It's a feeling many Toronto cyclists know all too well - the iron grip of streetcar tracks as they catch your front wheel and send you vaulting over the handlebars and down hard onto the street, into the path of passing cars.
On Monday morning, July 30, Twitter was abuzz with the latest tale of track-on-tire terror, as a friend of Globe and Mail columnist Tabatha Southey told the story of how Southey was knocked unconscious and her chin split open when her wheels got snagged at a streetcar junction at Dundas and College Friday night.
Southey isn't alone. On Tuesday morning, three days before her accident, an ambulance was called to the same spot after rider Chiara Purdy wiped out under nearly identical circumstances.
"I tried to turn and completely just slipped," Purdy says. "I had to get three stitches right below my eyebrow, and I was bruised and cut all over." She usually avoids the turn from bike lanes on Dundas to a connecting route on College because it involves traversing two sets of tracks at difficult angles while pointing downhill.
"It's incredibly dangerous," she says.
Because the city only records bike accidents that involve other vehicles, it's difficult to know how many cyclists are taken out by Toronto's streetcar network. But preliminary data from a University of British Columbia study determined in 2010 that up to one-third of all bicycle accidents in Toronto involve streetcar rails.
Glen Bandiera, chief of emergency medicine at St. Michael's Hospital, says his ER sees several streetcar-track casualties every week. The numbers increase after rainfalls, which make the rails dangerously slick. "It's certainly not the most common [cause of bike accidents], but it is definitely a significant cause," Bandiera says.
Despite the frequency of accidents, cyclists seem to accept that T.O.'s 90-year-old streetcar network is a hazard they must learn to live with.
The shortage of safety measures to keep bikers out of the rail lines' jaws is generally not viewed as a failure of planning or policy. There are no activist campaigns to pressure the city about the issue, and information from leading advocacy group Cycle Toronto puts the onus on riders, advising them to practise crossing the rails at perpendicular angles to avoid getting snagged.
Other cities' riders are more militant about track threats, however. In several U.S. towns where cyclists are less accustomed to the risks of rails, the recent construction of streetcar lines has provoked outcry and even court action. In 2007, the opening ceremony for Seattle's South Lake Union streetcar line was crashed by protesters, many of whom were still nursing injuries from encounters with the newly laid rails.
Three years later six riders filed a class action lawsuit against the city of Seattle after they suffered broken jaws, teeth and arms while riding over the SLU.
"When the streetcar first opened, people were just crashing left and right," says Bob Anderton, the lawyer who filed the suit.
A judge eventually dismissed the case, but due in part to the resulting publicity, Seattle's next streetcar line, opening this fall, will come with physically separated bike lanes that keep riders out of the way of trams. Sharrows have also been painted on the existing line to show riders the safest angles at which to cross.
In Portland, another bike-friendly city building streetcar lines, bike lanes swerve to cross curving trolley tracks at right angles, and two-stage crossings known as "Copenhagen lefts" allow riders to safely make left turns in two signal intervals.
At other intersections, bike-only left-turn lanes to the right of car left-turn lanes permit riders to traverse the tracks at less dangerous angles. Portland has also erected signs warning riders of particularly treacherous tracks, as has Washington, DC.
In Toronto, however, few safety measures have been taken, despite the city boasting the largest streetcar network in North America and a growing cycling population.
Precautions have been taken on the city's inner-city railroad crossings, some of which have been fitted with compressible rubber strips called flange fillers that are inserted into the rails so bike tires don't get caught. But TTC spokesperson Brad Ross says the commission is not aware of any situation where flange fillers have been used successfully on streetcar tracks, and warns they could interfere with the electrical current that powers the trams.
While Cycle Toronto campaign director Jared Kolb concedes that his organization has done little research on the issue, he thinks more could be done to mitigate the danger posed by trolley tracks.
"As it stands, the city has done a relatively poor job of providing for the needs of cyclists crossing streetcar tracks," he says.
Kolb believes accidents could be avoided by creating two-stage intersection crossings, building more physically separated bike lanes and removing on-street parking to give riders more room between the tracks and the curb.
Councillor Mike Layton thinks that on-street sharrows showing safe angles to cross tracks might be the best way to go.
"Sometimes you don't know what angle you should be going on," says Layton, an avid cyclist. "Whenever you get two junctions of streetcar tracks it gets really confusing."
Layton intends to take the idea to the citizen cycling advisory committee he facilitates, with a view to possibly bringing forward a motion at the Public Works committee in the fall.