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After wreck, international war crimes investigator vows to make Burke-Gilman crossing safe

Image from Google Street View

Stefanie Frease has been in a lot of dangerous environments around the world, but the one that left her out of commission for several months is right here in Seattle. Many of you who ride regularly probably know it well: The super-slick rubber railroad crossing Slip ‘n Slide on the Burke-Gilman Trail near NW 41st St.

Frease wrote a guest column for the Seattle Times:

On Easter Sunday, I was riding the Burke-Gilman Trail between Ballard and Fremont, when I crossed the rubber-coated railroad tracks at about Northwest 41st Street and Sixth Avenue Northwest. My bike skidded and I went down hard, landing on my left hip and fracturing my pelvis in three places.

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As an experienced cyclist I was stunned that I was down and unable to get back up. The pain was excruciating and I knew instantly my injuries were serious.

Since my accident, I have heard from different sources of dozens of people who have also wiped out on the same spot in the past couple of years, sustaining head trauma, cracked pelvises, broken arms and legs, and many, many less serious but still wholly unnecessary injuries. One medical aide referred to the location as “the death trap.”

Why has it not been repaired? Why are there not ample warning signs that the rubber is extraordinarily slippery (and unsafe) when wet? How many dozens more cyclists need to break bones, or worse, before the city finally takes this crash site seriously?

I have seen one wreck there myself. A friend and I were riding together and chatting on a rainy night, then all of a sudden he wasn’t there anymore. I looked back and he was on the ground. He scraped his face, but he seemed more surprised by his fall than hurt (luckily).

In order to safely navigate the crossing when it is wet, be extra careful not to lean, make any turning maneuvers or apply your brakes while either wheel is on the rubber pad.

I received an email a couple months ago from a woman named Beth who has fallen there twice in the past year and has witnessed three other wrecks. BikeWise.org, a website set up by Cascade Bicycle Club to help track road hazards and other bicycling issues, shows a cluster reports at that spot.

SDOT is aware of the issue and have a plan for fixing it. However, they don’t have the funds. Here is the response Beth received from SDOT in April:

We currently have a design in place to change the alignment at this particular crossing.  We plan to remove the rubberized mats, replace them with asphalt, and change the angle of crossing the tracks closer to 90 degrees. Unfortunately as you know, these are difficult financial times for the city and we hope to have enough funding to complete the project this year.  However, if budget constraints do not allow for the changes to be made this year, the project will be pushed back to 2012.

Meanwhile, SDOT has spent the past couple weeks arguing in front of the Hearing Examiner in order to be allowed to build the planned completion of the Burke-Gilman Missing Link, a desperately dangerous place for people to ride bicycles today. The city has been forced to spend untold amounts of money in the never-ending legal battle to fix that problem. If the city’s money could go to creating safe facilities instead of legal fees, imagine how safe traveling in our city could be.

Have any of you experienced any problems with the NW 41st Street Slip ‘n Slide?

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18 responses to “After wreck, international war crimes investigator vows to make Burke-Gilman crossing safe”

  1. daisy

    With more than a year wait it would be good to install larger signage with the blinkys on them.

    The most unsafe part of that crossing is the appearance 0f traction and level transitions.

    Watch for the yellow ones on wheelchair ramps as well.

  2. JAT

    I’ve never seen a train there. We could fix it for $10 worth of ready-mix concrete. Flippant, I know, but how much of our D-grade infrastructure is compromised by accommodating only marginally used rails? Has SDOT made a cost/benefit analysis of cyclists injured per actual train crossing? There are at least 5 rail crossings on Alaskan Way/E Marginal Way where the tracks have been removed from their destination piers but left crumblingly in place on the road surface (to say nothing of the new tracks installed for the Hanjin terminal that lead to an entirly fenced-in spur or those still in place for the never-to-return waterfront streetcar)

    1. Tom Fucoloro

      The tracks are used every once in a while to deliver flour to a waiting truck and maybe some other stuff. The city owns the tracks and leases them to the Ballard Terminal Railroad Company. The train moves at walking speed, and workers actually walk alongside it to make sure it gets through safely and traffic stops for it. The missing link plans preserve track functionality, which is perhaps a sign that the city wants to keep them usable.

    2. Tom Fucoloro

      More on the railroad and it’s conflict with the missing link project: http://www.seattlepi.com/default/article/Burke-Gilman-extension-as-seen-by-business-1112162.php

      Some say it runs twice a week, others say four times.

    3. Anthony

      What about the environmental costs associated with putting these loads into trucks now that you want to kill the train? Is this your answer which is in complete contradiction to what sustainability is about? Kill the train so my bike has an easier time, and simultaneously increase truck traffic?! Absolutely crazy, imho. The train just ran today, btw.

      Feel safer now? Hmm, I’m guessing not since you now know that more trucks on the raod make it way more dangerous than having one set of tracks that many people aren’t bright enough to understand how to cross safely.

      I agree about the streetcar, we now have more Metro buses on the road and tracks that aren’t being used, not good. See my point now?

      As for Hanjin, true as well. More work needs to be done on Alaska, but keep in mind that the southernmost section is still in use across Alaska Way from time to time. BNSF makes the tracks within the Matson yard when and if they need to.

      I don’t mean to be rude, but most often the cause of these accidents is operator error, unfortunately. Having broke my leg not once, but two times I can attest to this. The tracks that used to cross West Marginal and go into the former Frye’s junkyard claimed me and my favorite Etto helmet one day, all because the VW Ghia starter in my backpack weighed me down more and when I hit the tracks at a reasonable angle it still wasn’t good enough.

      Reality is people need to be more careful. That the crossing may need repair I cannot say, its been a month to two since I’ve ridden across it. Hard to believe its that much worse now.

      1. JAT

        Good points, and I don’t think you’re being rude at all. User error is definitely a problem (I crashed on the new Hanjin track the first day that stretch of road was re-opened – it was dark and rainy and the cycle friendly rubber gaskets had not yet been installed – I was really angry, but ultimately it was my fault, I knew), but if, as a city and state we are actively trying to encourage cycling for transportation and if we’re going to build cycle infrastructure, then we should do so competantly..

        If a particular intersection created this many automobile crashes how long would it take SDOT to make some changes?

      2. If the train runs less than once a day, and runs at walking speed with workers walking next to it, I have a hard time believing that moving its loads to trucks would affect businesses’ economics very much. Running a short route that finishes at a truck, I have a hard time believing the environmental impact of running trucks instead would be much — trains run on diesel, not unicorn farts, and most train engines emit far more toxic and particulate emissions than modern truck engines, especially relevant in an urban setting.

        As far as safety goes? You’ll probably have to run more than four trucks per week to carry the load of four trains. But I have a hard time believing a handful of extra truck trips, mostly run during business hours and not peak riding hours, will be as dangerous to cyclists as the tracks are.

        That all said, it is an industrial area. Train tracks are hardly the only dangerous thing there. Ignoring the surroundings and riding fast is pretty dumb.

        There should at least be a sign at each end of the B-G trail discontinuity pointing out that the intermediate marked route is the best of a number of bad options. Sadly, too many cyclists don’t pay attention to their surroundings.

      3. Greg

        No need to apologize, but think of it this way – would anyone accept car-centric facilities that resulting in these kinds of accident rates? The answer is pretty clearly *no*.

        The only reason we’re even having this discussion is because bicycles are thought of as toys in the US – not as serious transportation for real people.

        If we want to garner the benefits that come from shifting heavily taxpayer-subsidized car trips to taxpayer-rewarding bike trips (look it up – they’re not subtle) we have to make it more attractive to ride bikes.

        Crappy infrastructure like this costs us money. So we need to fix it. Simple as that.

  3. charles

    I crashed in that spot a few years back, but I blame myself mostly. I was enjoying a new bike by going way too fast in heavy rain. I have since almost crashed there a couple of times when carrying a heavy load in a pannier on one side. I don’t really understand the purpose of those rubber areas.

  4. Jess

    My boyfriend crashed there just yesterday morning. I don’t think he’d ridden there before and definitely not in the rain, but the crappy thing is he was trying to set himself up for crossing the tracks and didn’t even realize the rubber was slick. Luckily he’s fine; I was dismayed to read today how common (and injury-causing) it can be to crash there.

  5. Matt

    I had a nasty wreck in the rain there last May. I don’t remember what happened because it knocked me out and I woke up at Swedish. I’ve stopped commuting via the Burke because of that spot. When it’s wet you are rolling the dice…

  6. Nick

    Rubber equals slick, even when dry. This seems more like operator error. The Duwamish trail has a very similar crossing as the Burke. I’ve had a couple interesting rides because I wasn’t paying attention at rail crossing. Simple answer is you should be paying attention. Especially as we advocate to maintain sharing the roads with cars. Not blaming the victim here, just rather a certain amount of personal responsibility needs to be present, especially when familiar with the environment.

  7. Dan

    I experienced an accident here myself a few years back. I was knocked out and scraped up a bit. It wasn’t even raining when it happened, just a dewy morning. The fire department had told me (when I picked up my bike from their station the next day) that they get calls from there all the time. And this was several years ago. Its really frustrating that nothing has been done about this in all that time. I’ve learned since if you ride that section slower and totally straight and upright, you’re fine, but they have no warnings of “Slippery When Wet” or anything.

  8. doug

    I’ve ridden over this many times, but haven’t ever crashed or really even had any close calls.

    I think this is because I have heavily crashed on similar obstacles before and thus approach this one with exceeding caution. I usually drop down to less than ten miles per hour before crossing.

  9. I too went down there, and like most others’ experiences, I was in disbelief after it happened (it was raining that evening, however, and it was after visiting a pub). I’ve been riding my whole life (I am now in my ’40s) and it happens. It seems like it would be an inexpensive fix, simply applying something with more traction on top of the existing rubber would probably suffice. Even something like astroturf would be better…

  10. Molly

    I’ve been riding across this patch of trail for over 20 years in all types of weather. It’s treacherous when the ground is near freezing and slightly wet . It won’t look slippery, but it is. I’ve seen numerous people go down, even when they’ve been barely moving. It’s very, very dangerous for someone who isn’t familiar with trail, who is riding too fast, who is riding at night — or even worse, who is riding without a helmet. So SDOT knows about this and says they can’t afford to fix it. I wonder if they prefer to pay for a lawsuit when someone gets seriously injured.

  11. cheryl anne

    If you know it is dangerous, slow down and cross at 90 degrees, or get off and walk your bike!!!

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