A King County Superior Court judge has dismissed claims by a group of people seriously injured on the South Lake Union streetcar tracks after they were dangerously installed in the curb lane of the previously-popular bicycling route. They plan to appeal the decision, according to the Seattle Times:
Judge Harry McCarthy last week agreed with the city that the cyclists hadn’t proved the city fell short of any design or engineering standards when it placed the streetcar tracks on the right side of the roadway, where bikes were likely to travel, rather than in the center.
Another part of the lawsuit was dismissed last year when a different judge ruled the city was immune from liability in its decision to build a streetcar and align it in the right-hand lane.
“We never disputed the tracks were a hazard,” said Rebecca Boatright, assistant city attorney who handled the case. “The legal question was whether we fell short of any engineering standard in designing a road with a streetcar. The judge concluded we did not.”
Bob Anderton, one of the attorneys for the group, said even if the litigation does not result in compensation for those injured, it has already made the city safer. He pointed out that plans for the First Hill Streetcar include a separated cycle track and avoid many of the issues caused on Westlake.
The city did not argue that the tracks were not a hazard, Boatright told the Times. Rather, the city argued that the city did not fall short of engineering standards when designing the SLU Streetcar. The judge agreed with the city.
If this is true, it highlights an urgent need to update engineering standards to avoid a repeat of this mistake in cities all around the nation.
The city asserts that there have been no new bike-only crashes reported along the streetcar tracks since 2010. Perhaps there have not been police reports, but I have personally witnessed at least one nasty crash on the tracks in the past year. A quick glance at BikeWise’s self-reported bike crash map also shows a shocking number of wrecks along the streetcar route. If you read the descriptions, almost all of them are due to the streetcar tracks.
As much as I would love to believe this problem has been solved, that’s simply wishful thinking. With 9th Ave (a parallel street with bike lanes) and Terry Ave (a low-traffic street) constantly under construction due to the Mercer project, people will continue to bike on Westlake. Plus, it’s flat, direct and lined with businesses and destinations. The same things that make it attractive to streetcar users make it attractive to people on bikes.
So what can be done? Well, more Band-Aid warnings and bike guides would help (for example, the intersection of 8th Ave and Westlake Ave). It is not immediately obvious to everyone, especially people new to cycling, that the tracks are dangerous. The group suing the city has done a great job alerting people of the problem, but it is naive to think we are going to reach everyone. It should be made clear to people on the ground where they should ride and how to make turns. Maybe painting sharrows in the center lanes would help. Maybe there should be a center protected two-way cycle track (how cool would that be?). I understand that having too many signs and paint makes things overwhelming, but doing nothing is not an option.
Other than tearing it up and moving the tracks to the center lanes (which would cost a fortune and be very unpopular), the city needs to accelerate some attractive alternative routes. Terry Ave is supposed to be a “green street” someday but the project is moving along slowly (the city is about to begin some construction on the section between Mercer and Harrison). Plus, it also has streetcar tracks, so it would take a rather creative road design to make it a safe bike route (but with the low car volumes, it could be done).
The city could also figure out a way to connect 9th Ave N north of Denny Way to downtown and Capitol Hill. Without these connections, it is not a functional alternative to Westlake Ave. It needs to connect to 9th Ave east of Westlake Ave, which would help people headed to Capitol Hill via Pine (9th Ave between Pine and Westlake could also be two-ways, at least for people on bikes).
Improving 7th Ave between Westlake and the Convention Center (and making it two-ways for people on bikes) would help people get between 9th Ave N and downtown. Making Pine two-ways for bikes between 7th and 9th would help even more people connect to this Westlake Ave detour (and Dexter, the city’s top bike commute route).
And, of course, there needs to be a safe and easy way to connect 9th Ave N to South Lake Union Park (and the Cheshiahud Loop).
Basically, we need ambitious changes to mitigate the dangers caused by the streetcar and more people safely through South Lake Union. This should be a serious priority in the city’s transportation goals, and I have yet to see any plan that adequately addresses the neighborhood’s ever-growing needs.
What would you like to see the city do to help people on bikes avoid the Westlake tracks?