One-third of bicycle crashes in downtown Toronto involve the city's sprawling network of streetcar tracks, a joint study by Ryerson University and the University of British Columbia reveals, bringing to light the seldom-studied impact of transit infrastructure on cyclist injuries.
Of the 276 bike crashes resulting in injury that researchers studied from May, 2008, to November, 2009, 87 crashes involved streetcar tracks, usually the result of a cyclist avoiding a collision. Cyclists either got caught in the flangeway – the gap alongside the rails – or slipped on the rail itself.
Toronto boasts the largest streetcar system in North America, with 80 kilometres of double tracks crisscrossing major downtown streets. The study, published last week, could bolster calls for cycling safety amid the city's pledge to reduce the number of people killed and seriously injured on roads by 20 per cent within a decade.
"It's not a number that surprises me," Jared Kolb, executive director of Cycle Toronto, said in an interview.
Mr. Kolb said the first time he rode his bike in downtown Toronto, he fell down on a track. "Others cyclists, though, have gone down multiple times," he said. "It's certainly a hazard."
Physically separated bike lanes, protected intersections and dedicated rights-of-way for streetcars could help prevent injuries on tracks, the study suggests.
"I hope it will help to identify priority areas for where we might want to implement separated infrastructure," said Anne Harris, an assistant professor in the school of occupational and public health at Ryerson University.
While the study cites education as a prevention effort, 85 per cent of the cyclists injured on tracks were experienced, Prof. Harris said. Cyclists are taught to cross tracks at a 90-degree angle, but that can be impossible when dodging a car, she said.
Researchers found that the tires of common bikes are narrower than the smallest streetcar track and considered whether tire width could affect bike crashes. In interviews with bike shops, they found that staff were reluctant to recommend wider tires, which are slower and less efficient for commuting and are still at risk of getting caught in flangeways.
Fifteen per cent of the track-related crashes in the study involved left turns. Kay Teschke, a professor in the school of population and public health at the University of British Columbia, said those findings contradict vehicular cycling, which teaches cyclists to act like motor vehicles.
"It may be a big mistake, at least when streetcar tracks are involved," Prof. Teschke said. "What we recommend is trying to make a two-stage left turn, which is what every pedestrian does. You cross one intersection and then you cross the other."
None of the crashes studied involved a streetcar and crashing on a track did not increase the severity of injuries.
In 2012, a 41-year-old cyclist was killed after his tire became lodged in a stretch of unused streetcar track on Wychwood Avenue, prompting Mr. Kolb and Cycle Toronto, an advocacy group, to call for a study on the safety hazards that streetcar tracks pose to cyclists.
"The findings of the study are very important," Mr. Kolb said on Tuesday. "It shows there's a clear need for urban infrastructure improvement."