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Judge throws out SLU streetcar crash lawsuit

After the lawsuit was filed, the city painted some guides to help people cross the tracks more safely.

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.

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“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.

From BikeWise.org. The blue bubbles represent "solo crashes," meaning no other vehicle was involved. Most of the Westlake crashes are due to the tracks.

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?

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28 responses to “Judge throws out SLU streetcar crash lawsuit”

  1. Erik Griswold

    South Lake Union used to be absolutely covered with railroad sidings. And yet, many of seemed to have ridden through it daily with nary a wobble. Hmm.

    1. Tom Fucoloro

      Yes, obviously the solid mess of blue streetcar track crash bubbles on the Bike Wise map show that somehow, this street simply attracts negligent bikers! Excellent logic.

      A: There are many more people biking in Seattle today than the whenever you are talking about.

      B: I’m sure people crashed on those old tracks, too.

      C: These are not historic tracks that have always been there. These are new tracks negligently placed in the middle of a popular bike route. There is a difference.

      I have little patience for the “you should just know how to not crash like a big dummy head” argument. There is obviously a problem with this particular street that makes it far more dangerous than other streets. If one or two people crash, it might be a freak accident or user negligence. If lots of people crash, there’s a design problem.

  2. Gary

    I witnessed a crash in January, fortunately the cyclist was wearing a helmet and gloves and escaped injury. But yeah, one moment he was riding the next, head over the handlebars.

    And only yesterday I was in Elliott Bay Bikes and a guy came in with a taco’ed rear wheel. He had dropped it into the track and it potato chipped when he tried to ride it out. Fortunately he also escaped injury.

  3. chrismealy

    Would taking out all of the parking help? Now’s the time to do it, there’s not that much going on between Denny and Stewart yet, mostly a lot of parking lots.

    1. Tom Fucoloro

      Hmm, I wonder! the parking lanes are not continuous, as there are points where the streetcar stations and other curb bulbs cut into it. However, maybe a cycle track could be routed behind the stops like they are doing on Broadway (or like on Dexter)…

      I think it’s worth a look. It would still be really expensive and, of course, it would meet heavy opposition due the large amount of lost parking. But something must be done.

  4. Gary

    If any readers of this blog have had an accident which they didn’t report, or put on this map, I highly encourage them to sign up and add their statistics. Who knows if we all reported all of the hazards, maybe some of them would get fixed.

    Secondly if you fell on Westlake due to those tracks in 2011, give Rick Sheridan, spokesman for the Seattle Department of Transportation a call and let him know that he’s obviously mis-informed. (Richard Sheridan (206) 684-8540 [email protected] ) http://www.seattle.gov/news/pio.asp

    Don’t be mean, but if he gets enough of these calls maybe he’ll cut the BS.

  5. West Seattle Matt

    I bike to work most days, year-round, from West Seattle to SLU and have to say the portion of my ride along Westlake Ave is one of the least hazardous segments of the commute. The roadway in in nice shape compared to most. Are the tracks a hazard? Sure. But there are many hazards out there and you have to be mindful of them all.

    1. Gary

      So I want to know, why don’t you ride down 7th to SLU? Coming from West Seattle, if you ride up from Downtown on Blanchard, you could make the turn and avoid the tracks. What makes Westlake the road of choice?

      1. West Seattle Matt

        Blanchard? Never really considered it. Haven’t been to interested in riding up Western. I find 1st Ave from Pioneer Square more to my liking. Also, the gym I go to before and after work is on Stewart between 5th & 6th Ave, which puts me at Westlake for the ride down to the intersection of Westlake & Denny where my building is located. And, again, I’ve never really had an issue with the tracks.

  6. Devin

    Dude, people just need to turn their from wheel to 90 degrees when taking a turn. Voila. No crashes. Honestly, SDOT just needs to provide education materials and maybe a bit of signage. Those “danger. tracks. crash!!!” signs don’t do anything. Signs showing cyclists how to turn might help the people less accustomed to riding along tram/metro/streetcar tracks.

    None of this will matter by the time the streetcar network is built out. By then, people will have learned to ride around rails and all will be dandy.

    (The missing link tracks are a different story. The SLUT tracks are modern and sheer against the roadway. The missing link tracks are not.)

    1. Todd

      I agree. Unfortunately there’s a group that follows this blog that believe the answer is to continually throw money at the problem. I am not one of those.

  7. meanie

    The proof they were negligent is in the local BNSF tracks on Alaska and other streets near the freight corridors. They are at angles into road and feature some rubber gap fillers to prevent bike tires from getting jammed into them.

    I would call not going down to see how the big boy railroad does it in your own city a gap in due diligence.

  8. Ints

    I have only ridden down Westlake a couple of times and the track are the tracks. maybe SDOT needs to make it clear that the inside northbound lane is a sharrows and the cyclists should stick to that lane.
    They have a similar situation in Portland where the trolley runs through downtown in the outside lane, it would be interesting to see how that is working for cyclists.
    I ride on Main Street in Pioneer Square regularly and have only gotten caught in the waterfront streetcar rail channel once. The bigger problem are the rubber pads that are used where these tracks hit a cross street. Those pads are slick and have thrown me a couple of times already.

    1. Gary

      It doesn’t work any better for Portland cyclists on the road where the tracks are on the right side instead of the center. When the SLUT was in planning stages bicyclists from Portland came up and told the city council about the problem. Portland after they built that first bit of track wrong has since built the rest in the center.

      1. Gary

        Or in Toronto:


        Or in Arkansas:

        You really don’t have to look to far to see that tracks and bicyclists don’t mix, even crossing them at 90 degree angles is no guarantee of safety if they are greasy or wet.

  9. AiliL

    I agree with Tom about Westlake. I work in SLU and have ridden various routes since quite some time ago. With the loss of the Westlake bike route, it’s definitely more, um, interesting to get around. Luckily I am more experienced than a lot of riders so choosing to use 9th or Fairview over Westlake doesn’t bother me. I gave up on Westlake a year or so ago, unless traveling after hours when traffic is lighter. I found not the tracks to be troublesome but the drivers; I couldn’t make evasive movements in traffic without risking getting caught in the tracks.

    Now I use 9th Ave to travel northbound and ride up to Dexter or use Fairview southbound. The connections to/from the north end of 9th are really bad, especially for less experienced cyclists who don’t feel comfortable taking the lane (drivers are not forgiving of any cyclists in the construction zones lately, especially if traffic is backed up) or don’t know how to use the sidewalk to get to Lake Union Ches. Loop. Sometimes the sidewalk is literally impossible to use at all due to construction or other items, like telephone poles, in the sidewalk. I like 9th, more people should use it, but like Tom said, it’s basically a dead end. And one still has to divert off it to Westlake anyway if one wants to frequent a place of business located there. It’s not a replacement for Westlake, but only work around.

  10. Michelle

    No new crashes since 2010 my butt. I see people fall on those tracks all the time, including me, once last year when there was some road construction confusion and the road workers directed me to ride in the right lane.

    I don’t think most people know how to self-report bike crashes, or even wonder if it’s a possibility- I didn’t know about it until just now, and I’ve been bike commuting in Seattle for a few years.

    1. Breadbaker

      I’ve crashed there, too. I can’t remember if it was in late 2010 or early 2011, but luckily it was at night so when I skidded off the tracks on onto my butt, I didn’t hit anything else.

  11. Todd

    I crashed on these tracks once. It simply made me more vigilant when riding through there. As Forrest Gump once said, “And that’s all I have to say about that.”

    1. ODB

      I have bicycled Westlake northbound a few times since the tracks were put in. I haven’t crashed, but I don’t think there is a safe way to ride it.

      This is because you have to break one of two “rules” that I generally follow when riding in traffic: (1) ride in a straight, predictable line to avoid being hit by cars passing on the left, and (2) cross tracks at something close to 90 degrees. On Westlake, where the tracks curve into and out of the right-hand lane you either break rule (1) by making a sudden sharp turn at the right moment in order to cross the tracks at a safe angle (i.e., close to 90 degrees). Or you go straight and cross the tracks at an unsafe angle, breaking rule (2).

      Another other scary thing about Westlake is that once you start riding between those rails, you are committed. You can’t safely get out to either side without making a wide veering movement in order to get the wheels to a safe angle. This breaks rule (1) and in any event it cannot be done at speed–you need time to slow down first, time that you may not have. If a car doesn’t see you and enters your lane from the left, you simply cannot exit safely to the right. You will probably go down.

      It’s possible to bunny hop the tracks, even on a road bike, with enough speed, eliminating the angle-of-attack issue. This is my preferred method, but it’s not available to most people, and the consequences of a mistake in timing or landing this move may be severe.

      1. Amen, ODB. Very eloquently put.

      2. Tom Fucoloro

        I’d say that once a street requires bunny hopping to avoid a crash, it falls unquestionably into the “dangerous for cycling” category :-)

        Though perhaps the city should just go all the way. Throw down some mud and logs and rename the street “Cyclocross Way”…

      3. ODB

        That would be awesome! But why stop with one street? Let’s have a whole cyclocross circuit in SLU! One section would incorporate bike test trail at REI. Perhaps make a few loops around the Seattle Times’ offices . . .

      4. This cyclocross street idea is brilliant. I’ve been trying to think what we should do with Green Lake Way between 46th and 50th if we remove it (we should — it’s a pedestrian nightmare and it’s a relatively young street, so we should get rid of it before more stuff is built facing it). A cyclocross street would be absolutely perfect. We could reconnect the street grid across the whole thing and make the crossings for the bike route all “big air” jumps. Or maybe the other way around, have cars jumping over the bike trails? Either way, jumping is a form of grade separation that resonates equally with youngsters that grew up with the X Games and oldsters that grew up with the Dukes of Hazzard. It’s a way to build community intergenerationally!

  12. […] We have written about the dangerous tracks before. The short version of the story is: The city saved some money in 2007 by installing the Westlake Ave streetcar tracks in the curb lane instead of the center, thus ruining the road for people cycling and creating one of our city’s worst bicycle hazards. Streetcar tracks are the perfect width to grab bike wheels with very common skinny or medium tires, sending the person biking flying to the ground in the middle of a busy street. […]

  13. Emily

    For 3 years, I’ve ridden Westlake to work unscathed by the tracks until last Monday, 9/10/12. I crossed the tracks at an angle, and then quickly saw the ground approaching as I catapulted toward the asphalt. My chin took the initial impact followed by teeth. Fortunately, a nice jogger and bicyclist helped me out of the road, and no cars were immediately following me.

    I received 6 stitches in my chin and 2 fillings.

    In my recent down time, I found an interesting solution that Chicago has employed c/o a Portland blog.

    Portland Blog: http://bikeportland.org/2011/09/01/a-few-ideas-on-how-to-improve-streetcar-track-safety-58408

    Chicago Solution: http://www.flickr.com/photos/75698896@N00/3838186953

    Video of bike riding on rubberized trackway:

    For now, I’ll give Mr. Richard Sheridan a ring and let him know–accidents persist in 2012.

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