Accident Galvanizes City To Address Unused Trolley Tracks

 

Katie Monroe, Women Bike PHL coordinator, Bicycle Coalition of Philadelphia. She's standing at the site of her accident, the intersection of 11th and Reed in South Philadelphia | Photo: Peter Woodall

Katie Monroe, Women Bike PHL coordinator, Bicycle Coalition of Philadelphia. She’s standing at the site of her accident, the intersection of 11th and Reed in South Philadelphia | Photo: Peter Woodall

Trolleys haven’t traveled along Route 23 for more than two decades, but the line’s steel tracks still run from deep South Philadelphia along 11th and 12th Street, then up Germantown Avenue all the way to Chestnut Hill. For city bicyclists, that’s one very long line worth avoiding. Unlike most trolley routes both active and dormant, the #23’s tracks run where cyclists normally ride, between traffic and parked cars. Tires can get caught in the grooves or slide on the smooth metal if you’re not careful–and occasionally even when you are.

The Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia’s Katie Monroe experienced firsthand just how dangerous the tracks can be in December when she fell at the intersection of 11th and Reed streets. Although Monroe rode perpendicularly across the tracks, her tires slipped from underneath her as she leaned slightly to the left while making the turn. Despite wearing a helmet, Monroe broke her jaw and shattered five teeth.

Monroe’s accident galvanized the Bicycle Coalition into action, and now five months later, the Mayor’s Office of Transportation and Utilities (MOTU) is working on a plan that would pave over the Route 23’s highest-volume intersections in Center City, starting this summer or by fall at latest. It’s a far cry from the complete trolley track removal that bike advocates have long asked for, but SEPTA’s limited budget for discretionary capital expenses called for a modest plan, said MOTU chief of staff Andrew Stober.

Plus, Stober points out, the Route 23’s tracks can be avoided for large parts of a commute. “You don’t have to ride down 12th street; you can ride down 10th. But you can’t avoid the trolley tracks when you’re crossing 12th street or 11th street. So that’s one of the reasons we came to covering the intersection,” he said.

A bicyclist on Spruce crossing the #23 trolley tracks at 12th Street | Photo: Peter Woodall

A bicyclist on Spruce crossing the Route 23 trolley tracks at 12th Street | Photo: Peter Woodall

There is one group, however, that would prefer to leave the tracks intact: trolley advocates who hope the Route 23 will someday be restored to service. To their way of thinking, MOTU’s plan to pave over parts of the trolley infrastructure makes it less likely that the line will one day be resurrected.

When SEPTA shut down the Route 23 (along with the 15 and 56) in 1992 for what the transit agency said would only be a temporary suspension of service, it was a tremendous loss for trolley lovers. The Route 23 was the longest line in the city and, according to some accounts, the longest in the world. It was also the busiest route, and passed through some of Philadelphia’s most colorful and historic neighborhoods.

“SEPTA would like us to forget about (electric) trolleys and trackless trolleys, and buy the pretense that diesel buses are “green,” said local trolley advocate (and Hidden City Daily contributor) Mike Szilagyi. “Asking SEPTA to cover the trolley tracks is something I’m sure they’d welcome. It’s playing right into their hands, and it’s a shame.”

The #23 trolley at 12th and Market in 1968 | Photo: David Wilson

The Route 23 trolley at 12th and Market in 1968 | Photo: David Wilson

Although SEPTA did return the #15 line to service on Girard Avenue in 2005, MOTU’s Stober said restoring the #23 isn’t likely anytime soon. The problem, he said, is that updating the tracks and creating new, wheelchair-accessible stations would cost too much.

SEPTA officials would not comment on the plan to pave over the intersections, although SEPTA spokesman Andrew Busch did confirm that the agency would meet this week with MOTU and the Bicycle Coalition. “The cost and the funding for possible improvements to the roadways, that’ll all be part of the discussion,” said Busch. “These meetings are a step to move that process along. I won’t be able to say right now what that definitely means.”

Monroe said the roll out of a Bike Share system next spring adds some urgency to the situation. There will be an influx of inexperienced riders, and the Route 23 line runs through the middle of two high-traffic bike share “zones.”

There is no data to show how many biking accidents occur as a result of trolley tracks–bike accidents that don’t involve a motor vehicle aren’t reported to the police as crashes–but Monroe cites her own conversations with cyclists, as well as a 2012 Toronto study on trolley tracks and bike safety, as proof that the Route 23 line presents a serious problem for bikers.

The intersections where Snyder Ave. crosses 11th and 12th St. have already been paved over. | Photo: Peter Woodall

The intersections where Snyder Ave. crosses 11th and 12th St. have already been paved over. | Photo: Peter Woodall

“Accidents due to trolley tracks are probably the most underreported type of crash. We know anecdotally that it happens all the time,” said Monroe. “We estimate that one-third of bicycle accidents are caused by trolley tracks.”

So while it’s true that a 2013 data map from the Bicycle Coalition of Philadelphia shows several other streets that look more dangerous to peddlers, it is important to keep in mind that that data is accounting for car-and-bike accidents, not bike-and-track ones.

The safety issues presented by the tracks were serious enough to sway Tony DeSantis, president of the Delaware Valley Association of Rail Passengers. “We don’t object to fixing the roadway so that bikers can use it,” said DeSantis. “I don’t want to start a war with bikes. Their safety is a serious concern to us. I just would like to see something to keep the tracks.”

About the author

Max Ufberg is a freelance reporter in Philadelphia, where he's been living since 2008. A graduate of Temple University, Max has covered everything from books and business to boxing and blues. He's originally from Scranton, PA.

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42 Comments


  1. Best and cheapest option? Polymeric sand!!!! The same stuff you put in between patio blocks. Pour it in, spray with water… and it becomes a semi-solid structure that is easy to remove in the future. You could do this on the ENTIRE length of the trolley tracks and replace it whenever it starts to wear away. AND it would costs very very little, even with the replacements.

    • The issue in this case was not with the groove in the track but with the metal itself being slippery.

  2. Mr. Szilagyi is right that it would be a shame to lose sight of a decent electric trolley system. But the public health cost of those disused trolley tracks is crazy high by any measure, and there’s unfortunately just no way that keeping the rails unpaved for a possible future trolley that the trolley operator doesn’t support can justify that cost. I support bringing the 23 trolley back to those streets as part of a redesign of the street to a proper arterial, with separated bikeways, bike traffic signals, a traffic lane, and a trolleyway. Until that happens, it’s a little unrealistic to think that putting some asphalt over the rails will make a difference to whether a trolley in reinstated, and there’s every reason to think it will make a dramatic reduction in hospital visits by people on bikes. This is an obvious improvement and a long time coming, bravo MOTU!

  3. Here is yet another problem that arises from people not wanting to give up parking spots. One of the main reasons septa cited for getting rid of the trolleys was that they often got stuck behind cars that were parked out of line, where busses can steer to squeeze by. Imagine 11th/12th st with a dedicated buffered bike lane, a dedicated lane for trolleys and busses, with one left over for car traffic, and think about how much precious useful space we give up just so a few people can park their cars for free.

  4. A few years ago, 23 Trolley advocates in Chestnut Hill and Mt. Airy campaigned for the tracks to be relayed and new electrical wiring installed during extensive road construction, all for a trolley that doesn’t exist. This was done along parts of Germantown Avenue in Chestnut Hill, Mt. Airy and Germantown. That component of the project was an extraordinary waste of resources.

    Here’s a short story about it: http://articles.philly.com/2007-09-08/news/25223058_1_trolley-service-new-trolley-granite

    • Thanks for the article. I’ve always wanted them to restore the 23 trolley, it cuts down on pollution and adds to a quality, quiet ride. I take the 13 trolley on Chester Ave to work everyday and you cannnot beat that mode of transportation intrinsically. It’s quick, quiet and smooth.

    • Should the 23 ever get split up (and it should), The Germantown Ave. section of the route has a good chance of becoming a trolley route. However, SEPTA recently paved over the Mermaid Lane loop and demolished the substation in a stroke of shortsightedness.

  5. What do people in Europe do? Growing up in Philadelphia my friends and I road bikes all around the 53, the 56, the 23 and others. I have no memory of anyone getting hurt. Perhaps it was so common that it wasn’t memorable, or perhaps it didn’t happen much.

    I certainly don’t want to see any of today’s cyclists hurt but still there is something sad about giving up (it seems) on the 23.

  6. Emaleigh, you’ve got it backwards. It’s an opportunity wasted by SEPTA to have an attractive, committed form of surface transportation.

    Take a look at cities better regarded than Philadelphia for commitment to quality of life and you’ll see investment in modern streetcars. San Francisco, Portland, or any city in Western Europe. Locally, SEPTA’s wheezing, jerky buses do not provide nearly the level of service of the trolleys in Southwest Philadelphia.

    Removing those tracks would deprive the vastly greater number of city dwellers who should benefit from modern streetcars of that option in favor of the expensive, private transportation option they don’t even use in bad weather.

  7. Does anyone know how other cities handle this? Long Beach California calls itself America’s Most Bike Friendly City and bicyclists cross light rail tracks there. San Francisco has a variety of tracks bicyclists ride along and across. Cities in Europe and Asia have weather similar to ours, what do they do?

  8. Would not the best solution be to bring back the 23 trolley?

  9. NickFromGermantown

    As someone who grew up with the trolley, of course I want to see its service restored.

    The problem here is practicality. It is absolutely asinine to have the 23 run from the top of Chestnut Hill down some of the depths of the South Philly. This is whether it is a trolley or bus.

    Bring the trolley back from Chestnut Hill to Erie. At least in this route, the trolley will play to the historical aesthetic. If people use the 23 to get to South Philly, then they should be transferring to the Broad Street Line. If there really needs to be a bus that goes Erie-Center City or Center City-South Philly along 11th St, then have those buses operate between transit hubs.

    The way the 23 is now, it’s ridiculous. It has to navigate a melee of people and cars during its entire route and the buses frequently bunch up. It’s totally unreliable. I don’t see the harm in restoring service in a reasonable manner. But trying to jam long routes on already crowded streets just doesn’t work.

  10. As the article itself states: “There is no data to show how many biking accidents occur as a result of trolley tracks”. My own theory is that while there are indeed accidents that occur because of trolley tracks, these are few, but they are widely publicized by cycling advocates like the Bicycle Coalition.

    I myself have been commuting to work on a regular basis by bike and live in West Philly were there is a comparatively large amount of tracks in relation to other parts of the city. Perhaps I’m lucky but in the past nine years I’ve suffered only one accident due to the tracks.

    However, the safest and most sensible plan is to eliminate parking and have a dedicated driving lane, bicycle lane and restart the trolley.

    • NickFromGermantown

      “However, the safest and most sensible plan is to eliminate parking and have a dedicated driving lane, bicycle lane and restart the trolley.”

      THIS.

    • Whenever possible, we should be making transportation and investment decisions based on data. But I think the smart money would be on trolley track spills being under-reported. As the person responsible for most Bicycle Coalition publicity, I can confidently say we do not widely publicize trolley track crashes.

      Many of the comments here are right. Ideally, our streets would be well-designed to safely accommodate a wide range of transportation options. Who wouldn’t love a street with a trolley, safe bike lanes, orderly car lanes, and a canopy of majestic oak trees while we’re at it? I’m not being sarcastic – that’d be amazing.

      Unfortunately, Philly’s Streets Department has a very limited budget. Bringing back that trolley line will be a huge financial commitment. In the meantime, this relatively cheap fix can make our streets safer RIGHT NOW for thousands of people who use them.

  11. Yes, trolley tracks can occasionally be avoided, but the volume of tracks throughout the city make it difficult to completely avoid them. This is especially true when a bike lane exist on a street with trolly tracks. A few years ago, I broke my arm on the 23 tracks. I was riding in the bike lane on 12th street along side the 23 tracks. As I maneuvered around a vehicle blocking the lane, my wheel slipped into the groove. Now, rather than taking a street with a designated bike lane, I take 10th street, which does not currently have a designated lane. Perhaps providing bike lanes on non-trolly track roads might be a good first step.

    As a cyclist, I’d be happy to donate my time to properly remove every inch of the trolly tracks. If all Philly cyclists joined, we’d have them removed quite quickly.

    The return of the 23 trolly would be more fiscally irresponsible than paving over the tracks. Paving over them creates an unstable foundation for the asphalt, adding more cost to street repair. The current tracks are so deteriorated that the cost to repair them, should the 23 trolly ever return, would surely bankrupt SEPTA anyway.

    • Erin, speaking as both a transit advocate and a lifelong cyclist, I have to disagree strongly with your opinion.

      First, compared to what Philadelphia had before the predations of the PTC aided by National City Lines and continued by SEPTA, there are FAR fewer streets with trackage than say in the 1950s, when the majority of streets in Center City had active tracks.

      Second, given the size of an operation like SEPTA the idea that restoring one rail line would cause bankruptcy is risible on its surface.

      Third, despite how I dream of the day when Philly looks like Amsterdam with a 20,000-slot bike garage outside its main train station and dedicated lanes everywhere, that’s not going to happen until someone finds a magic bullet to undo the effects of 60 years of sprawl and bring everyone back to within a few miles of Center City. In the meantime, the hard reality is that many times more commuters would benefit from a restored Route 23 versus making its right-of-way 100% bike-friendly. Remember the Vulcan saying about the needs of the many, etc.?

    • Totally agree. Trolleys are great in theory but restoring the 23 ain’t happening. It’s just too expensive and there are so many more pressing priorities.

  12. Amusingly, as a cyclist, I hit trolley tracks and fell last month, at 37th & Lancaster (an active line). 11th St is on my regular commute and I’d rather see service returned than the tracks covered.

  13. If you cannot manage to ride a bike competently enough to navigate some trolley tracks without causing serious injury to yourself perhaps you should advocate they bring back the 23 trolley, since you clearly should find another way to get where you need to go.

    “Accidents due to trolley tracks are probably the most underreported type of crash. We know anecdotally that it happens all the time,” said Monroe. “We estimate that one-third of bicycle accidents are caused by trolley tracks.”

    ^That sounds like a load of nonsense from people who are too busy changing the music on their mp3 player to pay attention to where they are going. Unsafe riding practices cause crashes, this is nothing but a deflection of responsibility. I have ridden probably tens of thousands of miles on my bike in my life, I ride it to work everyday, and every time I have crashed (and that is very rare) was because I was doing something besides watching the rode and controlling the bike.

    • Rob – Using your subjective experience as the basis for denouncing as irrelevant another person’s subjective experience is neither empathetic nor constructive.

      Katie’s crash is the focus of the story, but it isn’t the point. The point is that trolley tracks are demonstrably dangerous to all bicyclists, no matter how skilled. We should be looking for ways to accommodate a wide variety of modes of travel, and make our streets as safe as possible for all of those trips. People make mistakes – let’s design our streets so mistakes are less costly.

      I’m glad you’ve ridden tens of thousands of miles relatively safely. You obviously know the joys of riding a bicycle. I think we’re better off encouraging others to ride, rather than ridiculing them for their injuries.

    • I know Katie, and she’s one of the most conscientious, knowledgeable, and competent cyclists in the city. Your implication that cyclists like her are “too busy changing the music on their MP3 player” to ride safely is unfounded at best and downright stupid at worst. You keep watching the “rode;” we’ll be working on ways to make it safer.

  14. and SEPTA has been using wheelchair access as an excuse for decades also. there several streetcar designs in use in other parts of the world that allow full wheelchair access to low floor streetcars from street level, one lowers to two inches above street so a short ramp is all that would be needed (the ULF, used in Germany)
    SEPTA has been using people with disabilities as their excuse for not doing anything for far too long, there is no excuse for not restoring the #23 line and buying new low floor cars for the other streetcar lines. rather than using people in wheelchairs as an excuse to abandon rail service in Philadelphia while practically every other city of any size is fighting for money to build what SETPA is throwing away, A comprehensive electric steetcar and trackless trolley system.
    Bike riders in Holland http://www.terena.org/webcam/
    and other places coexist quite well with streetcar systems why do the bike riders in Philadelphia have so many problems

  15. Stop the blame game. A Trolley track is an in-animate object and doesn’t cause anything to happen. As the rider of the bike, you are responsible for where and how you ride, just as if you are driving a car.

    Most bicycle accidents are largely due to the cyclist not obeying traffic regulations and getting caught in a pickle. Like trying to squeeze by a moving traffic lane and parked cars. I’m a cyclist, grew up and ride in West Philly where we regularly encounter trolley tracks, it is not a problem. A little bumpy at times but, that’s all.

    Bringing back more Trolleys would serve a heck of a lot more of our community than paving them under. There is a Trolley renaissance going on in America, look at Washington DC, Denver, San Diego, LA, Houston, Tucson, Portland, Norfolk, Atlanta and on and on. But here in Philadelphia, City and SEPTA leadership appear to be asleep at the switch, again.

    • “Most bicycle accidents are largely due to the cyclist not obeying traffic regulations ”

      Can you link to some peer-reviewed statistics to back up this statement? If not, we’ll consider your statement retracted.
      I look forward to seeing them.

      • Relax with the pseudo intellectual BS.

        You, me, and the rest of the world know that bicyclists ignore traffic regulation and go through reds, turn without signaling, blow stop signs, etc. To pretend otherwise is dishonest at best.

        It is reasonable to assume that disregard of traffic controls will increase the occurrence of accidents. Pair that with wearing headphones (illegal) and also screw with their phones for music or texting while riding (illegal).

        If you ride safely you will get their safe. If you take risks you might end up getting hurt.

  16. The trollies were taken out of service in 1992. Lets face facts people, they are not coming back. Why are people holding on to the past like it is some grand piece of history. As the author stated, the costs to make the stations ADA accessible would be ridiculously expensive.

    11th Street was repaved a year ago and the tracks, which pose a danger to not only bicyclists, but motorists too, because the rails become slippery when wet, should have been removed at that point in time, along with the unsightly overhead wiring.

    The Route 23 trolley is not coming back.

    • The cost to make “stations” accessible is zero. Trolleys can and do have the same wheelchair lifts or low-floor access as buses.

      The passion of the anti-trolley folks is always amazing (they want those rails removed!). I suspect it’s because they know their preference (buses for the masses) is worse for everyone else. So they scream about “slippery rails” (what DID we do for 100 years before, or in Amsterdam?) and arguments about public expense (as if they care). They believe in their bikes for them so that’s it.

    • I dont see why is could not come back. The trend has been increased ridership. In the face of people wanting to go green, gas staying high, and the city gaining populations it is not unreasonable to think the trolley could make a return on 23.

  17. I grew up in Philly in the 40s-50s and rode my bike everywhere. It was the heyday of the trolley system and I never blamed anyone but myself when I had a track related incident.

    • Because you are responsible and did not grow up being taught to blame others for your mistakes and problems.

  18. the cost to make all stops wheelchair accessible is exactly ZERO! SEPTA uses it as an excuse to deny riders with disabilities access to decent rail transportation. I travel for work and have ridden just about every streetcar system in the USA and many other parts of the world and only SEPTA has drug their feet and blamed people with disabilities for all the things they don’t want to do rather than accepting access is a fact of life and get on with it.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GOTGxF-M9Fc
    http://www.mobility.siemens.com/mobility/global/en/urban-mobility/rail-solutions/trams-and-light-rail/ulf/Pages/ulf.aspx
    if they can do it why can’t SEPTA other than they don’t care. Siemens who builds this car and others is “Buy America” certified and are building cars for Los Angeles

    excuses excuses excuses and nothing more

  19. You do realize that buying brand new trolleys to replace the K Cars actually does not cost zero dollar right? It would cost millions of dollars.

    • the K cars are over 30 years old (1991) more than twice the age of most buses,, it takes years to get funding and new cars so they are late in getting started already to replace them. even if they started today they would have the oldest streetcars in the country not totally rehabilitated (like the 15 line cars).

      the cost difference between a fully accessible car and a non accessible car is ZERO. SEPTA wants cars that are semilow floor and require platforms. and again will use cost of ADA complaiance to eliminate many stops, unnecessairly

      Bob

      • The K cars are old but they are built like tanks, which is the primary reason they are still in service and not looking like they are leaving anytime soon.

        SEPTA is cash strapped as they always are. Why would SEPTA purposely choose higher cars, which would increase station and maintenance costs, as well as slow efficiency of the cars themselves, since flat cars are quicker for everybody to enter and exit.

  20. I’ve been an on-again, off-again member of the Bicycle Coalition. I wore a coalition “one less car” tshirt from the early 1990s into rags. I believe I am presently not a member. @BC, I see a couple of the names from your blog here, so pay attention to the optics of this situation, because you risk the chance for me to come back as a member.

    I know the tracks can be dangerous – I was riding with my dad in Port Richmond years back, and he cracked two ribs and dislocated his shoulder on the Rt 15 tracks. He had to miss that year’s Freedom Valley bike ride (which, as an aside, since you no longer organize this, is another way your focus has moved from mine).

    1. In this story, I see the Bicycle Coalition state they have reasonable collection of some data to drive transportation decisions: I know you have a multiyear program of commuter counts, and the stated bicycle-car collisions; but no specific data of track-related incidents.

    2. However, when it occurs that an executive of the coalition has an incident on tracks, that motivates the coalition to a new level of lobbying effort.

    3. That lobbying effort consists of getting the mayor’s office to compel the cash-poor “We’re getting there” Septa system to pay to remove an underutilized but proven, existing, paid-for, transportation infrastructure that can be used for zero emissions electric vehicles.

    I only know from this story and one other link. I have to say, this sequence looks terrible to my eyes: using cloudy political influence to divert resources from Septa, to remove what ought to be valued infrastructure, not because of data but because of an insider event.

    • Keith, I appreciate your measured perspective on the story. Comment sections, as we know, are not great venues for productive conversation. I’d encourage anyone interested in learning more about our work to visit bicyclecoalition.org. There you can also find ways of contacting us; I’d be happy to elaborate on our work and priorities.

      I’m sorry you feel like our work has diverged from your priorities as a bicyclist. I feel a couple points deserve emphasis, which I hope will assuage your concerns.

      1. We are big allies of SEPTA and mass transit, as anyone familiar with the full spectrum of our work knows. And everyone should respect SEPTA and the City’s ability to make their own funding decisions. To imply that we are somehow bullying SEPTA into spending money they don’t have is nonprofit fanfic.

      2. The question is not “fill in trolley tracks vs. restore trolley service.” The question is “fill in trolley tracks vs. do nothing.” There is no momentum or plan to restore that trolley. In the meantime, those tracks pose a demonstrable danger to cyclists. And bike share is coming.

      Think about it this way: You eventually want to remodel your bathroom. That desire shouldn’t prevent you from fixing your currently-overflowing toilet.

      3. Yes, Katie’s injury pushed us to move. But the tracks have long been on our list of road dangers. A cyclist was killed in Toronto before that city dealt with their tracks. If anything, we feel we waited too long to ask.

      • “Think about it this way: You eventually want to remodel your bathroom. That desire shouldn’t prevent you from fixing your currently-overflowing toilet.”

        More accurately it would be.

        “Think about it this way: You eventually want to remodel your bathroom. That desire shouldn’t prevent you from bricking off your bathroom in the present.”

        There are much more important things SEPTA can spend money on besides removing tracks which, given the increase of ridership and trend back towards public transit, could forcibly be placed back into service in the future, and would cost many millions to re-lay.

      • re #3 what has Toronto done, other than buy over 200 new streetcars, something SEPTA should be doing

  21. I would argue it is safe to assume somebody who has seriously injured themselves crashing their bike in a single vehicle incident is not on the the “most competent cyclists in the city”. Trying to turn on a known slippery surface is not smart.

    The implication is that bicyclists in this city do change music on their mp3 players, send texts while riding, ignore stop lights, blow stop signs, disregard vehicle right of way, use head phones, all things you would have to be a liar to pretend does not happen on a regular basis, does make their ride more dangerous. To pretend my implication is “unfounded” or “stupid” is nothing but lying through the teeth and you know it as well as everybody else in the city does.

    As much as it is popular to blame others for personal failings and mistakes in today’s world crashing any vehicle, be it a car, a bike, a motorcycle in a single vehicle incident can almost always come down to operator error. SEPTA does not have the money to childproof the roads for you.

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