Bike Crashes Along SLU Streetcar Pit Cyclists Against City
When cyclists started wrecking on the SLU streetcar tracks, it looked like the growing pains of a city embracing bikes. But then a lawsuit raised questions about Seattle’s commitment to rider safety.
The streetcar was coming and Amanda Currier had a decision to make.
Just seconds earlier, at a little past 1pm on June 15, 2009, she’d left work on her bike and started pedaling north along Westlake Avenue to her Queen Anne apartment. It was an unseasonably cool day—low 60s—in an unusually cool summer, but at least it wasn’t raining. Wet roads always made the 20-minute commute through traffic that much trickier.
It was Currier’s first time riding this direction on Westlake since the South Lake Union Streetcar began running—she was trying out a new route—and as soon as her tires hit the street just north of Pacific Place, she was pinched in a sort of urban cycling no-man’s-land: Along the curb to her right was a line of parallel-parked cars, and to her left were the streetcar tracks. Edge too far to the right and she risked slamming headlong into a suddenly opened car door. Scooch too far in the other direction and she could be clipped from behind by an oncoming trolley.
Things got dicey for her quickly that afternoon. Two blocks back the streetcar was leaving the Westlake station, accelerating to 25 miles an hour. And one block ahead Currier could see that the sliver of asphalt she had to navigate was about to get slimmer still. Her options were few and the time she had to weigh them was short. Seventh Avenue, which she could use to cut west to Dexter, was just ahead, so she looked over her shoulder, signaled to give drivers a heads up that she was changing lanes to turn, and banked left.
But she never made it out of the right lane. As Currier began to cross the streetcar tracks, her front wheel dropped into one of the channels and wedged itself there, bringing the bike to a sudden, violent stop—as if an invisible hand had grabbed it from behind—and catapulting her over the handlebars and onto the pavement. The sound of screeching car tires cut through the din of midday traffic as a taxi traveling the other direction on Westlake slammed to a stop in front of her. The streetcar was still coming, though, and as Currier sat dazed in the middle of the tracks, the cab’s driver and two pedestrians ran to help her. Together, the three Samaritans scooped her up and rushed her to the sidewalk just as the streetcar whipped past.
Almost one year later, in late May 2010, Currier and five other cyclists—Patricia Lenssen, Joseph Pomerleau, Emma Levitt, Jason Dean, and Laura Humiston—sued the City of Seattle. Each had wrecked somewhere along the South Lake Union Streetcar line, and all had sustained serious, though not life-threatening, injuries: broken jaws, broken arms, broken teeth. Among other things, they alleged that the City had “breached its duty to keep its streets in a reasonably safe condition for bicycle traffic” by placing streetcar tracks in the road. On the surface it was a classic case of tort law run amuck, the two-wheeled equivalent of suing because your coffee was too hot. But the plaintiffs’ argument went beyond “We got hurt and someone needs to pay”: They had evidence that the City’s engineers actually expected cyclists to eat concrete and did nothing to stop it.
“Come here.” Bob Anderton waved me over to one of the picture windows in his 10th-floor office in Pioneer Square, where he was looking down at the bike lane that runs along the east side of Second Avenue. “If we stand here long enough, we’ll probably see someone get hit.” (We didn’t. Thankfully.) Anderton is the personal injury attorney representing the six cyclists who were injured along the South Lake Union tracks. He’s an avid rider himself, and for the last 20 years he’s focused on bicycle-accident cases, but the more garden variety types: cyclists who get clipped by cars, cyclists who get “doored” by passengers exiting parked cars, that sort of thing.
And those cases—many of which start on the street right outside his building—are typically about money, helping the biker recoup medical costs or fight insurance companies. The day in mid-April when we spoke, he was debating whether to file suit on behalf of a man who was struck in the bike lane on Second by a car that turned into him in an intersection. The cyclist had the right of way and knew the car was coming up from behind—even blew a whistle to make his presence known—but the car plowed into him anyway. Adding insult to injury, the cyclist received a ticket for "inattention," even though an independent witness heard the whistle. “I can’t imagine more clear liability, but the driver’s insurance company was like, ‘Nope,’ ” Anderton said, rolling his eyes and shaking his head. “So this is what we’re up against.”
He says the situation in South Lake Union is different, though. “The reason we took this case is that we thought the city should act consistent with its rhetoric,” Anderton says. “Everybody thinks that Seattle’s super pro-bike, but then they did this.”
Planning for the streetcar, a pet project of then-mayor Greg Nickels, began in 2004. The line would run 1.3 miles, connecting Westlake Center to the burgeoning South Lake Union neighborhood. And virtually from the beginning Seattle Department of Transportation engineers, along with consultants from engineering and construction megafirm Parsons Brinckerhoff, decided against laying the tracks down the middle of Westlake—which would have been the more traditional alignment—in favor of placing them in the right-hand lanes in both directions. The city’s attorneys have since explained that the driving force behind that decision was, naturally, money: Underground utility lines would have had to be moved to accommodate a center-running line, and everyone involved, including major funder Vulcan, wanted to fast-track the $56 million project. (It’s worth noting, though, that at the time the project’s manager told The Seattle Times that SDOT didn’t put the tracks in the middle of the street because the city would have had to eliminate parking spaces.)
But for bike commuters from the north end of the city who preferred that route into and out of downtown because of its relative flatness, the decision to place the lines on the right was akin to creating a 1.3-mile booby trap. Not only would cyclists, typically expected to ride in the right lane, be squeezed into a narrow space between the streetcar and parked cars, but the channel between each rail and the concrete—called a flangeway gap—was also just wide enough to catch a road bike tire. In other words, the slightest swerve could result in an over-the-handlebars, bone-snapping wreck. Tom Fucoloro, a bike commuter and the founder of the influential Seattle Bike Blog says he avoids Westlake “at all costs” specifically because of the hazard. “You ride over gaps and bumps all day long, so people like to say that riders who crash on the tracks are just being stupid,” he says. “But it’s completely reasonable if you’ve never seen anyone crash there to think that you can just ride over them like you ride over everything else.”
Her front wheel dropped into one of the channels and wedged itself there, bringing the bike to a sudden, violent stop and catapulting her over the handlebars and onto the pavement.
The streetcar line began ding-dinging its way up and down Westlake in December 2007, but its tracks started tossing cyclists while the project was still under construction. Patricia Lenssen, one of the plaintiffs in the South Lake Union lawsuit, broke her jaw and two front teeth the previous May, when she got caught in the tracks while trying to turn from Westlake onto John Street. And in the months before the line was completed cyclists bit it on the freshly laid tracks so often that a throng of protesters crashed the streetcar’s unveiling on December 12—not just to rail against the City’s apparent disregard for rider safety, but to alert everyone to the hazard. Lenssen was there holding a sign that read “Watch for Injured Cyclists.”
Certainly some of the early wrecks could be attributed to the newness of the tracks and the fact that many riders just didn’t know they were there. But even with the warning signs that SDOT has since installed along Westlake and an acute awareness of the danger that’s spread throughout the biking community, the flangeway gap still snags tires regularly. Cyclists self-report accidents from across Seattle at bikewise.org, dropping virtual blue pins on a Google map of the city to designate solo crashes; Westlake, from Fifth Avenue to Mercer Street, is a solid blue line. One of the most recent reports is from a rider named Tim, who wiped out on April 3, not far from where Amanda Currier was thrown from her bike. “Was riding along Westlake and my back tire was caught in the trolly [sic] tracks,” wrote Tim, who described himself as an advanced cyclist. “There is very little room for error next to the trolly stops….”
After agreeing to take the case, Anderton filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the City, seeking any and all documents related to the streetcar’s planning. He hoped to find evidence of negligence but resigned himself to the possibility of finding that SDOT had actually exhausted every option for mitigating the danger to cyclists. What he discovered, though, shocked him. In March 2005, a technical report submitted to SDOT by Parsons Brinckerhoff noted that the danger presented by placing the tracks in the right lane would be so great that “cyclists will be required to use alternate routes.” One year later a city engineer sent an email to the project’s coordinator, among others, stating, “falls by cyclists are highly foreseeable. We see this as an issue of safety and liability.”
In fact the issue of potential liability was so widely acknowledged and of such concern within SDOT that throughout the entire design process the department’s engineers planned to restrict bicycle travel along the streetcar’s route. “Installation of track in Westlake Avenue will eliminate the street as a bike route,” read one set of planning comments distributed in February ’05. “To keep cyclists away from the tracks, the street would probably be signed ‘No Bikes.’ ”
Yet somewhere along the way—presumably shortly before the tracks were laid, but even SDOT employees say they’re not sure—talk of prohibiting bikes on Westlake just stopped and without any real explanation. From the City’s perspective, it would be business as usual for bikes in South Lake Union. Signs warning cyclists of the danger didn’t even start going in until December 2007.
But still. Rider beware, right? You could argue that cyclists brave enough to ride on city streets—in traffic, no less—know they’ll have to contend with hazards every day. Wrecking on the tracks is no different than wrecking on a pothole. But Anderton doesn’t buy that. “I’ve crashed on a pothole on City of Seattle streets—that’s an issue where the City has a limited amount of money and lots of streets to maintain,” he says. “But with the streetcar, they affirmatively and knowingly created the danger. This isn’t something that just snuck up on them. They knew about it. And they chose to let people crash on it.”
Reaction to the lawsuit was harsh. “What a bunch of a—hats,” wrote one reader on seattlepi.com. “The entire world does not have to be made safe for bikes. Get over your selves.” Wrote another: “My first reaction when I saw this article was, these people are too brain dead to be allowed outside the house without adult supervision.” Hundreds more weighed in, there and at The Seattle Times site, most with similar sentiments. The online name-calling got so nasty that two weeks after suing the City, Anderton filed a motion to have the case moved to Kent, where he hoped to find a less biased jury. The court denied his request. He had anticipated the backlash—he knew before suing that he’d probably have to ask for a transfer—but he says his clients hadn’t. All of them declined to comment for this story through Anderton; he says they just don’t want to put themselves out there again and invite more name-calling and invective.
The less said about the vitriol-spewing trolls who hang out in the comments section of the local news sites, the better. But their spiteful, nasty shots at the plaintiffs provided a window onto tension that’s grown for years between those who don’t ride bikes and those who do. For the most part, the conflict has manifested itself in honked horns, raised middle fingers, and incendiary rhetoric. In January 2010, David Hiller, then the advocacy director of the Cascade Bicycle Club and now a transportation advisor to Mayor Mike McGinn, infamously told The Stranger he’d love to hang drivers who hit cyclists “by their toenails at the edge of town and paint ‘Killer’ across their chest and let them hang there until the buzzards peck their eyes out.”
But it’s a political issue, too. Mayor McGinn, who courted and won the progressive vote in 2009 in part by wearing buttons emblazoned with the slogan “Mike Bikes,” has been the target of antibike scorn ever since. Last November, when he presented to voters Proposition 1, a $60 car-tab fee that would have raised more than $200 million for transportation infrastructure, critics screamed about the comparatively tiny portion—$14 million—that would have gone toward striping bike lanes and building neighborhood greenways. And its subsequent thumping at the polls was hailed as not just a rejection of overreaching government but also as a referendum on “Mayor McSchwinn” and his biking buddies.
And let’s not forget the occasional physical clashes between cyclists and noncyclists. In an incident that illustrated just how quickly the two sides can come to blows, two bike riders were arrested in July 2008 for attacking a motorist on Capitol Hill during Critical Mass, the monthly rides-slash-demonstrations that clog streets to assert cyclists’ rights. The driver tried to leave a parking spot only to be blocked by a group of people on bikes. When the driver started yelling, the cyclists sat on his car. When the driver yelled some more, the cyclists started to rock his car. When the driver lost his cool, gunned his engine, and struck a handful of the cyclists? Well, they retaliated by smashing his windshield, slashing his tires, and punching him through his open window.
“This isn’t something that just snuck up on the City. They knew about it. And they chose to let people crash on it.”
Part of that jostling is simply due to a sharp increase in bikes on the streets. According to SDOT, as many as 8,000 cyclists commute into the city each day, which, as biking advocates will remind you, is 8,000 people not clogging the roads with cars. Not only that, downtown bike trips were up 35 percent between 2000 and 2011. And when you’ve got that many groups competing for the road, there’s bound to be some head-butting. “But I think it’s because we’re afraid,” says John Mauro, Cascade’s director of policy, planning, and government affairs. “When you’re driving around in your car and you see somebody on two wheels, you realize, ‘I could actually hurt that person.’ But you don’t want to, and that fear translates into other things.” Like raised middle fingers and honked horns.All of which begs the question: Why? How did Seattle, known across the country as one the cities most accepting of bikes, become so antagonistic toward the people who ride them? First of all, we’re not alone. “It’s happening all over the world,” says Seattle City Council member Tom Rasmussen. He chairs the City’s transportation committee and says he regularly commiserates with civic leaders from other regions who see the same tension on their streets. “Whether it’s in Auckland, New Zealand, or Portland, or Seattle, everyone—transit users, pedestrians, people who drive cars, and bicyclists—seek to use the same right of way. And it’s limited.”
To its credit, the city council has recognized the demand for better bike infrastructure and begun to address the need and, by extension, reduce the conflict. The City’s 10-year Bicycle Master Plan, unveiled in 2007, laid the groundwork for nearly a quarter of a billion dollars in improvements. Other cities’ bike-safety innovations—including cycle tracks, or bike lanes separated from traffic by concrete dividers—spotlighted a need to update the plan shortly after it was written, though, and the council hopes to publish the update by spring 2013.
Concerns of a jury pool tainted by antibike bias aside, Anderton liked his chances when he filed the suit. For starters, he was in familiar territory. In 2001, he sued the City for negligence after several cyclists crashed on an awkwardly positioned set of train tracks beneath the Ballard Bridge. Three years later he won the first judgment for his clients.
And the evidence demonstrating that the City failed to mitigate a hazard it knew it created in South Lake Union weighed heavily in his clients’ favor. SDOT’s own employees had so effectively made his case for him—Peter Lagerwey, then a senior transportation planner for the department’s Pedestrian and Bi-cycle Program, called one section of the streetcar line “fatally flawed for bicyclists”—that Anderton didn’t even bother hiring his own expert witnesses to argue the danger of the tracks. Besides, he says, “If you speak to any lawyer, they’ll tell you that you can always pay someone to say what you want to hear.”
Yet the City slowly chipped away at his case. In July 2011, one year after the suit was filed in Superior Court, assistant city attorney Rebecca Boatright asked the judge to throw out a portion of it. Legislative and executive decisions, such as then–SDOT director Grace Crunican’s call on where to locate the streetcar line, are immune to liability, Boatright argued, thereby rendering moot the plaintiffs’ argument that SDOT was negligent in running the tracks through the part of the street where bicyclists typically ride. Judge Gregory P. Canova agreed on September 2, 2011, effectively flattening one of Anderton’s tires.
Ironically, though, Boatright seemed to concede the war to win the battle. “To be clear, the City does not dispute…that streetcar tracks in the roadway can present hazards for bicyclists who fail to negotiate the tracks at an appropriate angle,” she wrote to the court in her motion for partial summary judgment. “The concerns are well reflected in various reviewers’ comments to the proposed design plans, and in approving the project with a right-running track configuration, Ms. Crunican especially was aware of these concerns.”
Boatright is an 11-year City employee, and she’s been biking to work daily, year-round, for nine years. The only time she leaves her bicycle at home is when there’s ice on the road. She’s ridden alongside the tracks in South Lake Union—she has to go that way to get to her home in Fremont—but typically sticks to Dexter Avenue North, which separates bike lanes from the street with a two-foot-wide buffer zone and concrete islands at bus stops. Which is to say that acknowledging the potential for accidents on Westlake was an odd strategy for someone who benefits directly from bike-friendly roadways. But she sees the wrecks as unfortunate collateral damage in the on-going struggle to accommodate all forms of transportation. “The City very much wants to promote bicycling, but it can’t put in facilities exclusive to bicyclists on every street in the city,” she says. “There are multiple considerations that you have to look at when planning for a multimodal environment. And it’s a fact of transportation that tracks and bicycle wheels aren’t compatible.”
The City hadn’t designated Westlake a bicycle facility by painting in bike lanes, so it believed it had no obligation to pay special attention to the needs of cyclists.
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.”
Once again, the judge sided with the City in early April, this time throwing out the suit entirely. But his reasoning had nothing to do with bikes or their place on Seattle streets. Instead he ruled that the plaintiffs had failed to make their case by not hiring any expert witnesses. Anderton was floored and responded by filing a motion for reconsideration—basically asking the judge to take a minute and think things over. The court denied his request, though, and as of press time Anderton and his clients were still mulling an appeal.
“This is not just a bike issue,” Anderton told me. “This is an access to justice issue. If the rule is that you need to be able to hire experts before you can get to a jury—when the evidence is, we think, really clear—that’s not the kind of judicial system that I think most people hope we have.”
Boatright’s argument that cycling isn’t ordinary travel really gets him fired up, though. “That’s just so wrong,” he says. “The City is encouraging people to ride bikes, and yet they’re saying they can put a trap for them in the street?” And he doesn’t buy the argument that SDOT has atoned for creating the hazard in South Lake Union by improving bike access elsewhere, including along Ninth Avenue, where it added bike lanes in April 2008. “We’re not saying that they have a special duty to make the streets as bicycle friendly as possible,” he says, practically shouting. “We’re not saying that we must have our own physically separated bike path wherever the heck we want to go. All we’re saying is, you owe us a duty of care.” He takes a breath. “Okay, I’ll calm down.”
It was mid-April, and the sun was shining. The temperature threatened to break 70 degrees for the third day in a row—the kind of Seattle spring surprise you hate to love because it’s just a tease—and Mayor McGinn was all smiles. “It’s a good day here in Seattle, and not just because of the weather,” he said to a crowd of a couple hundred gathered near Swedish Medical Center in Capitol Hill. Behind him, 12 gold-tipped shovels were planted in a mound of dirt. He was here—along with more than a dozen other dignitaries, including King County executive Dow Constantine, state senator Ed Murray, and former mayor Nickels—to break ground on the First Hill Streetcar. The two-and-a-half-mile line will run from Cal Anderson Park to Pioneer Square, just north of CenturyLink Field, and begin operation in two years.
McGinn squinted into the sun as he waxed on about a new era in Seattle transportation. The line is just the next link in a system that will one day make it possible for Seattleites to get out of their cars and get to know each other as they ride into work together on mass transit, he said. And even better? The streetcars themselves will be built right here in the Emerald City. It’s a win-win for McGinn.
He spoke for several minutes, highlighting the $133 million project’s every benefit, except the one that you’d think a guy who got his nickname from a bike would want to crow about: Along Broadway this streetcar will run closer to the center of the road, making room for a brand-new 10-foot-wide, two-way cycle track along the curb, the first of its kind in downtown Seattle. The concession to rider safety was by no means a gimme—cycling advocates had to remind SDOT engineers of what happened in South Lake Union early and often in the planning stages for the First Hill extension—but it was proof that the City was capable of learning from its mistakes. Sometimes you have to walk before you can ride.