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Four years later, city settles with man terribly injured following streetcar track crash

Daniel Ahrendt was biking westbound on Jackson Street in May 2015 when he crossed the very wide five-way intersection with Rainier, Boren and 14th Avenues. A bus was stopped next to the curb, so he changed lanes to pass. That’s when everything went horribly wrong. The track grabbed his bike wheel, sending him crashing to the ground. Then the bus pulled away from the curb and ran over him, crushing his pelvis and leg. He nearly died of blood loss, but medics and the trauma team at Harborview were able to save his life. He was hospitalized for a month.

That was May 2015, and he just recently settled with the city for $1.55 million. He no longer bikes and now lives in New York, the Seattle Times reports.

“I learned through my attorney that nine other similar bicycle/rail gap accidents had occurred where bicyclists fell due to the First Hill Streetcar tracks before my crash,” he wrote in a statement. “Seven accidents had occurred after my crash. I hoped that my lawsuit would help prevent additional, similar bicycle accidents.”

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His crash was nightmarish, but it was also preventable. Before building the First Hill Streetcar line, it was already well known that streetcar tracks are dangerous for people biking because the gap is wide enough to grab all but the widest bicycle tires. And once your wheel starts to slip into the track, you don’t stand a chance. Seattle and Sound Transit learned lessons from the dangerous design of the South Lake Union streetcar, especially on Westlake. That’s why the First Hill Streetcar runs next to a protected bike lane on Broadway.

But they did not continue this protected bike lane for the rest of the route, including heavily-biked Jackson Street. This was a huge mistake, and people continue to get injured.

As is common in settlements like this, the city did not officially admit fault. But something needs to happen to improve safety along our streetcar routes, including Jackson Street, Yesler Way and in various parts of South Lake Union. And experience from around the world shows that the only complete solution is to have separated bike lanes that cross streetcar tracks at safe angles as close to 90 degrees as possible.

Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes has a truly despicable quote in the Seattle Times, basically telling everyone who has been injured (or killed) after their bike wheels got caught in the streetcar tracks that it was their fault.

“The vast majority of cyclists in Seattle and around the world safely navigate streets that have embedded streetcar rails,” said a statement by City Attorney Pete Holmes’ office to the Seattle Times. “Without commenting on any particular accidents or cases, all users must follow the rules of the road and travel with awareness of street and traffic conditions around them.”

This is not only a heartless thing to say, it’s also inaccurate. People do crash on streetcar tracks all over the world. Here’s a story about a Sheffield, UK, streetcar project that should sound depressingly familiar, for example. A large study (PDF) by Sheffield found reports of bike crashes on tram tracks in the following cities, though the authors noted the problems were so widespread that every streetcar system has probably has these issues:

Table of 43 cities with bike and track problems.

But there are reasons that the problem could be a bit worse here. For example, the flange gap in modern American streetcar tracks is slightly wider than many European tracks. When you’re talking about bicycle tires that barely fit into a gap, every tiny increase in the gap could be the difference between a tire getting caught or not. And some bike tires may be more or less likely to get caught depending on their width, making the hazard somewhat unpredictable.

There’s also a clear difference between legacy streetcar hazards and new ones. Streetcar tracks that have been part of a street for a long time can be problems that need fixing, but creating a new streetcar hazard is inexcusable. Implanting something in the roadway that grabs someone’s bicycle wheel when they ride over it is a huge danger. Here’s a video I shot in 2014, a year before Daniel’s crash, showing how dangerous this area is:

And even people who are aware of the danger of tracks can still fall victim to them either because they are avoiding something on the roadway (like, say, a bus) or because they slightly misjudge a turn when crossing the tracks (like Bob Edmiston did in this story).

The other problem with streetcar tracks is that there just is no easy way to retrofit tracks so they are safer. Efforts to fill the gaps with a rubber that can be compressed by streetcar wheels have not been successful. Track fillers tested in Zurich (you know, one of those places where people supposedly don’t crash on tracks) degraded quickly and even became hazardous on their own once worn out. And a (discontinued?) German product called VeloSTRAIL is designed for standard railroad tracks, not the embedded c-shaped tracks used in Seattle. I sure hope someone can invent a solution that can work, but it does not seem to exist yet.

Work is long overdue to fix Seattle’s bike/streetcar conflicts. It shouldn’t take a lawsuit to get the city to take action. And it definitely should not take another crash as bad or worse than Daniel’s, either.

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10 responses to “Four years later, city settles with man terribly injured following streetcar track crash”

  1. Gary Anderson

    I kind of agree with the city attorney. Riders must be aware of riding conditions and all kinds of hazards. The streetcars and tracks are not going away, in spite of their high development costs, inflexible routing, and limited ridership. Would like to see the city abandon the line on 1st avenue. On the other hand, all the tracks could be ripped up and the routes replaced with rubber tired streetcars (electric buses).

    1. Breadbaker

      The law is obviously different from what Holmes said, since he wouldn’t have settled the case for seven figures of tax money if the responsibility were solely on the cyclist. I’m lucky that the one time I slipped on the Westlake tracks it was late at night and there was no traffic and no streetcar. But the city’s obligation is to design a road so that all users (it’s right there in the All Users Ordinance) can safely operate under reasonably expected conditions. When the bus forces you to a place where there’s tracks, it is literally not possible for the brain to process all the things necessary to avoid the bus and that the tracks are there in time. So it makes an ultra-hazardous condition for which the city, not the cyclist, is responsible. Thus the check going out of the city coffers.

  2. Rich

    We could save a bunch of money by not building streetcar tracks. Grade separated light rail makes a lot of sense. Tracks at street grade mean death to people walking and bicycling.

  3. Richard

    Jeez I hate that intersection – And I ride it daily, making the exact same crossing as in the supplied example video.
    Thing is, I can handle the streetcar tracks. I mean, it’s stupid to have a hazard like that built into the fundamental street design – I mean, watch the damn video, the “Z” you have to make while crossing is absurd, and most motor vehicle traffic doesn’t give enough of a crap to have ANY idea WTF you’re doing.

    About 2-3 times a week some antsy-pants asshat will start to initiate a pass when I veer rightward, I guess thinking I must be turning (apparently not following this thought to realize that there’s not actually anywhere to turn TO), and then having to abruptly abort that pass when I don’t actually turn.

    Then the worst was once (luckily only once) some sociopathic twit decided since I was riding leftward, they should pass on the RIGHT. They initiated (and followed through) with that pass at the point seen at 0:13 in the video – JUST as I was starting to veer leftward (exactly atop the markings defining exactly the movement I was making). Thank FSM the idiot helpfully revved their engine just as they were coming around, alerting me to the fact that they were doing something that would damn near ensure my death if I continued. Meaning, with no alternative (since I was actually initiating the track crossing at the time), I had to make an emergency correction to *straighten* my path, almost directly in line with the tracks.

    And so while I’m dealing with all that shit, it’s my fault if my alignment with the tracks isn’t perfect?

    And people are in this thread arguing that this intersection isn’t designed to kill people??? Uh huh. Got a bridge to sell?

  4. Richard

    correction, that should say “Just as I was starting to veer rightward” (not leftward)

  5. Que

    Not to diminish how truly awful the trolley tracks are, it’s not entirely accurate to say that “the gap is wide enough to grab all but the widest” tires.. Anything over 2″ / 50 mm won’t be grabbed by the tracks.

    1. Richard

      2″ 50mm would qualify as some of the widest tires frequently used for commuting. Statement seems totally accurate to me. That may be changing somewhat with all the radpower bikes out there with fat tires, but fat tired commuter bikes are still definitely in the minority.

      1. Que

        Your statement is totally accurate from a perspective of 5-10 years ago.

      2. Richard

        Maybe we ride in very different areas with different “bike demographics”, or maybe something else is at play here, but the above comes directly from day-to-day observations on my commute. I don’t have a detailed histogram of tire sizes on the road, so there’s nothing I can do to back that statement other than share my observations.

        But one of those observations is that every weekday I cross that intersection, and there are frequently others waiting on the red with me or crossing from another direction. MAYBE 2 in 10 of those bikes have wide enough tires that the tracks aren’t a concern. Totally subjective observation, but one I make every weekday in the exact spot this article is discussing.

        I was watching yesterday on my way home and at that intersection there was one guy waiting at the light with me with traditional thin (<=25mm) road tires, me (traditional thin road tires – I count! :) ), and two others going the opposite direction – one of which was an older road bike with standard thin tires, and the other was a jump bike. The jump bikes have some decently wide marathons on them, but I believe even those would be on the borderline here (from looking at them I'd guess maybe 45-ish mm? if anyone knows the specific size on those that would be an interesting data point). So a one-day observation has 75% to 100% thin tires at that crossing, depending on where the jump bike falls. I'll take another look on my way home today if its interesting, but (subjectively) yesterday felt very typical.

  6. […] needed to fix the dangerous 14th/Jackson/Rainier/Boren intersection nearby. That intersection was the subject of a lawsuit stemming from a separate terrible crash in May 2014, a year before McCloud’s death. The City […]

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