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Designing for safer LRT

06 April 2017

Low floor LRT is growing in popularity across North America, though it always raises the question of safety. So what best practice should the designers, planners and operators be implementing to ensure a safe interaction? 

The emergence of ‘urban style’ light rail transit (LRT) projects in North America, especially in Canada, has been noticeable over the past decade. As a rapid transit mode solution catering to intermediate ridership, the benefits of light rail reach far beyond efficient and practical people-moving. 

This type of light rail, highly utilized in Europe, is a well-known catalyst for city shaping – numerous LRT projects in Canadian cities are either under construction or about to begin (Confederation Line, Ottawa; ION in Waterloo; Eglington-Crosstown, Toronto; and Valley Line, Edmonton), while several other cities are planning for new projects (Surrey, Hamilton, Toronto, Calgary and Montreal).  

When working on light rail planning projects, one of the first questions Steer Davies Gleave receive is ‘what about safety?’ and rightly so, as it is of utmost importance. Light rail safety can be a mysterious concept for the unfamiliar, as it is based on a subtle integrative approach whereby light rail and its operations are tied into the surroundings in order to reduce visual intrusion on the street.  

The introduction of a new transit technology can be an overwhelming prospect at first, as the interactions and interface between all road users must be navigated to a higher standard than before. 

People crossing LRT

Urban style LRT relies on an intuitive, user-centered design to keep those that interact with the system safe without intruding upon the esthetics of the urban realm. Light rail should be designed for user behavior, rather than attempting to restrict it, ultimately leading to improved and evolved safety.  

A key example we often hear from stakeholders is the issue of pedestrians jaywalking across LRT tracks. The first instinct is to prevent people from jaywalking, but this is not simple or practicable. It can be expensive, incur property impact and be visually intrusive. 

The opposite approach has the potential to be more effective – designers assume that pedestrians will jaywalk and implement clear urban design treatments (curb and track types, planting, colors, pavement markings, tactile warning, etc.) to let pedestrians know where they should and should not stand. 

Equally, LRT operators require clear operating rules and right of way delineation through urban design so that they have a visual cue to confirm they are safe to proceed when pedestrians are clear of these limits.  

Another typical example is traffic and light rail interaction. Clear use of traffic signals, pavement markings and signage is key. Reducing visual clutter for drivers can help them to navigate safely – this includes enhanced lighting and avoiding excess signage, as well as using subtler visual cues such as urban design treatments and special road geometry to improve visibility of pedestrians, cyclists and the LRT. 

Provision for cyclists follows many of the same principles of best practice design with special signage to warn cyclists of hazards and use of urban design to guide cyclists to cross rails at appropriate angles.

A key point to consider for stakeholders embarking on a new LRT project in Canada is that Transport Canada, the federal rail regulator, does not currently apply safety regulations to LRT systems. The City of Ottawa, for example, has sought to be delegated authority from Transport Canada as the safety regulator of its new LRT system. 

As this technology continues to be planned and operated in Canada, it makes sense to begin developing clear and consistent standards of practice, as well as to set out evolving best practice guidelines based on worldwide standards and experiences. 

Written by Laura Sidi.
Tags: LRT

About the author

Laura Sidi's picture
Laura Sidi
Laura is a transportation engineer and urban planner with experience working in both Canada and Australia. She has worked on many traffic analysis projects, parking studies, transport impact assessments and has a solid foundation in traffic and transportation engineering.

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