Bikes & Streetcars – Let’s be Best Friends!

Last week I was privileged to participate in an extraordinary design workshop for a streetcar project on Seattle’s Broadway Street. I say extraordinary not just because of the caliber of talent from Portland, Vancouver BC, Montreal and Seattle, but because of the complexity and vision of the project itself, as our team – led by Mark Dorn of URS Corp. – is integrating both streetcar and a two-way separated bike lane (a.k.a. cycle track) in lockstep with each other. If we succeed, we will show that bicycles and streetcars can and should be best friends. 

Seattle, WA, Broadway Street today: A complex urban environment characterized by high-density housing, small storefronts, large medical and educational buildings, steep running and cross grades, and plenty of traffic.

Broadway Street envisioned with streetcar and a two-way cycle-track.

 When I was Portland’s Bicycle Coordinator in the 1900s, Portland was planning its first streetcar line. Since the streetcar tracks were to run in the right-most travel lane, my colleagues and I were understandably concerned, particularly as the streets in question were also streets designated for bike lanes. The potential for cyclists to crash on tracks seemed very high. We felt like the streetcar planning team was deaf to our pleas, that we were simply annoying gnats hovering about, always whining as they deftly swatted us away. And when the streetcar opened, and cyclists started crashing, we felt no thrill of vindication.  

The City then modified one of the problem spots; the new design did the trick from a cycling standpoint, but at the expense of pedestrians on the sidewalk. Not a great compromise.  

Where the bike lane would have hit the now-extruded sidewalk at the streetcar platform, cyclists are brought onto the sidewalk.

The next line opened with an improved design, partly owing to the availability of space in a newer area of town.  

An improved design takes cyclists around the streetcar platform on SW Moody.

In 2005, I was invited to a meeting to discuss bike-related issues for an impending extension of the first line. As we went around the room introducing ourselves, city staff, advocates, URS engineers, and the brilliant Rick Gustafson from the firm Shiels Obletz Johnsen (which leads streetcar finance and operations), I realized that every last soul at the table frequently cycles for transportation. Not only did this show me the extent to which we had succeeded in bringing people into the fold of bicycle transportation, but also that, within a decade, cycling had been elevated from an issue of annoyance to one of sincere concern.  

Over the course of the next few months, we analyzed the impacts of the proposed streetcar extension, from alignment options to potential solutions to avoiding turning across tracks at dangerous angles, designing intersections, and installing wayfinding signage. As part of another project, we conducted a survey that documented cyclists’ crashes on existing tracks and an exhaustive literature search of design guidance from around the world. We offered options, from placing streetcar tracks on the left or center of the road instead of the right side, physically separating cyclists from tracks, or developing parallel (but excellent) bikeways.  

Our process of working through the details with the affected neighborhood, user, and business groups led to a consensus, in the case of NW Lovejoy, that a parallel bikeway was a better approach. The already-constrained environment (on-street parking, narrow bike lanes, extruded sidewalks/platforms, and two narrow travel lanes) would be made even worse with additional angled tracks and a two-way to one-way shift. To make it acceptable from a bikeway standpoint, all the on-street parking would have to be removed, an unacceptable trade-off from a business standpoint. Now that the parallel bikeway has been implemented, a fair amount of debate is underway in Portland’s cycling community. Part of that has to do with driver behavior on tracks, part has to do with the symbolism of removing an official city bikeway from Lovejoy, but it’s also about the details of the design, which are far from perfect and continue to be tweaked. In another case, streetcar design was modified to place the tracks and platforms in the middle to allow for right-side bike lanes.  

In the meantime, the City of Seattle was dealing with the aftermath of their first streetcar line. Without due consideration given to bicyclist safety and tracks laid in the right lane, cyclists started crashing and complaining. Alarmed, then-Seattle DOT Director Grace Crunican asked for guidance on future lines. And that’s what led to the project on Broadway Street and a commitment to ensure that from now on, bicycles and streetcars are planned together.  

Seattle’s Broadway is a wonderful project from a good intentions standpoint, but a really tough one from a design standpoint. While the vision is to create an excellent bikeway akin to Vancouver BC’s Dunsmuir Street or the many two-way paths/cycle tracks in Montreal, the challenges are enormous.

A two-way, physically-separated bike lane on a busy avenue in Montreal

Of particular concern is bicyclist/motorist interaction at intersections and driveways, steep grades, bicyclists’ turning movements, and, of course, interaction with tracks. Every decision will involve trade-offs with motorist movement, parking, or access. To be sure, like Portland’s emerging streetcar lines, debate and design-tweaking will go on long after the project is supposedly complete.

Both streetcar and bicycle transportation are highly effective, sustainable solutions with multiple benefits. Bicycling leverages enormous health and environmental benefits, while streetcar leverages development. Both use space efficiently and forward economic progress. Together, they signify the dawn of a powerful new era of transportation efficiency.  

And one thing’s for sure: designing streetcar lines without serious consideration of bicyclists will cost more in the long run, as it’s always harder to fix things than doing them well in the first place.

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