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.