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How to Properly Cross Rail Tracks on your Bike

Unfortunately, it's something I've seen even the most experienced cyclist do: wipe out while crossing a set of train tracks.  As many of you know, you need to maneuver your bike's angle of approach so that you hit the rails as perpendicular as possible. But even knowing that, some demon riders don't slow enough to sashay properly, and heck: poor newbies have no idea how the road's mathematics work until it's too late!

In Seattle, they are trying something I have never seen before that goes beyond the usual warning signage: the DOT is using "sharrows" and markings to visually guide cyclists in the art of making some of these crossings. Anecdotally, it seems to work well. I found it reassuring that my path was predetermined as I approached instead of having to guesstimate.  Stay within the lines - and all will be good.

But as John Mauro from the Cascade Bicycle Club points out, this is only an interim solution.  This is the missing link in the famous Burke-Gilman greenway, and families out cycling for the day shouldn't have to contend with dangerous sets of tracks in the first place.  Still, it is nice to see DOT's all across the country are getting creative and using cost effective solutions (just a few marks with paint) to keep us a little safer.

[music]
John Mauro:
[0:11] I'm John Mauro, and I'm the commute director for the Cascade Bicycle Club. And Streetfilms was out exploring the city of Seattle, and they came across the tracks on the missing link of the Burke-Gilman Trail, which has been a big problem spot for cyclists for several years. It's something that people have been struggling with, and we've actually heard probably four or five dozen crashes right there due to those tracks. [0:36] The long-term is to actually replace that section of trail. And of course, we're working to make sure that that link is completed. But in the interim, instead of rerouting, paving a trail, ripping up the tracks, the Seattle Department of Transportation's taken a pedal-by-pedal approach to getting people across the tracks, by taking sharrows and marking, every couple of feet, the cyclists' path into the lane, taking a lane, like a cyclist should, and then crossing at a 90-degree angle.
[music]

Clarence Eckerson, Jr. has been making fantastical transportation media in NYC since the late 1990s. He's never had a driver's license and never will.

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  • http://www.livablestreets.com/people/cclark Carly

    Good call, Clarence! If only I had seen this before I wiped out in Portland two years ago. Oh well, I just learned it the hard way.

  • Don W

    I think it is very important to visually tell the drivers that cyclists will be - and have the right - to make a move farther into the travel lane to adjust themselves. Excellent Seattle.

  • http://www.livablestreets.com/people/Green_Idea_Factory Todd Edelman

    Hmm, well it seems we want more lightrail and streetcars in the USofA, which means there will invariably be more street level tracks. For me, nervousness about what's behind me - like a car - is just as important as crossing the tracks with the right technique. In other words, if at all possible, doing something to slow down the cars in that small section could be more of a guarantee than the painted instructions, and of course a complement to them. There even could be a fancy detecto-gizmo to slow down cars only when cyclists are present...

  • Brian B.

    Having been on this railroad (Ballard Terminal) we were all glad to see that put in place. Now if only cyclist will yield for the train. 40-50 dozen accidents will be nothing if the RR ever hits anyone because cars or bicycles fail to yield for a train.

  • Blair

    This is great. Although citizens in Seattle probably don't like having to cross these tracks at all, this is very useful for those of us in the rest of the U.S.

  • http://seattletransitblog.com Ben Schiendelman

    That's great! I wish I could edit video like this.

  • LN

    I live in NYC now and I ride everyday here and when I was living in Seattle too. I too wiped out in that very same place. Scraped knee, dirty hand, wet side resulted. That Burke Gilman diversion in Ballard could have tried to avoid them.

  • http://copenhagenize.com Mikael

    It's cool that the bicycle is represented by more visual symbolism on the urban landscape. I do have to wonder how millions of cyclists in Europe, with all the criss-crossing tram and trains lines, have managed for decades without sharrows. :-)

  • http://www.hiddeneurope.co.uk Nicky Gardner

    Heavens, I never realised what a dangerous world this is. Truth is that I never venture out on my bike without a protractor. That way, I can check I am crossing tracks at a safe ninety degree angle. I always dismount, do some detailed measurements and calculations, make chalk marks on the pavement and only then cycle over rail tracks.

    Many of my best cyclist friends have come to an unhappy end following my advice. The trick is to make sure you are not crushed by an oncoming streetcar or Amtrak train while doing the measurements.

  • http://i.feedtacoma.com/Erik/ Erik B.

    Nice work Clarence!

  • me

    Why isn't it ok to cross at an angle other than 90º? unless the tracks are wet/icy, it should be fine...

  • Clarence Eckerson, Jr.

    me -

    I believe the 90 degree angle is more of a visual suggestion so that people understand that you must cross tracks in a way so that you do not cut it close. Is 40 or 45 degrees okay? Likely if it isn't raining. In fact if you look at the marks laid down on the pavement, even those are not at a full 90 degree angle. It is just to get you in the mindset that you need to make a deliberate, substantial move in your ride to confidently be able to cross with a margin for error.

  • http://www.bicyclespokesman.com Mike

    No doubt about it - railroad tracks can be a danger to cyclists. I came across the best warning sign I have ever seen at a railroad crossing in Lewes, Del. I included it in a posting on my blog at http://bicyclespokesman.com/something-good-from-delaware-dot/