Using Jughandles to Reduce Bike Crashes at Railroad Crossings

By Eric Sundquist

Auto-oriented roadway design poses a long list of problems for cycling. A challenge that may be overlooked by non-cyclists: acute-angle railroad crossings. The closer to parallel the crossing, the more easily bike wheels can get lodged in the tracks. Fig. 1 shows an example from near SSTI Central, in the Madison, WI, area. Acknowledging the danger, signs at the approach urge riders to dismount and walk, an inconvenience that creates other potential hazards.

Bike crossing in Madison/Maple Bluff with near-parallel train track crossings
Figure 1. Dangerous crossing for cyclists in Madison/Maple Bluff, Wis.

A few miles away, in contrast, engineers have provided an inexpensive fix by devoting a bit of the terrace to a cyclist jughandle, allowing riders to approach the tracks at a closer-to-perpendicular angle (Fig. 2).

Image of bike/train track crossing in Madison, WI that is near-perpendicular
Figure 2. Intersection with jughandles

Now, a new paper validates that solution. Nitesh Shah and colleagues at the University of Tennessee–Knoxville observed thousands of cycle movements at a heavy-rail crossing, before and after installation of jughandles. Most cyclists took advantage of the new design, which nearly eliminated crashes (Fig. 3).

Chart comparison between bicycle crashes before and after jughandle installation
Figure 3. The addition of jughandles reduced the crash rate from 4 per 1,000 cycle crossings to 0.1 per 1,000 cycle crossings. Source: Nitesh Shah et al. (2020).

The authors conclude:

“This study shows that a realignment of the approach virtually eliminates risk (98% reduction in risk) at this formerly high-risk approach and levels of compliance are relatively high (over 90%). Other designs that reduce the ability to cross the inside of the jughandle (e.g., bollards, surface treatment), could discourage riders from cutting across and shortening the crossing angle. Jughandles are low-cost implementation and can be achieved with pavement markings and minor realignment….”

“[W]e recommend that a physical realignment of at least 30 degrees be installed wherever skewed at-grade rail crossings exist with high bicycle volumes.”