Streetcars vs. drivers: Other cities have had challenges, too

The biggest roadblock to Kansas City’s streetcar success may be exactly that — cars blocking the road and the streetcar’s rail path.

Nearly every day as the new downtown streetcars have been out on test runs, cars have been illegally parked too close to the rails, sometimes forcing the streetcar to stop. It’s led to delays, tickets, tows and even a minor fender-bender on Tuesday.

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Other cities with streetcars have some words of wisdom: It gets better.

“Like with any new project, there’s a little bit of a learning curve,” said Dan Bower, executive director with Portland Streetcar, which has had a modern streetcar system for 15 years. “It’s solvable. It’s not an insurmountable problem.”

Bower says when he talks to other cities about streetcars, the question of how to integrate them into mixed traffic “has come up more than anything else.”

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It’s a constant issue of educating new visitors, tourists, delivery vehicles and others to the city, but over time people grow accustomed to the system.

Kansas City Streetcar Authority spokeswoman Donna Mandelbaum said the authority is working hard to give the public its best advice for smooth traffic operations with the streetcar.

She said people are definitely becoming more aware of the new rules and warnings.

“Now if they disregard it, that’s a whole other issue,” she said.

Bower didn’t have Portland’s accident data from 15 years ago but said the number of accidents dropped from 47 in 2014 to 30 in 2015.

“We operate 75,000 hours per year. Thirty collisions is not very many,” he said. Of those 30, most were caused by an errant motorist or an improperly parked car. Three involved a streetcar striking a parked vehicle and four involved a streetcar rear-ending a vehicle.

Bower said the system spends a lot of time training operators on how to avoid hitting parked cars, adds extra signage and striping to make no-parking zones clear, and tows cars as quickly as possible when they do block the tracks. He said the Portland streetcar system has not had any deaths or serious injuries in its 15 years.

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However, that doesn’t mean everything always goes smoothly. In late February, the streetcar had a 45-minute delay when thieves who stole a car abandoned it on a two-lane bridge, blocking the track and shutting down the entire bridge. The system kept the public informed about the problem via Twitter and eventually the car was towed.

Seattle officials said that when they opened their first phase, the South Lake Union line in 2007, they too had problems with cars poorly parallel parked. There were several collisions after the start-up.

“All of them were the fault of a motor vehicle operator, typically for failing to obey a traffic light or stop sign,” said Rick Sheridan, communications director with the Seattle Department of Transportation.

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Sheridan said the system didn’t have as many problems with its newest phase, the First Hill Streetcar, which opened in January, because it worked closely with police on enforcement before the line opened publicly.

“We placed temporary signage on streets and put leaflets on parked cars prior to service beginning to alert drivers to the need to park appropriately,” Sheridan said.

In Washington, D.C., streetcars have been involved in nine fender benders since testing began in October 2014. The Atlanta streetcar system had a similar number in 2015, its first year of operation, and in most cases the other driver was at fault.

According to the Federal Transit Administration, most cities with streetcars had no accidents or just a handful in 2015.

While illegally parked cars and fender benders can cause minor delays and inconvenience, some encounters between streetcars and traffic in other cities have been scarier.

In Charlotte, N.C., in July 2015, a streetcar operator failed to properly engage a brake less than a week after the system made its public debut. The streetcar rolled out of control for roughly half a mile and struck an SUV, terrifying passengers and causing two minor injuries.

In Salt Lake City in August 2015, a streetcar and an Audi collided, killing two people. In that instance, officials said the Audi ran a stop sign and crashed into the streetcar.

Jeff Boothe, who since 2004 has headed the Community Streetcar Coalition, an advocacy group, said minor accidents are not uncommon when streetcar systems are in testing and start-up phases. Public education, signage and streetscape design improvements can alleviate trouble spots.

“You have to train the public about good parking behavior,” he said. “People have to respect the (streetcar) vehicle. You can’t play tag with the vehicle.”

Kansas City parking woes

Kansas City streetcars have been tested on the 2.2-mile downtown route from River Market to Union Station since mid-November, and for the most part it has gone smoothly. A public grand opening is set for May 6.

But on many safety training trips, the streetcar has had to stop at least briefly for cars parked too close to the tracks, with mirrors or tires over the white border line that runs parallel to the tracks. Signs along the route warn motorists that parking past the white line is prohibited, but they are small and mixed with other signs.

“We’ve got sign clutter, I won’t deny it,” said Kansas City Public Works Director Sherri McIntyre, acknowledging there are many signs along the streetcar route, and motorists may not always notice them. She said the city is talking about ways to make signage as helpful and noticeable as possible.

On Tuesday afternoon, Streetcar No. 801 struck a Johnson County Mercedes parked too far past the white line, close to the tracks just south of 20th and Main streets.

According to the police report, the driver said he had to run into a shop for a short time. The southbound streetcar’s right side hit and damaged the car’s left side about 1:30 p.m.

The Johnson County motorist could not be reached for comment, and Herzog Transit Services would not make the operator available for comment about how the accident occurred. But streetcar authority officials have noted that it takes a while for the 78,000-pound vehicle to come to a stop, even after the operator engages the brake.

The Mercedes was moved to a nearby parking lot where the owner changed a flat tire. Police said the vehicle was parked about three feet from the curb, in the streetcar lane and in violation of city ordinance which requires cars to be within 12 inches of the curb. The driver was ticketed.

The white line in that area wasn’t solid, and public works officials acknowledged it had been partly scraped off. They said it will be repainted, as will other faint spots along the route.

The streetcar had only cosmetic damage and was back out testing the next day.

While this accident didn’t result in significant damage, the streetcar authority and city have a shared insurance program for streetcar operations and city-owned streetcar assets. If the streetcar is at fault and causes damage, claims will be reviewed by the city law department.

Mandelbaum said operator training is being adjusted and enhanced in light of the incident, and the authority is working to incorporate new information from the streetcar’s interactions with cars.

Streetcar authority officials and volunteers go out almost daily to put fliers on poorly parked cars, telling them about the new rules needed to prevent unwanted encounters with the streetcar.

Enforcement is key. Police wrote nine parking tickets related to the streetcar in February and have ordered a handful of tows, but the number wasn’t available.

The streetcar operators try to locate owners of cars blocking the streetcar before ordering a tow. But the city has a contract with a towing company and will summon one if necessary. It’s got a guaranteed response time of 15 minutes but most often shows up in less than eight minutes so far.

The streetcar authority has also used local media, plus its website and Twitter, @kcstreetcar, to educate drivers.

Business complaints

Some businesses still grumble that the white line parking barrier is too close to the curb.

“It’s horrible,” said Mary Harmon, manager at Cascone’s Grill on East Fifth Street, right on the streetcar loop in River Market. “I’ve argued with them from day one, with my big mouth.”

Cascone’s lost several on-street parking spots to make way for a streetcar platform. Other spaces near the restaurant on the south side of Fifth Street are marked for compact cars only.

Harmon said several customers have had cars ticketed or towed, and they expect the restaurant to take care of it. She hopes the streetcar will bring more business in the long run.

Mandelbaum responded that the space for cars on the north side of Fifth Street is wide enough for a school bus, and nearby surface lots provide many more spaces. Harmon countered that it’s not enough and she’d like to see another nearby parking garage.

At a City Council meeting, Councilwoman Katheryn Shields said she too thought the white line space was too narrow in spots. She said she was riding in an SUV recently that had to park partly on the sidewalk and fold mirrors in, and the streetcar passed within a whisker’s breadth.

“They didn’t fit,” responded Public Works Director Sherri McIntyre. “That’s illegally parked.”

McIntyre said most white line areas on the route have sufficient space for an average full-sized truck, and there’s plenty of room on side streets or in parking garages for larger vehicles.

Boothe predicted that over time, Kansas City’s issues will dissipate, saying, “You’re just going through some growing pains.”

Mandelbaum agreed and said the streetcar safety testing and operator training are providing valuable lessons learned. She said the city and authority will continue to monitor and modify route areas where changes are warranted, and the public is invited to share its insights.

“It’s OK,” she said. “We need that feedback so we can see how everything is working, and if there need to be adjustments.”

Lynn Horsley: 816-226-2058, @LynnHorsley

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