Streetcar Lawsuit Highlights Need For Better Planning

By Josh Cohen June 2, 2010

Photo from flickr user Steven Vance

This weekend, the Seattle P-I reported that six bicyclists who crashed while crossing the South Lake Union Streetcar tracks are suing the city of Seattle, claiming streetcar planners ignored the hazards posed by the tracks. The plaintiffs---Patricia Lenssen, Joseph Pomerleau, Emma Levitt, Jason Dean, Laura Humiston, and Amanda Currier---all sustained injuries when their bike tires slipped between the roadway and the track.

The streetcar tracks are particularly problematic along Westlake Ave., where they were placed in the curb lane, right where bicyclists typically ride. According to the lawsuit, engineering studies and environmental review documents warned of potential dangers to cyclists, but the city did little to mitigate the risks. The city put up warning signs after the streetcar opened and has since striped 9th Ave. with bike lanes to offer an alternative route.

Riding near embedded tracks is dangerous, without a doubt, and it sounds like the city could have been more proactive in warning bicyclists of the danger. It's also clear the city did little to accommodate bikes on Westlake, a flat, heavily traveled bicycle route that cuts across the grid into downtown. According to the Seattle Times, SDOT claimed there wasn't enough room on Westlake to build a center median and run the tracks in the left lane (where they are on Eastlake).

Cascade Bicycle Club's David Hiller says with the 9th Ave. bike lanes and planned "woonerf" on Terry Ave., "Westlake is done, it's water under the bridge at this point. We just want to expedite the construction of Terry. With Terry and 9th there are a sufficient number of routes, but we wish everything had been better thought out to begin with."

And, as Hiller points out, there is little the city can do at this point to improve the situation on Westlake. This lawsuit does, however, highlight the need for the city to more routinely and thoroughly consider bicycles when planning the rest of the streetcar network.

It appears that SDOT is already making significant improvements in their plans for the First Hill streetcar, the 2-mile route between the International District and Capitol Hill slated to open in 2013. SDOT spokesman Rick Sheridan says the agency is "looking towards a design that would leave space between the curb and the streetcar tracks themselves. That space would either accommodate a general-purpose travel lane and sharrows or a bike lane." Sheridan emphasized that the streetcar is still in the early-design phase and the city has not made any decision about the final plan.

Hiller feels "pretty good" about the bicycle provisions in the First Hill design.

"There are some sticky areas---particularly around 2nd Ave and Jackson Street where there's a narrow right-of-way---but by and large the configuration is good," said Hiller. "We're pleased with the more thorough approach to this than was taken with South Lake Union."

It's ironic that, in the case of Westlake, bicycling was sacrificed in order to build a short trolley line that serves a relatively small number of riders. The streetcar network has value in its potential to get people out of their cars for trips around town, but it's a foolish use of our limited resources if it comes at the safety and expense of another alternative mode of transportation.
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