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Video shows McCloud riding between streetcar tracks before fatal crash

A video still from the Seattle Police report. Obtained by the Seattle Times.
A video still from the Seattle Police investigation. Obtained by the Seattle Times.

Surveillance video of the moments before Desiree McCloud’s fatal crash in May answers a major question about the incident that took her life: She did cross the First Hill Streetcar tracks around the time she crashed.

A screenshot from the video, obtained by Evan Bush at the Seattle Times, shows McCloud riding between the westbound set of tracks embedded in the road just west of 14th Ave, the same block where she crashed. This confirms she would need to cross the northernmost track to get back into the bike lane.

The video revelation seems to support the belief held by many of friends and family members that the streetcar tracks grabbed her wheel or otherwise caused her to lose control. Previously, it was not clear whether she ever crossed the tracks, though that theory made the most sense to explain why a confident cyclist would suddenly crash the way she did. Now we know for sure she did cross them.

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Friends, family and community members walk in honor of McCloud. Her ghost bike sits at 13th and Yesler.
Friends, family and community members walk in honor of McCloud. Her ghost bike sits at 13th and Yesler.

Streetcar tracks are very common cause of bike crashes in Seattle and in cities around the world. The gap in the tracks is just wide enough for many bike tires to slip inside. When that happens the wheel stops, sending the rider crashing quickly and without warning. Tracks are also slippery when wet and sometimes are raised enough to cause crashes even without fully grabbing the wheel.

It is safest to cross tracks at as close to a 90 degree angle as possible. Unfortunately, this is a lesson that many people learn the hard way, and even people aware of track dangers can get caught either due to confusion, by making a slight mistake or by hitting a particularly slippery rail.

Last month, the Seattle Times looked into the issue and asked readers to tell them their stories. They received more than 80 responses, many of which were never reported in any of the city’s official traffic crash statistics. So we know it is a big problem, but we don’t have the data to know how bad it really is because police reports are rare in solo crashes.

Road rash and bad broken bones are common. Deaths like McCloud’s are rare.

Police say McCloud was going about 20 miles per hour after the long downhill westbound on Yesler. While that is well below the speed limit, it is a fast speed for a sudden crash.

Police conclude that even with the video it is “impossible” to conclude whether the rails caused her crash, the Times reports:

“It is unknown if McCloud attempted to cross back over and if interaction with the rail was what led to her loss of control, and that question appears impossible to resolve,” police wrote in the report. “What is known is that no other vehicles were involved and that McCloud lost control of her bicycle, which caused her to fall to the ground. This incident, though obviously tragic, appears to be the sole result of some form of operator error on the part of McCloud.”

Attorneys for the McCloud family are not convinced and are continuing the work on the case.

McCloud leaves behind many heartbroken loved ones, who describe her as “brash and brilliant, passionate and true.” You can read many notes about her life gathered in our original post about her passing.

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27 responses to “Video shows McCloud riding between streetcar tracks before fatal crash”

  1. Merlin Rainwater

    The investigative report conclusion that this incident “appears to be the sole result of some form of operator error” makes no sense to me considering that she was riding parallel to the tracks. Is the “operator error” the fact that she was riding on a dangerously designed street?

  2. Stu

    This is very crucial information for all of our city bike riders. Knowledge of how to approach RR track crossings and perhaps sacrificing some time to remain in the bike lanes or safer positions could save lives in the future. RR tracks are a part of our infrastructure in many areas of the city and cause many falls and injuries.

    1. MikeG

      @Stu – Here is an example of horrible road design, placing tracks, parallel and to the left of the bike lane. Whether McCloud actually was overtaking another cyclist and found herself between the rails or not, there are many possibilities why you might have to make an emergency maneuver that puts you in a position where you must cross the tracks.

      There are ways to mitigate this disaster with flangeway covers (VelosTrail), but it appears that SDOT hasn’t used these products on this stretch of track.

    2. Josh

      Except this case wasn’t a crossing, the tracks run along the street, meandering diagonally across the travel lane in places over hundreds of feet.

      If you look at the street when it’s empty, the hazard is obvious.

      If you’re on the street in traffic, it’s sometimes hard to see upcoming tracks through other vehicles. The city may have met all adopted standards for the tracks, but that’s just proof the adopted standards are lousy.

      There needs to be some way to make the hazard more conspicuous (warning stripes or pavement color outside the rails are used in various cities around the world), and where the rails run in the right lane of a street, there needs to be some *safe* and *obvious* alternative route for bicycles.

      They at least tried that on Broadway, though the implementation falls far short. But a single-paint-stripe substandard-width bike lane is *not* a safe alternative to the street.

  3. SGG

    So we aren’t the only city in the world with streetcars. How does our problem compare around the world? What do other cities do? How do they handle these issues?

    It seems as though Seattle doesn’t look elsewhere for best practices until it’s way too late.

    1. Jonathan Mark

      They handle these issues by having people crash their bikes a lot on the streetcar tracks.



      At least the new Center City Connector streetcar will have its own bus/streetcar lane rather than a shared lane with other traffic. However I expect there will still be new hazards created for bikes crossing the new track because of turns and other non-90-degree crossings.

  4. Anthony

    Operator error, something we accept as a responsibility that car drivers are supposed to adhere to but when it comes to our own bike handling skills we get an immediate pass from the blog, now that really makes sense.

    Then add to that the blog’s continual espousal of saying the City does this/that and you should support it because it’s GOOD for cycling, I see now how this works.

    Now we’re supposed to be enraged at the City, which view does the blog want us to take tomorrow say we should change our minds again?

    I really feel for her family, this just sucks period. But taking advice from this blog has to be one of the most infeasible methods to date of trying to fix our broken cycling infrastructure.

    1. Law Abider

      You nailed it.

      Most of us have had an incident involving rails. Most of us got away with minor scrapes and bruises (second time for me; recently at 7th and Westlake trying to negotiate the all-way cross at low speed; just plain stupidity here), broken bikes (first time for me years ago under the Ballard Bridge at speed; I ignored the sign) or at worst broken bones. In almost all cases, it’s a simple mistake from the cyclist, either ignoring signs or not paying attention to the road. This woman made the same mistake we all have and unfortunately it cost her life. Nobody should have to lose their life over some minor mistake like that, but that’s reality and I also feel for her family and friends. They have a right to be angry at the City, but their anger is misguided.

      People will cry foul and wring their hands at the City, the road, the tracks, etc. SDOT will now be forced to pour more money into “ensuring this never happens again”, which will take money from much needed cycling infrastructure. Then the same thing will happen on the “safer” version. Repeat ad infinitum. If we follow the thinking of the blog and its comments, we will end up with streets made of foam before we accept that sometimes, shit happens.

      1. William

        I am sorry I disagree. Whether it is cars, motorbikes, bicycles, or pedestrians, the US’s approach to road safety is greatly lacking compared with most other country of comparable wealth and unlike many other countries the US doesn’t have to deal with an extensive network of narrow winding roads that were originally designed for horses and carts.

        Yes, the calls in this blog are a little ad hoc and quite often reactive, but we really shouldn’t be building new infrastructure that is fundamentally unsafe. Given Seattle’s wealth and the amount of money the citizens throw at SDOT, they should be doing a lot better than they currently are. Putting a bike lane next to a street car with no physical divider is a pretty idiotic thing for the city do.

  5. asdf

    You can see in the photo where the tracks curve into Yesler. Before that, there are no tracks on the road, so when Desiree pulled out, she did so safely, not realizing what was coming. The tracks then suddenly curved out in front of her, unavoidable (by that point, as she was passing, the other biker prevented her moving to the right). She managed to cross the first track, but was then caught between the tracks. She crashed just a tiny bit after the photo, right as she started to pull in front of the other biker.

    It all seems very clear. It’s sad that the city isn’t owning up to what happened. Streetcars aren’t necessarily the problem – it’s the design of this street, especially given that the bike lane existed before the streetcar, that’s reprehensible. So many things wrong, with the bike lane sandwiched between the tracks and the parked cars and the tracks curving out into the road with little or no warning.

    1. Law Abider

      “The tracks then suddenly curved out in front of her…”

      Did the tracks have a red light and refuse to yield the right-of-way? Tracks don’t suddenly do anything. Traveling westbound on Yesler, you can also see the tracks from a long distance. She ended up in the middle of the tracks, whether intentional or accidental.

      The street is designed with the bike lane a safe distance from the tracks, it is not designed to channel bicycles into the middle of the tracks. The street design is fine, there’s nothing for the City to own up to. Maybe they could add green paint similar to eastbound Yesler, to make it 100% clear that the street is changing from sharrows to a bike lane. I still don’t think that would’ve changed this unfortunate incident.

      You can’t design a street to account for every single incident that are due to user error, no matter what anyone might think or say.

      1. (Another) Tom

        The street does not have a safe design. It was an existing bike route without feasible alternatives on a steep hill with traffic and the city added the tracks to this mix without proper regard to cyclist safety. They should never have been laid down.

        No one is arguing your straw man of accounting for every single incident but when a minor mistake can result in a death we generally demand a change in infrastructure. Last year I remember a motorist drove down a boat ramp around here somewhere and drowned. There were signs but apparently that wasn’t enough so a gate was quickly erected to save drivers from themselves. That’s how we treat infrastructure deficiencies that impact motorists and cyclists should get the same consideration.

        As you know, even experienced cyclists can get caught up by the tracks. It only takes a moment’s distraction for things to go south, a common occurrence when you add aggressive motorists to the mix. I don’t believe the street is safe as designed and it’s certainly counter to the city’s goal of creating safe streets where cyclists of all abilities feel comfortable.

      2. Law Abider

        Straw man or not, the current design has a exclusive bike lane next to the tracks, which should be adequate, but were not used in this situation. Fixing it, based on one incident, that likely would not have been avoided by ‘better’, more expensive design, seems like it’s not a good use of precious time and money. And to fix every possible scenario gets exponentially unobtainable in respects to time and cost.

        We need to realize and accept that we can’t prevent every injury or death, we are all human, after all, and sometimes we don’t follow logical thinking. Rather, we should try to understand why the exclusive bike lanes were not used in this situation.

      3. Josh

        It’s not a single incident, though.

        The Seattle Times has collected more than a hundred recent bicycle crashes on the trolley tracks, and they’ve also been implicated in motorcycle and scooter crashes.

        How many crashes do you need at just one intersection before you’ll admit the design doesn’t work for the users?

      4. Anthony

        It isn’t how many crashes, but how many deaths WITH a bunch of great lawyers in the background waiting for paychecks.

        SDOT already has a free pass at making poor bike infrastructure as well, so we shouldn’t be surprised in the slightest that this was poorly executed, they won’t change one bit.

        Really, this comes down to handling skills. It sucks but when one knows that the road system is designed half-ass for bikes, then the ONLY recourse is to learn how to handle better. I can’t agree with Law Abider any more than when he says “crap happens” on the bike and it can at any time. We can talk over an dover about how it “should be”, but that still doesn’t solve anything, maybe fatbikes are the answer since those freakin’ things will roll over most anything. But thois blog won’t even mention mtn bikes for starters, something against them here as far as I can tell.

        Can the city do better? absolutely. But face it, they won’t most likely and when we do ask them for something it seems like the end result is worse than even before.

      5. Josh

        As for why the bike lane wasn’t used, there’s no indication on the block before the intersection that a narrow door-zone bike lane will suddenly become safer than riding in the street.

        Leading up to the intersection, there are no warnings of tracks in the right lane on the next block. The bike lane looks like just another hazardous, substandard-width door-zone bike lane. It’s not wide enough to pass another cyclist in, and it’s not even an “exclusive” bike lane near the intersection, it’s a dotted-line bike lane that cars are allowed to drive in while turning or parking.

        Why wasn’t the bike lane used? Perhaps because, to a rider who hadn’t taken that route before, it looked like just another dangerous Seattle bike lane.

    2. RossB

      >> Streetcars aren’t necessarily the problem

      Maybe not, but if we removed them, then the problem would go away. Our streetcars serve no purpose — they have no advantage over our buses — yet many disadvantages (and safety is just one of them).

  6. RDPence

    Streetcar trackways should be paved with cobblestones to discourage bicyclists from riding near or between the tracks.

    1. RossB

      We simply shouldn’t have streetcars. They are a really stupid idea. Even Toronto, which has a huge existing streetcar infrastructure, along with really big streetcars (and the ridership to make them useful) is considering removing them. But for a city like ours (with big hills and no existing infrastructure) they we are a terrible idea, and we should get rid of them.

  7. Neel Blair

    This woman’s death was tragic and sad. Full stop.
    Here are my top 5 concerns riding on the roads of Seattle, in order of how much they worry me:

    1. 40% Drivers with their heads in their a##es (aka phones, food, makeup, back seat, etc.)
    2. 40% Aggressive drivers breaking the law constantly (running lights, failing to yield, failing to signal, speeding, blocking intersections, etc.)
    3. 10% Bad routing – sudden closures, construction with no regard for anyone but cars, fig-leaf bike lanes on hostile streets, etc.
    4. 9% Poor road conditions – cracked pavement, lumps, holes, etc.
    5. <1% tracks of any kind – including train, dead rail in SODO, etc.

    This was tragic and bad. But if we're spending energy on it and demanding action, we're doing it at the cost of that political capital being spent on one of the other items above.

    This accident was horrible. A person died. Far more have been killed or injured by the other stuff on this list and if we're serious about increasing cyclists' safety (which I believe we are) we should be putting our attention where it belongs – on lawless, inattentive, hostile driving all around the city.

    1. dave

      well said

    2. Law Abider

      Even a small increase in traffic enforcement would have a major impact on safety. Currently, it’s clear as a user of ANY form of transportation, that you can violate traffic laws and get away with it.

      I’d much rather spend money hiring new officers that solely enforce traffic laws, than the many millions we would spend ‘fixing’ tracks to attempt to prevent the few fringe, serious crashes.

    3. William

      So provided we increase enforcement of traffic laws which we do desperately need (but which citizens probably do not want because most of use would be on the receiving end), SDOT gets a free pass to build unsafe infrastructure. (And having just ridden down and back up Eastlake I would ascribe poor road conditions as >>9% of cyclists concerns)

      1. Law Abider

        Eastlake is terrible, nobody would argue against that. I would argue that Eastlake, and many other trouble spots in the City, should be ‘fixed’ before we throw money at the streetcar interactions.

      2. William

        @LawAbider, I totally agree that we need to prioritize efforts to fix bad infrastructure but we also need to make sure that new infrastructure is built to high safety standards so that it is not added to the backlog. In this instance SDOT really fell really short, I think they should be held accountable, and I suspect that they will if this reaches court or settlement talks.

        There are some excellent people in SDOT but it does seem that as an entity they have trouble understanding the needs of bikes and learning from experience and best practices employed elsewhere, rather than their own missteps.

  8. Law Abider

    @William: Did SDOT violate some law, standard or best practice or is this just 20/20 hindsight? I don’t think there’s anything to be held accountable here. We take note for the future and move on with our lives.

    As far as the intersection in question, I say slap some green paint down to clarify the transition to bike lanes. Any more is just throwing money towards a solution that likely would not have changed this unfortunate incident.

    1. William

      @Law Abider: I think they did violate best practices. The street car was added in 2007 and had SDOT taken the simple step of chatting with their counterparts in Portland they would have learned this. For example if you take a look at the article on http://bikeportland.org/2016/07/27/one-third-of-biking-injuries-in-toronto-involve-streetcar-tracks-study-finds-188413, you can see there are comments from Dan Bower of Portland Streetcar that Portland had figured out what to do in 2001 and when they screwed up in one instance after that date, they took steps to fix it. Seattle also apparently figured this out well before Ms. McCloud’s crash because on Broadway they put a two-way separated bike lane on the opposite side of the street from the street car (although rider who is unfamiliar with the area heading south on Broadway can still get mixed up with the tracks because there is (or at least was when I rode it a year ago) no clear signage directing bikes to cross the street into the bike lane). I would add that SDOT still has not come to grips with the usefulness of elevating bike lanes at side walk height in the most dangerous settings, something that has been standard in European cities for at least a decade and appears to be now a tool used in Portland.

      The fact that the Seattle Police have released a report which seems like an effort to obfuscate the cause of Ms. McCloud’s crash makes me believe that the city’s attorneys know full well that the city is on shaky ground if this goes to court. I have ridden my bike 1000’s of miles and I have never fallen at speed without encountering an obstacle. I suspect that is true for most cyclists. Now it has been established that Ms McCloud was ridding between the tracks, that she did not collide with a vehicle or another bike and that she did not have a catastrophic bike failure, any objective analysis would conclude that there was a 99.99% chance that her crash was caused by the tracks. It is disappointing that the Seattle Police haven’t reached this simple conclusion – either the accident investigator is totally unfamiliar with bikes (hard to believe given the number bike police the city has) or their colluding with the city to try a limit liability.

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