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A Giant Leap Back in Time: Dangerous Streetcar Tracks Return to Milwaukee

Streetcar Problems In Milwaukee

by Tony Sanfelipo


Hupy and Abraham, S.C., a well-known law firm located in Wisconsin, Illinois and Iowa, is representing the first motorcycle victim of a new streetcar system being constructed in Milwaukee.

With all the technological advances in road design, there has been a downward trend in crashes and fatalities. We would hope more improvements with safety in mind are being developed. Yet Milwaukee, home of Harley-Davidson, has taken a step back in roadway safety with the construction of a new streetcar system in the downtown area.

It’s been over 50 years since the city tore up the streetcar tracks and tore down the ugly overhead wires that powered the cumbersome beasts through downtown and west past where the original Harley plant is located. As in much new roadway design, it appears two-wheeled vehicles were not seriously considered when planners developed the rail system in Milwaukee for the new HOP MKE streetcar system. Work started in 2016 with an in-service date scheduled for November 2018. The tracks have caused several bicycle crashes already, and July 26, Attorney Michael Hupy filed a claim against the city on behalf of his client, Aaron Henning. While riding downtown, Henning attempted to make a lane change when his tire got into a dispute with the track system and he crashed, seriously injuring his arm among other injuries.

An outspoken critic of the streetcar line since it was announced in 2016, Attorney Hupy predicted there would be problems for motorcyclists, especially worrisome with the Harley-Davidson 115th Anniversary expected to bring thousands of riders to the city at the end of August.

As bikers, we know tracks should be crossed at a 90-degree angle if possible, but these tracks run parallel with the road and changing lanes in a crowded downtown street is especially hazardous. There are plans to extend the existing line to connect more neighborhoods to the downtown area and east to the lakefront sometime in 2019. Should the mayor and common council known the tracks pose a threat to two-wheeled traffic? If they did any research, they would have found that a 2016 study by Ryerson University found that one-third of cycling injuries requiring hospitalization in Toronto were due to streetcar track mishaps. Seattle experienced a similar problem. Yet there is no conclusive data suggesting the danger, probably because reporting agencies list these crashes as “pedal cyclist struck object in road.” That category includes potholes, debris, tar snakes and any number of situations, so track involved crashes are lost in the haze of reporting.

As recent as July 2018, a bicyclist in Milwaukee, Steven Allen, slipped on the newly laid tracks at Ogden and Franklin streets in Milwaukee, suffering a serious ankle injury. The mayor answered questions from reporters by reminding cyclists to exercise caution around the tracks and cross tracks at a 90-degree angle. A rather lame response and of course, not relevant to the Henning crash since the tracks there ran parallel to his direction of travel. The streetcars aren’t in service yet, but the plans are they will be operational sometime in November. They are Liberty models and are 67 feet long and capable of carrying 120-150 passengers. The cars weigh 83,000 pounds. It remains to be seen how much of a traffic jam these will cause in the already congested downtown area, especially on rainy or snowy days. The cost of this leap back in time is expected to be $123.9 million for the 2.5-mile line which connects the intermodal train station on 4th Street to downtown, the lower eastside and the historic Third Ward district.

If you plan on visiting Milwaukee for the Harley 115th Anniversary, or just to come and enjoy the old-world charm, the breweries, zoo, lakefront or many other attractions, please be extremely cautious if traveling on two wheels. Vehicles with small wheel diameters or narrow contact patches are especially at risk, including motorcycles, mopeds, scooters, bicycles and special-needs mobility devices. Besides the track grooves, tracks are treacherous when wet after a rain or snow. We want everyone to enjoy a safe visit to our city.

After Henning crashed, he knew exactly who to call for help. “Everybody I talked to recommended Hupy and Abraham because they’ve represented thousands of bikers for personal injuries,” Henning said. Our firm has represented over 4,000 injured motorcyclists and this is the first case involving the new streetcar tracks. We fervently hope no other cyclists are injured due to the design of these tracks. Hopefully, the city will erect numerous signs warning cyclists to exercise caution when riding near the tracks. Then, the only problems you will have to guard against will be the many potholes, tar snakes, distracted drivers and bicycle couriers darting in and out of downtown traffic. Enjoy.

If you know of motorcyclists or bicyclists crashing due to streetcar tracks, comment to this article so we can share information about dangerous locations.


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