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Scientists Confirm: For Cyclists, Train Tracks Are the Worst

A study in streetcar-laden Toronto argues the solution is improved urban cycling infrastructure.

By Nathan Collins


(Photo: Michael Dodge/Getty Images)

For urban cyclists, downtown streets are something akin to a war zone. And while there are many potentially lethal foes on the road (cars), bicyclists in some cities intuitively fear a less obvious but no less serious threat: train tracks. Now, public-health researchers have confirmed cyclists’ intuition, at least in streetcar-heavy Toronto: About a third of injuries incurred while bicycling there can be directly tied to train tracks, and the best solution is to change cycling-route infrastructure.

OK, so not that many people get seriously injured in bicycling accidents compared to car crashes, but if urban planners want to encourage cycling—for its health and environmental benefits, if nothing else—it’s important to understand the risks, and how planners can make streets safer for cyclists.

With that in mind, Kay Teschke, a professor of public health at the University of British Columbia, and her colleagues have been looking at what causes injuries to cyclists, and what steps could be taken to prevent those injuries. Back in 2014, they looked at injuries in both Vancouver and Toronto and found that around one-third were the result of collisions with cars, while 14 percent directly involved train tracks of one sort or another.

In cities with extensive train systems, the train tracks themselves are on par with automobiles as a threat to cyclists.

The overall numbers, however, mask an important difference between Vancouver and Toronto: “Unlike Vancouver, Toronto has an extensive streetcar system (the largest in North America) and 32% of participating cyclists injured there had crashes that directly involved tracks, compared to 2.5% in Vancouver,” Teschke and hercolleagues write in their paper, which was published last week in BMC Public Health. In other words, in cities with extensive train systems, the train tracks themselves are on par with automobiles as a threat to cyclists.

To better understand possible prevention methods, the researchers took a closer look at the Toronto data, which included interviews with 276 adults who’d been injured badly enough to require a trip to the emergency room. The vast majority of those cyclists had gotten a wheel caught in the train tracks; a smaller number slipped on wet tracks. Not surprisingly, people were much more likely to experience an accident on a major street with parked cars alongside the road and without bike infrastructure, such as dedicated bike lanes. Single speeds, road racing bikes, and others with typically narrow tires were also more likely to run into trouble on train tracks.

So what’s to be done? Even experienced cyclists can fall on train tracks, the results show, so simply educating people about how to safely cross train tracks—ideally at a right angle—isn’t enough. The best solution, the authors write, is probably to change bicycling routes themselves.

“Our results showed that route infrastructure makes a difference to the odds of track-involved injuries,” the team writes. “Dedicated rail rights of way, cycle tracks, and protected intersections that direct two-stage left turns … would prevent most of the track-involved injury scenarios observed in this study.”