The most recent issue of Seattle Met has a whole lot of bike stuff. But the centerpiece of their coverage is a feature on bike lawyer Bob Anderton’s lawsuit on behalf of a handful of people who crashed and were inured on the South Lake Union Streetcar tracks.
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.
But the most shocking part of the city’s legal defense against Anderton’s case is that the city admits it knowingly designed the streetcar tracks in a way that is dangerous for people cycling. But assistant city attorney Rebecca Boatright (who cycles to work almost every day) argued that because the road now has a streetcar and no bicycle facilities, bicycling is not an “ordinary” use of Westlake Ave. Therefore, the city did not have the obligation to design it to be safe for people biking. The streetcar line was designed before the city passed its complete streets ordinance in 2007, which mandates that all road users are considered in roadway designs.
From Seattle Met (page 4):
She took that line of thinking one step further last March, when she filed another motion, this time requesting that the court throw out Anderton’s case altogether. “A distinction must be drawn between the City’s aspirational goals for promoting alternative transportation options and its legal duty of care with respect to the engineering and maintenance of its roadways,” she wrote in the brief. In other words: State law requires a city to keep its streets reasonably safe for “ordinary” travel, and because Westlake was now home to a streetcar line, cycling was no longer “ordinary” on that street. The City hadn’t designated it a bicycle facility by painting in bike lanes, Boatright said, so it had no obligation to pay special attention to the needs of cyclists.
Legally speaking, the argument may have been sound, but the City was contorting itself to protect its position and threatening to alienate the cycling community it had worked so hard to embrace. Even SDOT’s communications manager Rick Sheridan, who would only take my questions via email because the case was ongoing, seemed to have difficulty addressing the issue head on. When I pointed out the irony of an otherwise bike-friendly city arguing that cycling isn’t ordinary travel, he went into Bill Clinton depends-on-what-your-definition-of-is-is mode: “The term ‘ordinary’ can mean different things to different people, and it has both a vernacular and a legal meaning,” he wrote. “This is a question that is better asked of the City’s legal department.”
In the end, the City Attorney office’s decision to throw cyclists under the bus—metaphorically speaking, of course—may have been an example of needs trumping wants. The South Lake Union Streetcar was an expensive piece of transportation infrastructure, and one that can’t just be picked up and moved. So had Boatright not employed every argument available, including the ones that contradicted the city’s stated desire to promote bicycling, she risked losing the case and spending the next several years settling lawsuits from every bike rider who’s fallen—and will fall—on those tracks. Boatright herself will even cop to that, although not in so many words. “If we’re going to incur liability because some bicyclists have fallen on the tracks, then maybe we’re going to have to consider the draconian measure of telling bicyclists, ‘You don’t get to decide for yourself how to get from point A to point B,’ ” she says. “And we wanted that guidance from the courts.”
Now wait, before you smash your keyboard into a thousand pieces, take a deep breath … hold it … hold it … ok, let it out. Ahhhhhhh. There, that’s better, isn’t it?
The city saw a long (unfortunately, very long) line of people queued up to file the same lawsuit if the courts found the city liable for the injuries of people who crashed while biking on the tracks. So to avoid that, they pulled out every argument they could to get it thrown out. Law can be a dirty business.
Meanwhile, there is still no bike route that effectively parallels Westlake Ave. 9th Ave has bike lanes but effectively dead-ends at its north end (especially amid the never-ending Mercer construction). Dexter is ten blocks out of the way roundtrip and requires a hill climb. While I avoid Westlake at all costs, human nature dictates that many people are going to take the flattest and most direct route. And that continues to send people crashing to the ground.
But there you have it. The city got the lawsuit thrown out (Anderton’s clients are mulling and appeal) in part by telling a two-faced lie, contradicting their long-standing support for encouraging cycling and road safety in order to avoid being liable for all the blood spilled on Westlake Avenue since the dangerous and short-sighted streetcar tracks were installed. Meanwhile the city still has no good plan for safe and efficient bike routes in South Lake Union. What are we waiting for? For someone to crash and die?
Actually, I take it back. Go ahead and smash your keyboard.