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One in five sewer grates on Seattle bike routes are hazards

Grate designs in red are considered hazards. The Vaned grate is the city's current design

Experienced riders in Seattle are so used to avoiding dangerous sewer grates that it’s second nature at this point. If you have ever thought those grates with gaps long and wide enough to grab a bike wheel seem to be everywhere, a recent report by Seattle Public Utilities says you’re right. The good news is that SPU is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars replacing dangerous or broken grates, prioritizing bike routes in their replacement efforts. The bad news is they have a ways yet to go (though they are working on it).

From the P.I.:

When the utility began its two-year survey in 2009, it had no idea of the number of grates – hazardous or otherwise – on Seattle’s hundreds of miles of bike routes. By 2010, the city found it had a total of 19,200 storm drains on designated bike routes, of which 4,292 were deemed as potential hazards.

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The city has since replaced 700 of the hazards, or 16 percent of the identified problems. The replacements were for “highest priority” problems, which included fixing broken grates and replacing the old, parallel-slatted grates with a modern, safer design.

The price tag so far for the survey and replacements: $238,000. Coming up next is spending another $160,000 to replace the remaining top-priority 300 hazards.

SPU is also setting aside $60,000 a year to work with the Transportation Department on paving issues that cause the sinking and rising of storm drains.

SPU says they do look at reports of hazardous grates on BikeWise.org, so be sure to report what you see to help target their efforts. Also, the fabled BikeWise mobile app is supposed to be out soonish. Imagine being able to report hazards on the spot to SDOT and SPU just by pulling over and tapping a few buttons…

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13 responses to “One in five sewer grates on Seattle bike routes are hazards”

  1. JAT

    I would say the bad news is not that they still have a ways to go so much as that the non-cycling public (and bulk of commenters to the P-I story on this) think this is a frivolous expense and that we don’t belong on the streets if we can’t avoid hurting ourselves on these things (while simultaneously staying as far right/out of their way as we can)… Oh, and we don’t pay for roads, we all break the law, our spandex is ugly, etc.

    1. Tom Fucoloro

      There is little to be gained by reading comments on bike stories in many media sources. Don’t read too much into the vile stuff you read there (unless your doctor says you need to raise your blood pressure, in which case reading comments on a P.I. bike story could save your life…)

      The vast majority of people out there do not wish harm on cyclists or have the desire to tell us where to ride and what to wear. Need a pick-my-up? Here’s over 900 wonderful Seattle pro-bikes and pro-safe street comments gathered in just the last few days: http://org2.democracyinaction.org/o/5719/p/dia/action/public/?action_KEY=6379

  2. Brian

    Well, they might have a point on spandex…

    I guess one counterargument might be to point out that 200,000 dollars is pretty cheap to prevent one episode of death or paraplegia. If someone is going to argue that bikes belong to kids and the road belongs to cars only, then I’m at a loss for what to say. There are lots of hard-hearted people in Washington, unfortunately.

  3. WTF

    The anger you are reading stems from the fact that during these, some of the hardest economic times in recent memory, while many are being forced to see programs they love or need cut, cyclist seem to be getting everything they have ever wanted on their wish lists fulfilled. New bike lanes, stolen traffic lanes, new green boxes, giving out free toys to entice people to ride bikes, and now hundreds of thousands of dollars spent for new drainage grates instead of fixing potholes is infuriating to the average Seattle resident. Perhaps if it wasnt the case that you, the small but VERY well organized militant biking community, had a complete fool for a Mayor elected and now doing your every bidding despite flying in the face of common or economic sense the public wouldnt feel the need to vent their frustrations in comments sections or on the road?

    Every wonder why there are so many people from so many different backgrounds that all come to the same point of frustration and anger at cyclist? Probably has something to do with getting stuck behind one of you on their way home from work then getting home to see on the local news that critical social services have been cut while cyclist in Seattle are getting new toys everyday.

    If you guys would like I could start directing people in those comments sections to find this site and comment. Why should you guys get to hide here while we have to deal with you on the roads?

    1. Tom Fucoloro

      I would love for people who are skeptical of biking to contribute the conversation here. I really do feel (and maybe I’m naive or idealistic) that much of the animosity between some folks on the road could be eased if each party came to the table and talked things out without resorting to conversation-ending statements that you so often see in online forums (off-topic statements, name-calling, rudeness, etc).

      To address some of your claims, the grates are being paid for by Seattle Public Utilities as a proactive safety project that will reduce their liability (since they are aware of the danger, they are liable if they don’t fix them). A couple hundred thousand dollars is little to pay for a project that could save people from death or permanent injury is really not unreasonable. They are also investments with very long lifespans, so they will be paying off for a long time coming.

      Also, bicyclists do not get everything they want. The Bicycle Master Plan is only around 30 percent funded. And, as you have noted, even that funding was hard-fought by a very organized group. The BMP was also enacted before Mayor McGinn was in office.

      Many of the projects you are seeing are paid for by the Bridging the Gap Levy passed years ago. That money cannot go to social services or libraries, which are indeed hurting. BTG also pays for roads projects that do little for bicyclists, such as the 15th Ave project going on right now without any bicycle amenities.

      From the perspective of someone who who almost never drives, it seems like car-centric projects get the vast majority of transportation money in the city while bicycles are left with the little bits left over. You, clearly, feel as though bikes get a disproportionate amount of the funds. But at a time when the “Mercer Mess” project and Spokane St Viaduct projects cost hundreds of millions of dollars, a couple million dollars split between bicycle and pedestrian projects does not feel excessive. I don’t drive, so I see many car-centric projects as unnecessary. You don’t bicycle (I assume), so you see green paint and bike lanes as unnecessary. You call bike lanes “toys,” but they are a safety barrier between my body and several tons of steel. I greatly appreciate them, and they encourage new folks to get out of cars and onto bikes (which, despite how you feel, has proven to reduce traffic and save the city money). You complain about bicyclists riding slowly in front of your car, slowing you down, and I complain about cars causing traffic jams and slowing me down. You see people of all backgrounds frustrated with bicyclists, and I see people of all backgrounds riding bikes.

      My point isn’t to immediately convince you biking is great, but having animosity against someone due solely to their chosen method of transportation is just silly (that goes both ways, of course). If someone is jerk to you, you can get mad at them for being a jerk. I think if people who are skeptical of biking come to this forum and interact respectfully, they will at least leave with a sense that most cyclists are just people trying to get where they’re going.

    2. JAT

      For what it’s worth, WTF, I don’t think the “bicycling community” is anywhere near as organized or militant as it must sometimes seem (or as small, for that matter) different cyclists want differnt things. I, for one, don’t particularly care about bike lanes and would LOVE it if the pot holes could be competantly patched (no point in explaining how pot holes are created, I suppose).

      The traffic engineers can show the disgruntled that lane channelization doesn’t result in loss of capacity until they’re blue in the face, but people can’t seem to hear information that disproves their pre-existing beliefs, so it remains “stolen traffic lanes” to you.

      I also don’t think anyone has ever been stuck behind a cyclist. Slightly delayed? perhaps, but they’re not that hard to get around and I assure you you make the time up once you’re past them – what people get stuck behind is traffic, and while cyclists are a (small) part of traffic, as you surely know most of traffic is other motor vehicles. Maybe it’s the perception of being “stuck behind” that riles people, but one gets stuck behind an accident or an avalanche, or a washed out bridge, one doesn’t get stuck behind a bicycle.

      It’s your last paragraph, however which evinces the truth of the matter: The disgruntled motorist community paints cyclists as militant and organized, when in fact it is they (you) who threaten to organize a troll campaign against fellow legitimate road users. Very nice.

  4. James Ewins

    Drain slots parallel to the curb can be dangerous to bike riders, but are more efficient in allowing waste water into the sewer system. The roads were not designed for bike traffic and just changing the grates will be a wasteful compromise. Should roads designed for motor vehicles be used for bikes?

    1. Tom Fucoloro

      Do you have a source or link re: parallel slots being more efficient? I have never heard such, and highly doubt that to be true.

      There was an era of road engineering where bicycles (particularly skinny road bike tires) were not a priority, thus leading to the installation of storm grates that are dangerous. Just because someone in 1950 did not care about bikes is a silly reason not to care about them now.

      Our city’s boulevards were originally built for bicycle and buggy use, and they were later adapted for motor vehicles.

      If every person riding a bicycle in Seattle were to drive a car, do you have any idea how much increased traffic there would be? If even half chose to drive instead, that’s thousands of extra cars on our roads. Designing roads for safe bicycle use is good for everyone, including people who have no desire to ride.

  5. HWF

    WTF: As a daily cycle commuter, I can say that the vast majority of motorists (and we are all at least part-time motorists) are patient and respectful of cyclists, as the vast majority of cyclists are law-abiding and respectful of the rights of cars. The anger you ascribe to so many drivers is simply not the case. I have ridden thousands of miles on Seattle’s streets, and had very few run-ins with drivers. Most dangerous situations occur due to inattention on the driver’s part, sometimes even on my part; when I have a close call, I don’t assume that someone is trying to kill me. Most people are well-meaning, and don’t wish ill to others, whether they’re on bikes or in cars. I suggest that you give cycling a try. Despite the potential hazards and the often unpleasant weather, there are few better ways to relieve stress and get rid of anger and frustration, not to mention those few extra pounds. Ironically, the very thing that seems to give you the most anger might help you to overcome it and lead a happier life.

  6. One of the things I did when I was first hired by the Seattle Engineer Department in 1972 was work on a plan to establish bike routes in Seattle. We ended up installing three: Alki, GreenLake to UW, and NE 40th St. Prior to their installation, another employee and I went out onto those routes and catalogued all the drain grates that presented a potential problem to bicycle riders. Those grates were either replaced or modified before the actual painted and signed bicycle routes were installed. It amazes me how that original effort has grown to what exists today. Keep up fixing those grates.

  7. ODB

    I’d like to second HWF’s comment–I feel very fortunate to bicycle in Seattle where motorists in general are incredibly courteous, almost to a fault in some cases. This is a great city to bicycle in and I’m pleased that it’s getting even better. Seattle’s continued investments in low-cost transportation alternatives makes sense in a down economy. Bicycling is incredibly low-cost compared to driving, but many people are put off by their perception–one that is not without some justification–that it is dangerous. This is where inexpensive safety upgrades like replacing dangerous sewer grates comes in.

  8. rat girl

    I gotta say as a biker I’m embarrassed that these guys are insisting we spend money on something so trivial. It just seems so selfish and I don’t think it’s realistic to ride a bike in a big city and expect the roads to be perfectly smooth. There are so many places where this money could be put to far, far better use. I say quit whining and get some fatter tires!!!

  9. […] Bob Anderton, a Seattle bike lawyer and SBB sponsor, pointed out the ongoing danger in a recent blog post. SPU responded by urging people to report dangerous sewer grates to 206.386.1800. You can also report them to BikeWise.org. For more on the danger of sewer grates, see this post from our archives. […]

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