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Memorial walk for Desiree McCloud highlights her life, puts streetcar lines under scrutiny

IMG_5263What does a city say to a grieving family when they ask, What value is there in a streetcar if the tracks injure or even kill people?

Seattle officials did not have any adequate answers to this question during a meeting with the friends, family and neighbors of Desiree McCloud Monday. Desiree died in May following crashing while biking on Yesler Way at 13th Ave. The First Hill Streetcar tracks were likely the cause, friends said.

And it may be that there simply is no acceptable answer to give.

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During a short memorial at the site of her ghost bike before the meeting, a friend described Desiree as “brash and brilliant, passionate and true.” The friend also said Desiree’s style was to “demand a better world, and act to make it happen.”

And that’s the challenge laid out for people working to make streets safer so nobody else crashes in this location and on these or any of the city’s streetcar tracks.

“If one of her friends had been hurt or killed, she’d be the one banging on City Hall,” her dad told the group gathered after the memorial.

One course of action suggested: Bulldoze the tracks tomorrow.

Others pushed for low-cost improvements to Yesler the city could install very quickly such as paint-and-post protected bike lanes at least to 14th Ave where the tracks turn south. And the urgency of this cannot be ignored. This isn’t a demand to improve the street “someday,” it’s a demand for action now.

You can sign a petition pushing for quick action on Yesler and a revamping of how the city mitigates track danger citywide.

IMG_5264Desiree was biking with friends westbound on Yesler one month ago when she crashed after a long downhill while passing a friend on the left. That friend bravely told her traumatic story during the meeting.

“I was the only person who saw what happened and I didn’t see exactly what happened, so we’ll never know for sure,” she said. “I feel personally convinced that the tracks were involved.”

The group chose Yesler because it has bike lanes, she said. It was the first time the friend had biked to the International District, and her first time on this stretch of Yesler.

“At least from my perspective as a first time biker on Yesler, I didn’t notice the tracks coming,” she said. “The design is insane.”

The meeting included family, friends, neighbors and SDOT officials.

And perhaps because news of Desiree’s May 13 crash has spread so far, more stories of crashing on the tracks in the area have come forward in recent weeks. Just five days later, Jessica Hicks was riding her scooter when she crashed and was seriously injured on the tracks at 14th and Yesler, KOMO reports. That’s the same block Desiree crashed.

Denise Chew was riding her Vespa May 20 when her wheel got caught in the First Hill Streetcar tracks at 12th and Jackson, just one week and five blocks from where Desiree crashed. Chew was seriously injured (and, insult to injury, her Vespa was auctioned while she was recovering in the hospital). That’s at least three serious crashes in just one week in May.

The scary thing is that other than the relative rarity of a death, that week may not have been abnormal. When the group of about 40 people gathered after the memorial was asked to raise their hands if they have crashed on tracks, ten hands went up. That’s one in four hands in a room where several people don’t even live or bike in Seattle. These aren’t rare, freak accidents. These are known dangers designed and constructed in recent years.

We only have anecdotes to draw from because very few solo crashes on the tracks generate police reports, which are typically reserved for collisions where citations or crimes need to be determined. This means the city is essentially not counting these crashes. It’s harder to call for safety changes when you don’t have data to cite.

But we don’t need more data here. These awful anecdotes are far more than enough to justify swift action.

“No one should have to be the one to sacrifice,” Desiree’s mother Penny told KOMO, “to point out how unsafe it is.”

When the streetcar was constructed on Broadway, the city and Sound Transit built a protected bikeway adjacent to it essentially as mitigation so the street did not become more dangerous for people on bikes. This was the right move. People in the meeting expressed frustration that protected bike lanes were not included for the entire route.

Both during planning and as soon as construction was complete, we have argued that the city needs to declare the design on Jackson a failure and add protected lanes there. 14th Ave and Yesler Way should also get improvements. So should Westlake Ave, Valley and Fairview in South Lake Union (Desiree’s brother Cody said he has crashed on the tracks at Fairview and Valley). This will at least help mitigate the new dangers added to these streets for people on bicycles, though it may not help people on scooters.

All this comes as the city is planning a new streetcar line downtown connecting the First Hill and South Lake Union lines via 1st Ave and Stewart Street. Those plans so far do not include bike lanes, which we pushed for early in the planning process. Stay tuned for more on the project.

IMG_5265The city’s Vision Zero policy says traffic deaths and serious injuries are preventable, and street design is a core factor in safety. SDOT consistently says safety is the agency’s top priority. So what possible justification is there for streetcar lines that don’t include safe bike lanes? I’m honestly asking because I have yet to hear a single answer from anyone, whether from a city official or a streetcar advocate.

I have heard city officials say things like “Every street can’t handle every mode” as justification for not including bike lanes, but that’s in direct conflict with their stated goal of putting safety first. What that phrase really means is: We don’t want to impact driving, so some injuries or deaths for people biking are acceptable.

We will be looking deeper into the future of streetcars in Seattle, so now is the time for streetcar supporters to make their case. Convince me, please. But more importantly, what answer is there for people with broken clavicles or life-impacting head injuries? What answer is there for the family of someone who has died?

Because after witnessing the pain of loved ones trying to understand such a loss, the bulldozer option is sounding pretty good.

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27 responses to “Memorial walk for Desiree McCloud highlights her life, puts streetcar lines under scrutiny”

  1. Josh

    If “every street can’t handle every mode” is the City’s real position, they have an honest and legal alternative — the City Council may recognize the hazard and prohibit bicycles on streets that the City has made too dangerous for cycling. The City’s own consultants suggested that when they were putting in the South Lake Union line, but Council chose to disregard that advice.

    By default, every street is open to every legal vehicle, and bicycles are vehicles under law. If the City chooses not to prohibit bicycles on a street, it should make that street safe for bicycles.

    1. Law Abider

      SDOT has neither the time nor the resources to make every street safe for bicycles.

      1. Steve Campbell

        Then could they at least quit making them more dangerous?

      2. Andres Salomon

        It most certainly does have both the time and resources. It just lacks the desire to do so, unfortunately.

        And it the process, it will help make those streets safe for everyone else. Look at College Way, for example. Before it was repaved with a PBL, there were roughly 3 injuries from (car-only) car crashes per year. After the addition of a PBL, it’s been a year without a single injury. There are plenty of other examples from other places, but making every street safe for bikes will help make it safe for other road users as well.


      3. Law Abider

        SDOT also has the time and resources to put sidewalks everywhere in the City. They just wouldn’t have time or resources to do anything for a decade.

        Why would we fight for scraps on all streets, when we could fight for some core, safe infrastructure that links vital City hubs?

      4. Andres Salomon

        I’m not talking about specific infrastructure like PBLs or sidewalks. Yes, those can be expensive, and SDOT doesn’t necessarily have the resources to install them everywhere.

        But making streets safe? That’s actually cheap. A street doesn’t need sidewalks if it has a 10mph speed limit and/or super low traffic volumes, for example. And that’s really cheap to do – some speed humps and diverters, and you’ve spent $300k for a safe 2 miles of roadway instead of $5mil for 2 miles of sidewalk.

        The expense on our roadways in creating safe infrastructure is from bending over backwards for cars. We don’t need expensive PBLs if the city-wide speed limit is 20mph, but we can’t imagine anything other than fast car-based arterials. We don’t need $20mil I-5 ped/bike crossings or $300mil lids if I-5 were instead a surface street with a $1mil all-way signal and crosswalks. But we can’t imagine Seattle any way other than with a 60mph highway running through it.

        I certainly agree that we need to focus on some basic core infrastructure to connect our urban villages, but let’s not lose sight of the big picture. The entire reason we spend so much money on our walk/bike infrastructure is because we’re still bending over backwards to accommodate cars.

      5. Law Abider

        The problem with speed humps and diverters is that they only work when well thought out. Speed humps are great, but the ones SDOT installs allow 20+ mph speeds easy; speed humps that force slower speeds are maintenance nightmares. Diverters are good if a traffic study is done; the diverter at 17th and 57th in Ballard is a good example of a well meaning diverter that was put in the wrong spot, due to no planning, common sense or even listening to people.

        And 20 mph for a city wide speed limit? The reason no one can visualize that is because it’s insane. In October 2014, they plunked down some 30 mph signs in Interbay on a road that was previously signed 35 to 40 mph. Turns out that people tend to turn their noses up at signs and tend to go the speed the street is designed for (source: I studied transportation engineering in college). Plus, how to do you enforce it? A ton of cops with incentives to write citations? That’s a recipe for abuse.

        And I always chuckle when I hear someone talk about how much better Seattle would be without I-5. I get it, nobody likes I-5, but it’s a necessary evil. Ignoring the fact that it’s needed to move over 100,000 cars, EACH DIRECTION, every day, it’s also a vital shipping route, without which the price of goods would definitely be higher. Without I-5, Seattle would be a depressed port town and Bellevue or Tacoma would have likely gotten the nod as our largest city. Then it’s the same problem, different city.

        To change the need for I-5 being so large, you’d have to go back, before even Eisenhower, to the depression days, when car and oil companies began the irreversible dismantling of our once great rail system.

        Transportation isn’t some fairy tale, where you can just wish some fantastical, perfect world into effect as I see people doing both here and the STB, even though they mean well. There’s a lot of theory behind it. I would encourage you to look into a transportation theory course to understand that you can’t just implement the ideas you propose, without massive and dire effects on society as a whole. Just like you can’t engineer a bridge without some knowledge of bridge engineering, you can’t engineer transportation without some knowledge of transportation engineering.

      6. Andres Salomon

        Thanks, I’m well aware of transportation theory. I’d encourage you to look at places outside of Seattle, where the things I’ve proposed are actually working. Don’t look at Seattle, where we implement watered-down solutions that don’t achieve the desired effect. Vancouver, BC for example – lots of examples of how they’ve managed to calm and divert traffic successfully on their side streets, making them safe for all users.

  2. Andres Salomon

    “Every street can’t handle every mode” is a cop-out by the city. You don’t hear that about cars or sidewalks (“well, we just don’t have the space for cars on this street. Sorry!”). It only ever applies to transit and bikes.

    Make a street safe for all users. If you want it to be cars/transit only, call it what it is – a highway. Wait, what’s that? Highways destroy our property values/air/quality of life? Oh, then maybe we should be building those safe streets instead.

    1. Dave


  3. Dave

    Why did your city ever ditch it’s trolley buses? What’s with the rail fetish? Trolley buses were quiet, their pollution was relocated to their power source just like electric streetcars, and they didn’t turn streets into a minefield of tracks.

    1. Tom Fucoloro

      Seattle did not ditch its trolley buses. There are still a lot of them, and they are (very) slowly electrifying new lines. The streetcars are separate from them.

  4. Roy

    I would have guessed someone would have already invented a rail cover of sorts:


    1. Tom Fucoloro

      That solution is for heavy train tracks like freight rail. The rubber product goes between he two rails. It’s not a solution for streetcar tracks, unfortunately.

      We looked into some options that have been tried for streetcar tracks here: http://www.seattlebikeblog.com/2015/03/25/can-westlakes-streetcar-tracks-ever-be-safe-for-people-biking/

      At the time of that research, there was nothing promising. Products tested got destroyed quickly, becoming hazards of their own. But that was a few years ago. I’m searching to see if there are any new solutions out there and could definitely use some help from anyone here who’s into research like that. If you find something, post it here or email [email protected]

  5. Anton

    When streetcars have center running dedicated right of way (like Link on MLK or the upcoming Center City Connector) they do not pose a danger to cyclists. Also using rail enables us to use high capacity vehicles (longer trains) in the future while with buses we are stuck with 60-foot vehicles. So if done well there is no problem. Building more mixed traffic streetcars, though is not worth it.

    1. RossB

      To enable bigger streetcars would require bigger stops. That would be extremely expensive (every stop would have to change). You would probably need a whole new fleet of vehicles, making the old ones obsolete. Meanwhile, our streetcar lines perform really poorly compared to our buses. Despite having a couple urban lines, the streetcars perform worse than most buses. The 24, for example, which serves west and central Magnolia carries more riders than either streetcar. That is horrible ridership. The last thing we would want to do is spend a bunch of money on bigger streetcars.

      It is time to consider pulling out the rail and not putting good money after bad.

      1. Anton

        RossB, you are confusing total ridership with ridership per mile. The ridership of a line only matters per *area served*. If you made a bus as short as our streetcar lines it would perform equally poorly. I haven’t looked at the Broadway Streetcar but the SLUT performs really well on a per-mile basis, beating many workhorse bus routes.

      2. RossB

        I’m not confused at all. It is an urban line, yet it performs horribly.

        >> If you made a bus as short as our streetcar lines it would perform equally poorly.

        Of course it would — that is precisely my point! No one at Metro ever considered making a line like that, because — like the First Hill line — it is stupid. It is limited in what it can do. Why not just extend it down 5th? Because it is too expensive. Why not extend it down 5th, then up Yesler? Because streetcars can’t go up steep hills.

        Look, truncate the 7 at Rainier and you would probably have great ridership per mile. But who cares? Why would you do that — so that you can be the best at some meaningless metric? That makes no sense at all.

        What matters is time saved per rider per dollar spent. It is a matter of building bus lines that work together, and provide as much value added as possible. The streetcars perform horribly on time saved per dollar spent, and always will in this city. They cost more, are severely limited in terms of what they can do on a regular basis (like go up a hill) and what they can do if things go bad (like when a car pulls out of the driveway — oh the horror!).

        Streetcars rarely make sense, and the certainly don’t make sense in this city: http://seattletransitblog.com/2014/07/29/streetcars-a-momentary-lapse-of-reason/

  6. Merlin

    “Every street can’t handle every mode” has already been interpreted here in Seattle to mean “no cars” – look at 3rd Ave. downtown. Don’t act as if restricting car access is a joke or a fantasy – it’s not, it’s a practical tool for improving safety and the movement of human beings whether on foot, by bike or by transit. We need diverters to keep people driving cars from using greenways as highways; we need festival streets that are open to people all year, not just for special events; we need to identify streets everywhere that would be safer and better used without cars. Instead of asking how we can make room for people walking, biking and using transit on streets prioritized for cars, lets ask how we can open up streets for people by eliminating or at least restricting unnecessary car access. And of course, wherever there are tracks, provide protected lanes for bikes!

  7. Jeff Dubrule

    The advantages of streetcars over BRT that transit-wonks would cite:
    – Faster loading & unloading, due to the wider doors, level boarding with little gap, and more standing space inside.
    – Much faster wheelchair loading; people can pretty much just roll on.
    – Higher capacity per vehicle (~200 vs 120)
    – Permanent & expensive track installation means that businesses & residential development can rely on it continuing to run on that route with those stops, which means you can open your business assured that the bus route won’t move, or the stop won’t be eliminated on the next service-revision.
    – Perhaps easier to get Federal grant $ for streetcars vs. BRT/plain-ol-bus service.
    – Using different vehicles signal to riders that this line is “special”, with high capacity, reduced stops, off-board payment, quick entrance/exit, traffic signal priority, real-time arrival info, etc. RapidRide uses different colored buses & letters instead of #s, but the streetcar vehicle is even more distinctive.
    – For some reason, there are people who will avoid buses, but will ride things on rails.

    There is some work being done to realize some of these benefits with regular buses (like systems to guide approaches to stops to reliably eliminate the gap), and wider doors.

    I don’t think any of these benefits rises to the level where safety for anyone should be compromised, nor should bikes be banned from entire avenues in the name of safety.

    1. RossB

      Any system that you would call “BRT” would of course have the same advantages you mentioned. It would have level boarding, with wide doors on both sides. The new fleet that Seattle will buy will have exactly that. As for capacity, our existing buses carry roughly the same number of people as our streetcars. We could buy bigger streetcars, of course, but they would be more expensive, and we would have to change the stops (which is really expensive). As you mentioned, BRT lines — even lines that few would consider BRT, like RapidRide — have different colors to designate that they are “special”. It really doesn’t matter, obviously. Ridership on our streetcars is horrible — well below most of our buses. If people think it is “special”, it hasn’t translated into ridership.

      I never understand why lack of flexibility is considered an asset. If we could move the First Hill streetcar, we would. It is a terrible route. Who does a crazy button hook for no reason in the middle of a congested area? Just run the thing on 12th. Better yet, start on Yesler, then take a left on 12th. But wait, you can’t do that, because it is a streetcar, and streetcars can’t go up hills (which make them a horrible choice for this city). But even moving it to 12th would be ridiculously expensive. Just moving the First Hill streetcar a few blocks is expected to cost 7 million dollars (as part of the Roosevelt BRT project). I’m sure the riders will be thrilled (both of them).

      It isn’t just long term lack of flexibility that screws up streetcars, it is temporary changes as well. Whenever there is construction in Seattle, it is common to block off one lane. Flaggers control the street, waving people into the other lane. All vehicles — buses, trolleys, bikes — deal with it just fine. But streetcars are stuck. They simply can’t run on that line. Nor can they deal with a stalled car, or an accident.

      Streetcars rarely make sense. In a city like Toronto — flat, with a huge existing investment in very big streetcars and the density to support it — they make sense. That is the only city in North America where they can be justified, and even they are moving away from them.

  8. RossB

    I would get rid of the streetcars and the streetcar tracks unless it is extremely expensive. Here are a few things to consider:

    1) The Roosevelt BRT project will cost about $37 million. About $7 million of that (or roughly 20 percent) is to move the streetcar tracks a couple blocks.

    2) The First Hill route is terrible. It is famously slow.

    3) We are in the process of buying a fleet of “BRT” buses. These have the all advantages of streetcars: level boarding and multiple doors on both sides of the vehicle. Having multiple fleets (streetcar and buses) is expensive. It is cheaper to have the same vehicles.

    4) Streetcars require extra storage space (at the end of the day, they can’t just be driven out to a remote yard).

    The performance of any vehicles is largely dependent on the route and street enhancements that go with it (bus lanes and signal priority). But with BRT buses, you have greater flexibility in choosing the route. You can go straight up a steep hill. You can also modify the route quite easily. Moving the route of South Lake Union Streetcar a few blocks would be trivial (and largely unnecessary) if it was a bus. The First Hill Streetcar could modify its route as well, avoiding the silly button hook or even running on 12th instead of Broadway (to avoid congestion).

    I would be fully in favor of signing a petition to get rid of the slow, inefficient, expensive and dangerous streetcars. Better yet, I would support a non-binding resolution. I don’t believe that a majority of the city supports them — we should stop pretending that they do.

    1. Andres Salomon

      I still wish the Licata amendment to Move Seattle (which stated that no levy funds could be spent on streetcars) had passed. Even if SDOT worked around it (by using general funds), the symbolism that Seattle will no longer waste money on streetcars is important.

    2. (Another) Tom

      Thank you for articulating the many problems with street cars. I hope Seattle comes to it’s senses before we lay a bunch more tracks downtown. My primary objection is the danger the tracks pose to cyclists but in a dense environment like downtown they really pose a hazard to all. Cars can sometimes slip when braking on the wet tracks too; hope they weren’t braking to avoid running over a pedestrian in the crosswalk. I can’t imagine wheelchair users appreciate crossing them either.

      Besides, downtown already has a functioning “trolley car.” It’s actually a bus styled as a streetcar, catering to tourists with hop-on, hop-off service. Comes with all the whimsy and none of the issues that a street car on rails provides. I see tourists using it regularly but I’ve certainly never seen it packed. http://www.emeraldcitytrolley.com/seattle-trolley-tour/

      I’m as big a rail fan-boy as any but they make no sense on our streets. If you really need the metal wheel on metal rail experience just go to SF already.

      1. Jeff Dubrule

        Nobody but tourists rides the “Emerald city trolley” because it only runs every 30 minutes, doesn’t really go point-A-to-point-B, and costs $30 for the day.

        Good for tourists who don’t want to get lost, but the Monorail is more of a everyday-useful transportation system than this.

  9. […] crashing under the wheels of that bus. In May, Desiree McCloud was passing a friend on Yesler when the tracks may have caused her to crash. She passed away from her injuries a week and a half […]

  10. […] in tragedy: Seattle Bike Blog reflects on this week’s memorial walk for Desiree McCloud, a Seattle woman who perished last month after a bike crash on the tracks of the First Hill […]

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