Bicycle on the H Street streetcar tracks by the author.

One of the most common safety issues with streetcar tracks around the world is that bicycle tires get caught in them. There’s a gap in the tracks that easily traps bicycle tires, causing the rider to lose their balance or flip over their handlebars. People get hurt, and sometimes people even get killed when they’re hit by vehicles driving behind them. The streetcar tracks on H Street NE have this issue.

Addressing this issue could have saved the life of Malik Habib, who died last June after his tire got caught in the streetcar track and was hit by a bus driver behind him. At the time, the local ANC formally requested that DDOT conduct a rigorous assessment that results in effective improvements to safety. This is an example of the type of avoidable death that continues to occur because of a design-build process that doesn’t prioritize bicyclists and pedestrians.

We need a solution that would protect the lives of people who want or need to bike on H Street. Even with alternative bike routes on G and I Streets, people on bicycles visit and patronize businesses on H Street, and bicyclists may legally ride on H Street for as long or as short as they like. Some bicyclists might not even realize alternate routes are available.

One option, which DDOT promised to look into, is a flange filler. A flange filler is a material sturdy enough to allow bicycles to ride along the track, but malleable enough to allow the streetcar to move down the track. To date, DDOT has not released any information about the results of their studies of existing flange fillers on the market, nor shared ideas about other solutions that would suit the tracks of the DC Streetcar.

Railway crossing with flangeway filler by Richard Drdul licensed under Creative Commons.

Is there a solution that would enable anyone on a bike to safely ride on H Street? Streetcars make streets safer by helping more people take transit instead of driving, but we need them to be as safe as they can be on their own terms.

Other American cities with streetcar tracks struggle with the same issue. Seattle has had a streetcar since the mid-90s but has yet to accommodate bicyclists with a flange filler. European cities—many of which are simultaneously among the best streetcar and bike cities in the world—suggest doing what DDOT has done in the corridor: Provide alternative bike routes. The key difference is that when European cities provide an alternative bike route, it is usually part of a vast network of separated, protected bike lanes.

Malik was not familiar with the alternative routes on G and I Streets. But this is exactly the type of problem that Vision Zero seeks to solve: Even if someone doesn’t know about their full range of options, they should still be safe with whatever route they choose. That DDOT is doing their best to channel bicyclists to the alternative routes is noble, but it neglects those who may not fully understand the paint on H Street, or those who are trying to get to a destination on H Street (rather than a destination on G or I Streets).

As DC and other American cities continue to expand streetcar networks (and they should!), it would be a worthwhile investment to explore how to prevent this common and tragic issue. Please sign our petition to urge DDOT to be a national leader in transportation safety and explore solutions that will work for existing and future DC Streetcar tracks. We can’t afford another death because of our unsafe infrastructure.

Matthew Sampson is a graduate student at the Urban and Regional Planning program at Georgetown University. As a native of San Diego, he has grown to love the quirks of life on the East Coast. He is a pedestrian and bicycle activist who wants to enable a car-free lifestyle for more residents in the DMV area. Matthew is the commissioner-elect of the 2B01 seat in the Dupont ANC.

Rachel Maisler is an avid city cyclist and advocate who enjoys exploring DC and beyond. She represents Ward 4 on the Bicycle Advisory Council and serves on the Age-Friendly DC Task Force. When she's not fighting for safe roads, Rachel is a health policy wonk. Rachel has lived inside the Beltway since 2005 and currently resides in Petworth. She also writes for Petworth News.