Real Track Riding

I hear that the railroad tracks on Alameda Street downtown are going to be torn up soon, as they make the road “too bumpy.” They can also present a difficulty to inattentive cyclists–in fact a rider on one of my “Stitching the River” excursions crashed on one of them, though she wasn’t hurt–but I’m sorry to see them go. These were old freight tracks, and trains are three to four times more energy efficient than trucks per ton-mile, as well as more space-efficient. Even the most massive trains fit into a space barely wider than one traffic lane.

What we are seeing more of are light-rail lines–tram tracks, to use an old-fashioned term. The Blue, Green, and Gold lines will soon be joined by the Expo line in West Los Angeles, as modern, convivial transit spreads throughout Los Angeles. And the Gold Line, which serves Pigeonville, will be getting an extension to Azusa soon. This means lots of good things–a light rail line can carry 15 times as many people for the space it occupies as can a freeway and cars–but it can present the same difficulties to cyclists that the freight spurs on Alameda do. In fact, riders in Portland and Seattle have been whining that those cities’ new tram tracks are too hard to ride over, with some bloggers and commenters suggesting that maybe rail lines have no place on city streets.

A cyclist waits for a Gold Line train to pass in South Pasadena

Nonsense! While no form of transport–not even walking!–is more energy-efficient than the bicycle, trams are more space-efficient than anything else, and only urban rail can effectively move the numbers of people who need to get around in a big and somewhat scattered megalopolis such as our own. (Cars have certainly failed to do so.) In fact, trams leave more room for community–and cycling–than anything else besides subways, which are entirely underground except for their station entrances.

And, of course, bikes and trams enhance each others’ capabilities–trams carrying non-athletic cyclists farther than they can go on their own, and bicycles carrying tram riders the “first and last miles” to and from their ultimate destination. (In San Francisco and other cities, light rail lines have served as a spur to building more bike lanes!)

So don’t let Portland cyclists’ tramophobia scare you away from urban rail. I cross those tracks in the photo above several times a week, even in the rain, without trouble; I see dozens of other riders cross them as I hang out at Buster’s Coffee on a my Tuesday morning visits with Vélo Rétro.

Bikes and trams have been coexisting happily for over a hundred years, here, and in Asia and Europe. It’s a happy relationship!

In fact, here’s a charming little video of films shot from Barcelona’s tramcars back in 1908. Note the bike action, folks! That’s “track riding” at its best!

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