rail solution.

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74 responses to “Can Westlake’s streetcar tracks ever be safe for people biking?”

  1. Chris Mealy

    Since Westlake goes right through the heart of SLU, and it’s the gentlest slope into downtown, it really should be the premier bike route in the area. The best bike lanes are really a kind of sidewalk for bikes, not a kind of road for cars. In those Dutch bike videos we all know and love the bikes lanes are right up against the sidewalk, not car traffic. It would be super expensive, but reconfiguring the sidewalk to make room for a Dutch-quality bike lane would be the way to go. If you move the utility poles and get rid of the parking and sad little planting strips there’s enough room on both sides of the street.




    1. Tom Fucoloro

      I’m thinking the same thing, Chris. I hate to cut into planting areas and plaza spaces, but the streetcar design really leaves no other choice.

      The hardest spots will probably be around the station platforms. If the bike lanes are not clear of people standing around, people might be tempted to bike in the traffic lanes and crash on the tracks. But there must be a solution here.

      1. Josh

        Too late for Westlake, but that’s another advantage of the center platforms on Jackson — besides getting the rails out of the right lane, center platforms separate passengers waiting to board from both bicycles and pedestrians trying to move along the sidewalks.

  2. Meg

    Last autumn I crashed in a slide-out style fall riding along Westlake. I was in the right lane and thought that I was giving myself enough of an angle to turn across the tracks, but my wheel slipped on the wet metal instead. I was very lucky that there wasn’t a car behind me… I would have gone under the wheels. As it was, I got scraped up and dinged my bike a bit. I ride everyday and always thought that I would never fall on tracks, but hazards like tracks are a danger for everyone. We need to make our streets safer for all ages and abilities to get around in the city where single occupancy cars just don’t make sense.

  3. Augsburg

    Thanks for posting on this important topic. I can’t agree more. The trolly tracks are not a problem until they are. I too fell victim to trolly tracks and learned a lesson. I know all about crossing the tracks at 90 degrees. I’ve cycled in urban conditions for decades. That said, “stuff” happens.

    Last year, I was pushed over into the tracks when a truck pulled over into me from the curb. I found myself caught between the two tracks. Naively, I though “since I got my self in here, I can get out”. Nope, as I turned and leaned hard into a quick turn to extricate myself, my handlebars turned, but my wheel didn’t. The wedge clamp in the threaded headset slipped when my tire caught on the track. Splat I went. Luckily, the results were only road rash and injury to my pride. (Now I know why mountain bikes went to the stronger threaded headsets early on.)

    I’ve heard there is a better track design, but it is not made in the USA and the FTA has refused to allow the use of federal dollars in street car projects if the safer “offshore” track is used. Crazy! If this is true, FTA needs to adopt a policy to grant a waiver. American steel suppliers will make changes if they see sales going overseas. Otherwise, they will sit on their hands.

    Now that I have more experience with trolly tracks, the biggest problem I see is when the cyclists wants to enter the “main” street with the tracks from a side street and make left turn. The cyclist must cross the tracks (often two sets) and then make a wild left turn after crossing the second set of tracks. At this point, the cyclist appears to simply be crossing the road, not turning left – confounding motorists when a left turn maneuver is made at the last second.

    Another problem is when the street car alignment assumes a cyclist will ride all the way to the right. Of course, no experienced cyclist does this when there are parked cars and the potential to get “doored”.

    1. Bruce Nourish

      I’ve heard there is a better track design, but it is not made in the USA and the FTA has refused to allow the use of federal dollars in street car projects if the safer “offshore” track is used.

      The rail profile you are referring to is called “girder rail” in the US. It is indeed not available from domestic steel mills, and “Buy America” rules now prevent its use on any federally funded project, which is asinine.

      Girder rail is not a panacea, though. The Zurich rail sections in the photos Tom posted above appear to be girder rail, and apparently it’s not a complete success, even with the rubber inserts.

      1. Mark Richardson

        According to a recent entry in an Edinburgh, Scotland bike blog, where they are facing the same problem with streetcar tracks, as is the case wherever streetcar and freight rail tracks are embedded in the road surface, your rubber strips cost about $1 million per kilometer and must be replaced as-often as once per month. I found another blog in Dublin, Ireland with the same problem, the Seattle PI story about a fatality early last summer, as well as a Portland bike blog with the same problem, and a Washington, DC bike blog facing the same issue too.

        I also found a big pdf of US DOT streetcar rail code as well as public transit safety codes. US-DOT does not require track inserts and views them as potentially unsafe for trains and streetcars, as they could cause an increased incidence of derailments especially if ice or gravel gets embedded in the insert. The problem you are dealing with is that the type of streetcar track has been in-use since the late 1800s. The width of the flangeway is determined by the width of the streetcar wheel flange, which can’t be narrower than its current width due to engineering constraints and the strength of steel streetcar wheels.

        In Edinburgh their city council initially decided to ask bicyclists to dismount crossing the streetcar tracks to prevent falls, which bike advocates were not happy about. Since then the bike advocates have asked for a complete redesign of the bike lanes along the street where this new trolley extension runs to a contraflow design where both directions of the bike lane are on the right side of the street in-question (given that driving is done on the left side of roads in Great Britain with right-hand drive vehicles). The plan would have cyclists crossing the rail tracks at a 90-degree angle and not turning until well clear of the tracks. Of course money is the issue there as well as here. They have also suffered a cyclist fatality recently but this problem with embedded streetcar rail is more than 120 years old it is not new except on new streetcar lines.

        The number one way to stay safe around streeetcar tracks for both bicyclists and even motorcycle riders is to avoid riding into them at a shallow angle, and/or designing new public transit to run on rubber tires rather than on embedded rail. If you have to ride around streetcar tracks on a daily basis it might be safer to install wider wheels and tires on your bicycle as fat tire bikes have much less of a problem. I have seen trolley buses in other countries with overhead power supply that run on rubber tires and of course several manufacturers are now offering EV city buses too.

        I am afraid that as streetcars were successful before the 1950s and as some cities never ripped-out their streetcar lines there will always be voices calling for new streetcar lines using embedded rail, but unless streetcars run in the center of the road or in a median on boulevards, such as the Shaker and Van Aken trolleys in Cleveland, which date to the World War I era, there will be a serious issue with bike safety, which at this point can’t be solved by rubber track inserts. There have been tests of rubber track inserts in several places and the end result is always the same, an extremely high-cost item with a very short service life. It is much less-expensive to warn cyclists to stay off the streetcar tracks.

        I wonder if the road in-question is wide-enough for median bike lanes? Cleveland just approved median bike lanes on several major arteries that once had center-riding streetcars. This piece details the plan for center bike lanes on Superior Ave there, which would permit cyclists to cross the streetcar tracks at a 90-degree angle to reach the median bike boulevard. If you click on the #13 in the center of the photos it opens all 13 photos:


      2. Mark Richardson

        This video is from Edinburgh, Scotland, where they have the same problem that everywhere else with embedded streetcar or freight rail tracks are laid into the same pavement that cyclists ride on.


  4. AdrianQ

    You can crash out on Westlake with fat (2.1″) tires, even in dry conditions. (I had a separated shoulder from a couple years ago that said so!) I’ve given up riding on Westlake–it’s just not worth the risk.

  5. Gary

    My theory is bide your time until the rails wear and the street wears around the rails. My estimation is the year 2025, or in ten years. Then when the city already has to do major work to the road bed, get them to move the tracks to the center lanes where they belonged in the first place.

    In the next ten years, make sure that the 1st ave street car lanes don’t have the same problem. And get as many greenways going as possible. That should have a general overall increase in riders to justify the cost of moving the rails.

    1. Josh

      Based on streets and rails elsewhere in the city, I suspect you’re looking at 40 years minimum before they have to do anything large enough that moving the rails is even marginally in-scope. It’s a concrete railbed with good reinforcement, engineered for city traffic — that’s one of the reasons it was so expensive in the first place.

    2. Wells

      The streetcar connector is more sensibly routed on a couplet of 4th/5th Aves. Bicyclists already avoid 4th Ave which would be electrified and more transit friendly as 5th Ave also would become. 1st Ave should serve bicyclists, especially downhill, but the statistical rate for all accidents is much higher than this couplet route.

      Seattle should consider modern low-floor trolleybus coaches and route arrangements for downtown. Such a design I’ve recommended since 2002 hasn’t changed much; the “Seattle Circulator Plan” Trolleybus Reconfiguration and 1st/3rd Trolleybus Circulator (between Mercer and Jackson), all circulators on couplet streets that minimize overhead wire and complex turns, east/west past Broadway with ‘turnaround’ on 12th which is electrified to Olive Way.
      City Hall has copies of this plan, probably marked Confidential. Try requisitioning a copy and watch City Hall denizens nervously avoid any knowledge of this plan.

  6. Patrick

    “At least the streetcar tracks on Jackson are in the center lanes, and Jackson is aligned with the standard street grid. It’s easier to cross them at a safe 90 degree angle”

    Except where 2nd Ave Extension meets Jackson, the straight line path of anyone taking the 2nd Ave protected bike lanes to the ID or points south. It’s a fairly oblique angle, made worse by the fact that the left hand bike lane on 2nd is the inside of two turn lanes onto Jackson.

    That means if you are turning left onto Jackson you can end up with a car running parallel to your right – basically forcing you not hit the tracks at anything close to 90 degrees and with a car to roll into/under if you do fall.

    1. Capitol Hillian

      Yes! Thanks for pointing this out. This is a terribly dangerous merge.

    2. The bike markings on 2nd Ave Extension approaching Jackson are criminal.

      1. Lisa

        Agreed. I always ignore the bike markings and merge over into the right most left turn lane to avoid the tracks- and if I can’t merge, then it’s the sidewalk.

      2. Josh

        If you’ve got time to merge over for the turn onto 3rd Ave S, 3rd hits Jackson at 90 degrees. Much less stressful than staying on 2nd Ave Ext.

      3. To be sure, if I remember what happens at Jackson I’ll move right. The problem is that I don’t ride through there every day, so I’ll forget, see the sharrows in the left lane, think I’m OK, then suddenly I’m turning into the middle of the streetcar tracks. By the time I see the tracks it’s too late, there are no great options left.

        The sharrows should have been scrubbed out of that lane the day the streetcar tracks were installed, and replaced with markings suggesting a good way to go.

      4. Josh

        They should:

        * Add streetcar warning signs for bicycles somewhere before the Main St intersection, so there’s time to merge right
        * Remove the sharrow from the left turn only lane near Jackson
        * Use bicycle pavement markings to suggest the merge right that avoids the streetcar lanes, starting just after Main St, so that it’s clear drivers should be expecting bikes merging away from the hazard

        Or, just maybe, get rid of the remains of the Bike Lane of Death on 2nd entirely, and put a bike lane on the right side of the street if there’s going to be one.

      5. Dana

        When heading south on 2nd Ave, I turn left on Main then right on 5th to get to Jackson/Dearborn. This way I completely avoid the Jackson/2nd merge.

        I was assaulted after that intersection after doing the merge and slowing down a car that wanted to get up Jackson, so the Main to 5th is much safer and is timed pretty well (when the light turns green to cross 4th, the light to cross Jackson on Main turns green by the time you get to it).

    3. Genevieve Williams

      The one time I’ve wiped out riding on Seattle streets was right there.

    4. mike archambault

      A coworker of mine crashed doing that exact same left turn on to Jackson, and he separated his shoulder! He was a fairly new rider and he trusted the sharrow markings in the left turn lane. And now he is entirely discouraged from riding downtown. Pretty bad.

      Speaking of the rubber rail fillings, SDOT has installed them in the crosswalk at 8th and Dearborn. I’ve tested riding parallel to the tracks there and they work flawlessly (when dry, at least). Check them out! It will be a good experiment to see how the rubber wears over time once the streetcars start running. Although since this part of the track only serves the maintenance base, it may not be the greatest test.

  7. Alkibkr

    So very sorry about your accident, Bob. My first ride down Jackson after the rails were installed, going westbound, freaked me out so much, I vowed to henceforth only use King Street. Then I jog over to Weller and ride the plaza south of the ID Link Station to use the 4th Avenue crosswalk and take the elevator down to King Street Station, getting into town through Occidental Park.

    Likewise, I use Virginia and Fairview when traveling from downtown to SLU instead of Westlake. Those streets with streetcar rails should be avoided at all costs. The hazards come on you so suddenly there is little time to adjust your riding to avoid them in the midst of moving traffic. Westlake is one place downtown I would feel justified in riding the sidewalk unless a safer solution for bikes can be found.

    1. Hi Alkibkr, I usually do that same parking lot-elevator-King St route, but when crossing Jackson that evening after a memorial walk, the gleaming new Sharrow on Jackson caught my eye and I decided to try going where it pointed. I, of all people, should know better than to blindly follow Sharrows and stick to routes like you refer to that are tried and true.

      30 minutes after the crash, I found myself in the Swedish emergency room with a woman who broke her left collarbone on the same Jackson street light rail tracks around the same time on the same day. The triage nurse says it happens all the time.

      When this happens to you, see Dr Carl Basamania at the PolyClinic. He’s the collarbone doc and can do amazing things with a power drill and some pretty badass stainless custom hardware he invented for us. See it in action here. It’s so cool, you may want to go ride the rails too just to get yours. Warning, its $47,000 to put in and more if you want it out later. http://youtu.be/LfUlXmmztZs

  8. RossB

    The obvious answer is to simply replace the streetcar with a bus. Call it a failed experiment and cut our losses — pull up the rail and repave the street. This streetcar (like all of Seattle’s streetcars) has smaller capacity than a bus, so you wouldn’t lose anything. As a bus route, this streetcar performs horribly — around 2,000 riders a day and shrinking (http://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/transportation/transit-plan-for-south-lake-union-drop-2-car-lanes/). We have plenty of bus routes that carry way more people. When transit advocates argue against these streetcars (http://seattletransitblog.com/2014/07/29/streetcars-a-momentary-lapse-of-reason/) you know something is wrong. When a local columnist writes a column (http://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/time-to-put-brakes-on-car-habit-in-south-lake-union/) about “getting rid of cars in South Lake Union” and then calls the streetcar “more of a toy than real mass transit” while saying in the next sentence “The plan that will actually help thousands of people daily is to run buses” you know the streetcar honeymoon is long over. These are folks writing in favor of mass transit systems but saying that streetcars are silly and ineffective.

    They don’t even mention the damage done to bike riders. We should pull up the rails and sell the cars and steel to some other sucker city that thinks it is a good idea. We have more important priorities, like building a good public transportation system.

    1. Augsburg

      I can’t agree that the streetcars are a “failed experiment”. I’ve had more unsafe encounters over the years with Metro buses than streetcars. At least I know where the streetcar will run. Metro’s bus drivers will flagerantly pull their bus right over into you on your bike – pushing you into parked cars or opposing traffic.

  9. Josh

    While I generally prefer the safety of a travel lane over the comfort of a sidepath, the open flange gaps on Westlake make the travel lanes ridiculously dangerous.

    I hope the city will come to its senses, and that it will learn from the failed design on Broadway to come up with something that’s actually safe and efficient for bicycles as well as separated from the tracks.

    1. LWC

      Just out of curiosity, why do you consider Broadway a “failed design” at such an early point in its construction & implementation?

      1. Josh

        It’s unpleasant and slow to ride on, unsafe at driveways and intersections, and poorly connected to other streets.

        It’s passable as a last-block route to destinations right on the easy side of Broadway itself, but for more than a block or two, most people appear to be riding safer streets like 12th.

      2. Tom Fucoloro

        I like Broadway! It’s not even really open yet, and won’t be truly great until it reaches Roy (at least). It can be awkward to turn off, especially with a big bike. But most important, it’s way safer than biking on the streetcar tracks.

      3. LWC

        I’m with you, Tom: it’s a really pleasant ride, and I’m looking forward to when the project is complete. My feeling is that once that’s done and Cap Hill light rail service starts (and we have several seasons to evaluate usage) will we be able to judge its success or failure.

      4. 12th requires a lot less climbing and fewer turns if you’re going all the way through to the Rizal Bridge. I think that has a lot to do with people choosing it for longer trips.

        The biggest problem with Broadway’s design is the same as Linden’s, and the problem on the worst blocks of 2nd: the city doesn’t have the power to close curb cuts. Apparently it doesn’t even have the power to get businesses to consolidate redundant ones.

      5. Josh

        It also apparently lacks the manpower (or willpower) to enforce traffic laws at the existing curb cuts — how about a serious, weeks-long special emphasis on drivers who fail to stop before entering the sidewalk, and who fail to yield to pedestrians on the sidewalk and bikes on the sidepath?

        The more complex the design, the more important it is that all users follow the rules. It’s notoriously difficult to get a Dutch driver’s license because they really insist drivers learn all the rules necessary to deal with complex facilities.

  10. Sean

    As someone else stated above, when I am stuck having to travel on Westlake (which is fairly often, especially in the summertime when I do a Capitol Hill–> U District–> Burke Gillman Trail to Fremont–> Westlake to Downtown and back to the Hill loop on many nights), I will continue to ride on the sidewalk. I get plenty of mean looks, the occasional person calling me an asshole, someone yelling at me to get back in the street, etc. But you know what? I’ll take 100 insults over 1 broken collarbone.

    How has this ridiculous design flaw not been solved yet? Do the Amazonian bazillionaires not ride bikes?

    1. Gary

      When I was there, there was an active email thread that warned new riders to stay off Westlake.

    2. Cheif

      In south lake Union, 9th is a pretty decent alternative to westlake. If you’re more traffic averse the trick to that part of town is the alleys. Alleys in south lake Union will take you where you want to go.

  11. […] In the context of SDOT’s Westlake transit lane plans, can Westlake be made safe for bikes? […]

  12. RDPence

    Seattle’s streetcar tracks are not “poorly designed.” They are designed to do their job, same as streetcar tracks in major cities the world over. They are quite visible, and they’re static; in the same places every day. They don’t come from out of nowhere, like an errant automobile.

    While I feel sorry for cyclists who get their wheel caught and take a spill, riders do need to become familiar with the city and learn the hazards they need to avoid. Seattle has only, what, maybe 5 miles of streetcar trackage? Many times fewer than European cities with many more bicyclists. Streetcars and bicycles co-exist rather nicely in other great cities around the world. It can happen here also.

    1. Gary

      “so suck it up.” is your response?

      Remeber Amazon is going to be 25% of the prime office space in this city. They have an active bicycling community. The easiest way to get from one end of the Amazon campus is by bicycle down Westlake. And the city built a system that they were warned about before the first tracks were laid and now wonders why people get hurt there. Seems like a pretty short sighted plan to me.

      1. RDPence

        No, not “suck it up,” but rather learn to co-exist. Many cities around the world, larger and denser than Seattle, have both extensive streetcar (tram) networks and heavy bicycle usage. Cyclists there have learned to co-exist with the track network. It can happen here too.

        What won’t work is telling the City to build streetcar tracks only where cyclists don’t ride.

      2. Tom Fucoloro

        That’s exactly what the city should do. The safety record of mixing bikes and streetcars is not in question here. Enough people have been hurt that our question has been answered.

        And I am not convinced this works so well in Europe. Why do you think the City of Zurich was researching bike-safe tram tracks? To solve a non-existent problem? It’s because people get hurt on them there, too.

        With fatter tires and more experience, you can minimize your chances of getting hurt, of course. But as Bob and several comments here have clearly said, they thought they knew how to bike around them safely and they still got caught.

        If we inherited these tracks from history, that’s one thing. But these are new problems we are creating today. That’s not OK.

        Amsterdam has a ton of trams, and their solution is to build quality bike lanes. We should learn from them and do the same.

    2. Augsburg

      This would be the heart of the problem. The attitude that it is the cyclists fault an accident with a streetcar rail occurred.

      Unfortunately, this attitude ignores the information in the original post and all the anecdotes reported above. That the roadway is a dynamic place with all kinds of movements of vehicles and pedestrians the cyclist is constantly responding to – not to mention the avoidance of other road hazards such as broken and severely cracked pavement. A similar attitude prevailed years ago about roadway safety in general – before enough lawsuits convinced cities, counties, states and the feds that roadways and vehicles deserve attention to safety in their design.

      As bicycles become used more regularly for transportation in American cities, we will find that people can no longer bury our heads in the sand about the problem streetcars present to cyclists. I’m a proponent of both, streetcars and cycling. We just need to learn our lessons and improve.

    3. Alkibkr

      My friend in Frankfurt am Main, Germany was in a coma for 40 days after her bike tire caught in a streetcar track there and flipped her into the path of a car. She had to learn to talk and walk all over again.

    4. Josh

      The layout of the SLUT ignores lessons already learned in those European cities, like using narrower flange gaps, running streetcars in the center of the street where feasible, and providing alternative routes for people on bicycles.

      How is that not a poor design?

  13. Brock

    I agree that the Westlake tracks and all streets with tracks should be made safe for bicyclists. A solution for Westlake isn’t coming soon though.

    For results that can be implemented this year or next, I’d like to focus on building a parallel all ages & abilities facility with seamless connections on the north and southern end. 9th Avenue through South Lake Union would be perfect.

    I understand that SDOT is considering rerouting the buses on 9th through the Westlake Ave bus-only lanes. This would free up 9th Avenue to either be turned into a greenway or to have protected bike lanes installed.

    The north-end of 9th, where it connects into Westlake Ave, will be the southern terminus of the West Lake Union Protected Bike Lane (yes, I’m slightly renaming that project because it gets very confusing to use the word “Westlake” in this discussion).

    On the south-end of 9th: as part of the “Center City Protected Bike Lane Network” project, SDOT will likely consider creating a two-way protected bike lane on Bell Street from Denny to to 5th Ave, and adding a two-way protected bike lane on 5th Ave. 5th Ave may get a PBL from Denny to Stewart as soon as next year, and eventually all the way to the International District.

    So, to make a seamless connection from Downtown, through South Lake Union, and to West Lake Union, I’m a big fan of 9th.

    For people coming south from Eastlake, we need to make sure the bike lanes on Fairview Ave and Valley St connect seamlessly into 9th Avenue. It’d be super easy today to take a whole lane from Fairview Ave for a two-way protected bike lane. Valley St is a bit harder for an AAA bikeway because of the recently added hardscaping, but we can at least make the connection visually strong.

    So, let’s focus on 9th Ave, and continue to explore and study alternatives that can make the streetcar rails safer.

  14. Brock

    If SDOT paints the transit-only lanes on Westlake red, then the streetcar tracks will likely be much more noticeable to bicyclists. Also, by putting all the cars into a single lane, biking in the car lane will likely be safer.

    The red paint and 1-car lane speed aren’t solutions to the tracks, but at least there’s a chance for decreased bike crashes.

  15. Jeff Dubrule

    I’d say a 2-way bikeway occupying what is currently the parking lane on one side would be the best choice.
    It would be buffered from cars by the entire dedicated streetcar/bus lane.
    Since it’s a 2-way road, the inner lane will always be going “upstream”, which will actually be a good thing, as you’ll see the streetcars & buses in front of you, instead of them trying to pass you from behind.

    The West side of the road will allow the streetcar rails to buffer the entire way (the NB streetcar line ducks onto Terry after Thomas St), and would allow for the smoothest transition between the bikeway and the paths past & under the lake.

    There’s, unfortunately, some wrinkles with this…
    Stations: People need to be able to get from the sidewalk to the platform to board the train. Bending the bikeway to leave enough platform space for a good # of people waiting, at the expense of a somewhat narrower sidewalk is probably the best compromise. A raised crossing between the sidewalk and the platform (which is higher than normal sidewalks) would warn bikers of the cross-traffic, and would make it easily be ADA-friendly.

    The 3 blocks North of Harrison, there is no parking lane; the space is used for middle turning-lanes. Choices would be to:
    – Eliminate the turn lanes. Consider banning left-turns at some intersections.
    – Route the NB bus-lane onto Terry, following the streetcar tracks, and shift everything over 1 lane to the East.
    – Eliminate the SB car-lane, and make those 3 blocks one-way NB for cars (or vice-versa?)

  16. Adam

    Why not just put a cycle track on 9th instead? I don’t disagree in the least bit that all modes of transportation should have a safe place, but it seems a bit extreme to try to squeeze cycle tracks into Westlake when there is already a streetcar line and the sidewalks are already pretty busy many times during the day. As Tom’s map of the different routes show, we’re talking 2 tenths of a mile difference, which at 10 MPH is a difference of about 75 seconds. 9th is not nearly as busy as Westlake is and is roughly the same grade.

    1. RDPence

      Thank you for a totally logical recommendation.

    2. Gary

      The problem is the South end of 9th at Denny, it basically ends there. If you are heading South, then going up Bell to 1st, then Lenoa, then Western.. but with all the construction it’s pretty hectic.

      8th, 7th and 6th all dump you back on Westlake. 5th is terrible for bicyclists with the monorail posts blocking the view of traffic, and after Westlake no shoulders until you hit the library at Spring.

  17. A Copenhagen Left would have avoided all this. Unfortunately the bicycle user seems to have been influenced by the “I Am Traffic”/”SavvyCycling” crowd and behaved like a car.

    There have been streetcar tracks in Pioneer Square for over three decades, and I am sorry that these were not able to teach bicycle-users how to deal with them.

    May I also suggest one avoids bicycling on the treated lumber that makes up Piers 62/63 as this too can be very slippery even when dry.

    1. Gary

      The Pioneer Square trolley tracks were in the middle of the street and so were the platforms.

      Seems the lesson was lost on the city, not the bicyclists.

  18. Jen

    I’ve never understood why people get so irate about Westlake when 9th is ONE BLOCK AWAY and has bike lanes. Plus, it connects to Bell St at the southern end, which is a great street for biking.

    Seriously, the streetcar tracks are an easily avoidable problem.

    1. Tom Fucoloro

      That’s not the point. People will still be biking on Westlake whether 9th has bike lanes or not because Westlake is a different street and it has all the destinations. It’s not realistic to think the city can ever get every person on a bike to avoid the most densely commercial street in the neighborhood. That’s not how cities work. Many people do bike on 9th, and I’m sure more would if the bike lanes there were better. But that won’t make this problem go away, as much as we all hope it will. The bike lanes on 9th could be made of gold and there would still be people biking on Westlake for whatever reason they have. It is pure hubris to think we can control the movements of people in a city so well that we can lure them all away from a desire line as strong as Westlake.

      Plus, you’d think businesses on Westlake might actually want that bike traffic going past their storefronts.

      1. Jen

        I realize this is heresy, but bikes don’t belong on every road. Westlake is one where it’s not safe and there are viable alternatives. In the vase of Westlakr, it would be better for all to discourage people from using it. There isn’t a way to make itesafe with the streetcar tracks and the volume of traffic it has to carry.

        If 9th had a cycle track almost everyone would use it, especially less experienced cyclists. I think that’s a more practical and realistic plan to push.

      2. Josh

        Seattle does of course have the option of saying bikes don’t belong on streets with streetcars — all it takes is a resolution of the City Council and a few signs to ban bikes from Westlake.

        But they haven’t done that. According to the City Council, bikes do belong on Westlake.

        RCW 46.61.160
        Restrictions on limited-access highway — Use by bicyclists.

        The department of transportation may by order, and local authorities may by ordinance or resolution, with respect to any limited access highway under their respective jurisdictions prohibit the use of any such highway by … bicycles or other nonmotorized traffic ….

        The department of transportation or the local authority adopting any such prohibitory regulation shall erect and maintain official traffic control devices on the limited access roadway on which such regulations are applicable, and when so erected no person may disobey the restrictions stated on such devices.

      3. Tom Fucoloro

        I guess what I’m really trying to push here is for the city to look into the options for bike lanes on Westlake. I’m not convinced it really is impossible, and from what I can tell it has never been actually researched.

      4. Josh

        Documents from the prior lawsuit say the city’s original design assumed the street would in fact be closed to bicycles. But that never happened. The city recognized the hazard but decided not to do anything about it.

        I agree banning bikes is unlikely to happen, and I don’t believe it should happen, either, it would be a terrible precedent to set.

  19. Jen

    Ugh. Please forgive all the autocorrect.

  20. Augsburg

    I will continue Jen’s “heresy” and will add a dose of sacrilege. Only in America, where for many years cycling lost its position as a mainstream means of transportation, do so many cyclists ride bikes ill equipped for urban conditions. You will not find so many skinny-tired road bikes outfitted for commuting in European cities as you do here in the U.S. To the contrary, you will see “city bikes” with wider tires. Wider meaning 38mm to 60mm (or 1.5″ to 2.35″).

    Unfortunately, many “city bikes” sold in the U.S. are not the greatest quality. It does not have to be that way. There are many high quality city bikes produced in Europe and I’m sure our custom bike builders in the U.S. can also figure out how to build true city bikes. Some American bike builders have already attempted, but there is still more ground to gain.

    I attribute the situation we find ourselves in (where too many American bikes on the road are not well suited to riding in urban conditions) to the notion that in the U.S., the tradition of cycling was carried on for many years only by the hard core. For years, many cyclists in the U.S. were focused on road racing and mountain biking.

    Today, the race-breed machismo of the American cyclist lives on. Bicycle shops in the U.S. are filled with skinny-tired, racing-oriented bikes. Bike shop owners and many bicycle advocates turn up their nose at the wide-tire city bikes. That’s too bad. We can learn from European cyclists. As noted several times above, Europeans contend with streetcar tracks in their cities (and cobblestones) on a daily basis. Even though Europe has a more robust bike racing tradition than the U.S., their cities are not filled with skinny-tired bikes. Some how Europeans have adapted – or maybe they simply never adopted race bike attributes and stuck with what works.

    It’s time American cyclists wake up and smell the coffee. Daily use of bicycles for transportation means our bikes cannot look like a past winner of the Tour de France. In fact, if it does, I think you’ve missed the boat.

    1. Josh

      Unfortunately, Seattle’s streetcar system chose rails with a flange gap wide enough and deep enough that a 1.5″ tire can still drop all the way to the bottom of the slot.

    2. Tom Fucoloro

      While I tend to agree proliferation of super skinny tires is not great for regular city biking, the reality is that they’re not going away. We need to plan for them.

      And, as others have pointed out, even fatter tires have trouble on the tracks. The fatter your tires, the less likely you’ll get caught. But it doesn’t mean it won’t happen.

      1. Augsburg

        Ha!, The author behind a bike blog says the “reality” is things are not going to change! :-) I think if you believed that, you would not put so much time and energy into this blog – which is much appreciated, by the way.

        I agree, fat tires on a city bike are not a panacea. My own demise on a trolly track was on a bike with 2.35 inch Schwalbe tires. But the track was T rail with a 2.5″ inch gap – and probably even more gap since the track was in a curve. The girder rail is nominally 1.5″ gap and I likely would have negotiated my little traffic conflict without catastrophe.

    3. Jeff Dubrule

      So, I do agree that a lot of cycling in the US has been pigeonholed into the sport/recreation/exercise category, and the marketing reflects this (our largest nationwide bike shop is called “Performance Bicycle”).

      However, I should also note that American cities are very spread out, so getting from one part of town to another could be a 20 mile ride. Decades of highway building and free parking have also led to land-use patterns that isolate residential from retail from commercial, and have centralized city resources (malls instead of main-streets).

      What I’m trying to get at here, is that the average American errand or commute (on or off a bike) probably covers more miles than the average European errand, and may hit more hills, depending on where you are, so owning a bike that can get you comfortably and efficiently through those miles is nice, particularly if you can find a bike path for most of them.

      I personally don’t own any spandex, but I have biking gloves, a race-y helmet, and a 20-speed touring/road bike with 35mm tires (25mm in the summers), drop-bars, and disc brakes (because downhills, rain & rim-brakes suck). I find it to be quite practical for the distances I ride, and the hills I have to climb. And it’s light enough so that I don’t slip a disc loading it onto a bus bike rack.

      1. Tom Fucoloro

        Totally! I have my own personal tastes and errand needs, but that doesn’t mean what works for me should work for everyone else.

      2. Augsburg

        I will just mention that the idea that “American cities are more spread out” may be changing. Sure, Baby Boomers and even Gen X’ers often chose to live in the suburbs and rely on their cars to get around.

        I walk up Pike St. every morning from Downtown to get coffee at Victrola and every day I see an army of mostly young people walking and biking down the hill to work in the city. Today, I think in many cities you will find that younger Gen Y’s and Millennials are choosing to live in the city – with less square footage and maybe one car per household instead of the 2.5+ held by older generations.

        That, plus today in many European cities you will also find significant suburban “sprawl”. The difference is that frequently the outlying communities of European cities are connected to the city center by a bike path.

    4. Gary

      Oh comon. I ride 30 miles round trip. Adding 20lbs to have wide tires and an upright position is not a realistic option and still commute.

      Besides, the wet steel itself is a hazard, no matter what the gap is.

    5. ODB

      Augsburg, do you really think it’s a “sacrilege” in bike advocacy circles to heap praise on European commuter bikes and culture while dissing the culture of “racing bikes” in the US? In my experience, those sentiments are so orthodox, they’re practically articles of faith.

      At this point, if you want to earn the self-congratulatory label of iconoclast, you need to argue the reverse. Try, for example, espousing one or more of the following heresies: (1) take note of the fact that a significant fraction of regular commuters ride at least moderately fast bikes and some of these even sweat out their spandex on the way to work, (2) concede that this equipment and style of riding might actually have some value with respect to getting exercise, saving time, making long/hilly commutes feasible, etc., (3) maybe go way out on a limb and argue that bicycle facility planning should take account of the fact that reasonably fast riders exist (or that routes suitable for such riders but unsuitable for “all ages and abilities” should be featured on bike maps). Now that will go you burned at the stake!

  21. Neel Blair

    From a long time Seattle bike commuter / errand runner – how about no, they can’t be made 100% safe. The solution to which is “watch the road?” There are potholes, drain grates, bridge decks, hatch covers, and manhole covers that are dangerous all over the place. I ride on Westlake, and sometimes where I’d normally go fast, I go slow due to rail crossings.

  22. Augsburg

    The dialogue is important – however rather than only engaging in talk and the exchange of opinions and conjecture, some cities are collecting real data about streetcar/bicycle accidents.

    See link:

    I have not seen a similar tool for Seattle. As bike-friendly and tech-savvy as Seattleites aspire to be, hopefully someone will develop a similar too.

    1. Gary

      Some street cars have even worse design than ours. Notibly Houston’s. Nick named “the Wham Bam Tram” Removing cars from the street one at a time.

  23. […] and bikes have gotten off to a rough start in Seattle. Planning that neglected bike safety has led to many injuries, especially on Westlake Ave and Jackson Street. We have written about the need for protected bike […]

  24. […] As a bike rider on Seattle’s streets, I’m less enamored with the streetcar system that is developing. Negotiating the tracks can be hazardous for a cyclist. A couple of years ago, a friend of mine was dumped on the street as she tried to maneuver across the tracks on her bike. She escaped with bruises and scraped knees. Others haven’t been so lucky. […]

  25. […] tracks, especially wet ones, are notorious hazard for cyclists. Westlake Ave is a perennial problem for biking along the South Lake Union Streetcar line and one young woman’s fatal crash along […]

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