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Bikes and Streetcars in Tucson – Is There a Way to Make it Work?

by Melanie Lipton

What happens when two very good, well intentioned modes of transportation come together in a densely populated, busy urban corridor?  Well, if it’s the Tucson Streetcar and the fleet of Tucson bike commuters, the results are starting to get ugly.

The Sun Link Streetcar is now in the final testing phases in the bustling University of Arizona/downtown area.  It’s been a long process for the city, from the early design phase to the seemingly never ending construction, and now to the last weeks of testing.  It’s due to begin service this July.  Its route is along one of the most heavily traveled bike corridors in Tucson as well.

Photo courtesy of Mike Christy/Arizona Daily Star

During this testing phase, the local cycling community, the business community, and City of Tucson officials (in addition to a lot of professional complainers all over the internet) have been flinging insults, accusations, and firery rhetoric back and forth about the pros and cons of a streetcar in Tucson.

Cyclists are upset because the streetcar tracks are dangerous and tricky to navigate over and around, the streetcar itself can be dangerous, and the already crowded road just became more congested with added hazards.  Car drivers are upset because the city is threatening to remove some on street parking along the route, ticketing folks for not parking correctly, and fear getting stuck behind a slow moving 66 foot train.  All the while, the City of Tucson continues to maintain that cars, streetcars, and bikes can all peacefully share the road.

Look out!

For those of you who are curious, you can see a few stories about the some of the issues Tucson has had with the Streetcar thus far  here, here, and here.

I’m trying to remain an objective observer in this debate, although I am a cyclist and I do have concerns about riding alongside a streetcar and streetcar tracks.  However, for the purpose of this post, I’m going to keep my personal opinions (mostly) out of it.

Theoretically, it’s pretty hard to argue against a streetcar as a good option for inner-city transportation.  It’s a way to bring large crowds of people into a city center without their cars.  Once it’s budgeted and paid for, it’s relatively inexpensive to maintain for the city. It produces very little pollution. It creates jobs. Did I mention it gets people out of their cars?  All good things in my mind.

And of course, all the readers here know why commuting by bike is a good idea.  Zero carbon footprint, easy, healthy, convenient, etc, etc.

Alas, with any well-intentioned, theoretically-sound venture, the rosy outlook starts to tarnish with the execution.  Which leads us to our current situation here in Tucson, where the design and implementation of the streetcar has made folks rabid.

Cyclists feel not enough was done to insure their safety.  Without the ability to create a protected bike lane along the route, some feel that removing on-street parking would provide more of a buffer zone between the streetcar tracks and the curb for them to safely ride without running over the tracks.

This is what can happen when your wheel gets stuck in a streetcar track

Local business owners don’t want parking removed because they have just been through nearly 2 years of construction, which crippled them financially, and they rely on folks ability to drive their cars and park in front of their establishment.

Other concerned citizens who voice their opinions think the cyclists should find a different route to avoid the streetcar tracks, educate themselves about how to safely maneuver the tracks, and drivers should be more conscientious when traveling with cyclists and streetcars.

Photo courtesy of Tucson Velo

Let’s face it, you can’t please everyone.  There are budgetary constraints and politics involved with any large infrastructure project that forces city planners to make tough choices.  Local business owners and  homeowners worry about how the construction and implementation of a streetcar will impact them.  And of course, cyclists are concerned with their safety and ability to coexist with the streetcar.  All of these concerns are valid.  But that doesn’t make folks any less angry.

There is a very distinct “pro streetcar” or “anti streetcar” vibe around town.  Listening in on conversations at restaurants, talking to co-workers, reading any comments associated with local stories about the streetcar, or just observing folks in Tucson interacting with the construction and testing of the streetcar, you can tell there are a lot of folks who either love it or hate it.  What I believe is that we need to accept that the streetcar has come to our town and figure out a way to adapt, adjust, and perhaps(?) even appreciate it.  Were poor choices made in the design and implementation?  Yes, probably.  But now Tucson, and every other city with a streetcar system, needs to find ways to get where we need to go safely and cooperatively.

 

Cycling and the streetcar…can we get along?

There are a number of cities in the country with streetcars.  Seattle  and Portland are both bike friendly cities with streetcars, and there are a number of U.S. cities in the planning or construction phases of streetcar projects.  Each of these cities has had their own struggles with compatibility issues.  There have been accidents and injuries.  There have been angry commuters all around. And of course lawsuits.

I believe in bicycle advocacy.  I believe in my right to utilize the same roads as cars (and streetcars) to get to where I need to go, and I’ll get loud if those rights are being infringed upon.  I appreciate it when my city makes the effort to provide bike lanes, off street bike paths and bridges, and any other cycling friendly infrastructure.

However, call me an idealist (or a wimp), but I don’t believe that pointing fingers, name calling, the “us against them” mentality, or spewing vitriol all over social media is going to help all the various travelers of the road commute in peace.

In Tucson, it looks like the Streetcar is here to stay.  Cyclists, let’s try to strategize the most practical ways to make our commute as safe as possible.  Let’s continue to help guide our city officials towards the smartest decisions for streetcar/bicycle compatibility moving forward.  What can we do to be a positive force in a less than ideal situation?  For those of you living in cities with streetcars, what can you recommend for us here in the Old Pueblo?

 

 

 

 
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5 Responses to “Bikes and Streetcars in Tucson – Is There a Way to Make it Work?”

  1. Kevin Love says:

    Amsterdam is covered with streetcar tracks. And central Amsterdam has a 70% bicycle mode share.

    Somehow they manage to avoid mass death. We can too.

    • Melanie Lipton says:

      Kevin,
      You are right. Amsterdam and a handful of other European cities have prioritized bicycle safety when implementing their streetcars, and I think they should be used as a model for U.S. cities who are planning streetcars.

  2. ian johnson says:

    I would encourage all your readers to read the data for themselves:

    http://www.livingstreetsalliance.org/our-work/projects/streetcar-crash-data/

    We need to design these roads so that trivial errors when riding or driving don’t lead to serious injury. If these were car accidents happening at this accelerated rates — which would lead to far fewer actual injuries — citizens would be up in arms and TDOT would be redesigning the road. Why expect bikes to “figure it out” when there are known solutions to many of the issues?

  3. matt says:

    Hey… PHILADELPHIA never got rid of a lot of their streetcars. BOSTON too. Bikes are very much part of the transportation scene in both places. Everyone is fine… Bikes, trolleys and pedestrians alike.

    However, when we lived in Cincinnati, you would think that the proposed “light rail” was a harbinger of one world government.

    My conclusion is that people just don’t like change. In B and P, where the trolleys never left, no big deal. In C, folks just can’t imagine anything different, either.

  4. Tim Sherman says:

    Last winter my wife and I took a trip to AZ and NM. While in Tucson we stayed at the Hotel Congress. One day we walked over to World of Beers for beer. From where we sat we could see bikes going under the railroad track on N 4th Ave. The sun was bright and the underpass was shadowed. We watched bikes without lights appear out of the shadows and bikes disappear into the shadows while rush hour traffic was taking place. We were amazed that no one was run over. It seemed like a crazy route to pedal. That would be a good place to have a bike path separated from vehicle traffic.

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