With grant application, PBOT finally acknowledges ‘safety issue’ with streetcar tracks

With grant application, PBOT finally acknowledges ‘safety issue’ with streetcar tracks

Crash on NW Lovejoy-3

Streetcar tracks have claimed many
victims over the years.
(Photos J. Maus/BikePortland)

After years of activism and untold amounts of carnage, the Portland Bureau of Transportation is finally making an attempt to address the dangers that streetcar tracks pose to people riding bicycles.

PBOT has filed a grant application with the Transportation Research Board that would give them $150,000 in funding to work with Portland Streetcar Inc. and Portland State University to identify best practices and improve the safety of cycling around streetcar tracks.

This is an issue we’ve covered for over seven years.

As late as last August we reported that PBOT Planning Manager Art Pearce (he was a streetcar project manager back then) said he didn’t know of any internal effort to address the issue. And then in September we lamented that despite ongoing injuries there was still no substantial movement from PBOT to address the issue.

PBOT and PSI are well aware of the ongoing crashes caused by streetcar tracks in large part because of efforts by the volunteer non-profit group Active Right of Way. In December 2010 that group made a presentation to a table full of top PBOT and PSI staffers outlining several specific trouble spots and potential fixes. They also launched an online crash-reporting tool to track the number of incidents.

AROW meets with PBOT about streetcar-bike issues-1

A meeting at PBOT headquarters in January 2011 included the head of Portland Streetcar Rick Gustafson, PBOT streetcar project managers, and activists from Active Right of Way. Yet years later, very little has changed.

Yet despite this activism and hundreds of falls, broken limbs, and bloodshed, PBOT and PSI have not taken serious steps to address the issues. Instead, they released a video aimed at educating people on how to ride around the tracks.

This perspective that the issue was simply a matter of people riding more carefully was shared by former PBOT Director Tom Miller. Miller’s lack of urgency about the issue likely had a lot to do with his experience riding in Amsterdam and the Netherlands, where there are a lot tracks and people manage to ride over and around them without problems.

But now there’s a new director at PBOT (Leah Treat) and this grant application also comes out as Dan Bower, former head of PBOT’s Active Transportation Division, transitions into his new role as Executive Director of Portland Streetcar. For what it’s worth, Bower is a frequent bike rider who has first-hand experience on what it’s like to navigate around tracks.

This grant application is the first time we’ve heard the City of Portland officially acknowledge that safety issues exist and that they will take some responsibility to mitigate it.

Here’s a key line from the ordinance that will be heard at City Council this Wednesday:

“Analysis of crash history and community feedback indicate that there is a safety issue associated with people riding bicycles on or across streetcar tracks in Portland’s central city.”

We plan to look more closely at what type of safety solutions are being considered by the city. One source confirms that PSI has been testing a flange-filler in their maintenance yard. Flange fillers are placed in the groove of the tracks and are meant to depress only by the weight of a streetcar, while remaining flush at all other times. These devices have been around for many years (there’s a discussion about them by a City of Portland employee in 1996 preserved online), but they have typically not been very durable. (see update below)

Stay tuned for more coverage on this issue. For background browse our rail track safety story archives.

UPDATE/CORRECTION, 12:58 pm: It turns out that we received bad information and PSI is not currently testing flange-fillers. We regret any confusion our story caused.

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