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Cyclists sue City over SLUT — Will the pedal vs. rail debate continue over our streetcar?

Biker’s Beware! (Courtesy of EPA Smart Growth)

Earlier this week SeattlePI.com reported that a group of cyclists are suing the city of Seattle for failing to accommodate bicycles in the design of the South Lake Union Streetcar. The six individuals, who were all injured riding along the streetcar route between 2007 and 2009, are seeking compensation due to what they claim was negligent planning and design. “The City designed, constructed, and maintained streetcar tracks that it knew would create a crash danger for cyclists.” the lawsuit states. According to SeattlePI.com there are four intersections that the lawsuits cites as “particularly problematic” since they are places where the streetcar turns, making it difficult for cyclists to cross the tracks at a safe angle. In the past few years there has been significant uproar from the bicycling community about these obstacles on such a major cycling route.  The city has since added bike lanes and signage to 9th Avenue and hopes to open Terry Ave as a woonerf after the new Amazon headquarters are completed. But, as David Hill was quoted as saying on Publicola earlier today, “we wish everything had been better thought out to begin with.”


As many Hillites are well aware, a second streetcar route is currently being designed that will run right through the heart of our neighborhood, from the future Capitol Hill light rail station, along Broadway into First Hill, and on to the International District station at 5th and Jackson. While Broadway may certainly be lacking in bike infrastructure at present, it is the most direct and level connection between Capitol Hill and First Hill and thus an important route for those on two wheels.

This time around, it appears SDOT is being more careful in their approach to bikes. Along with doing a number of best practice exercises, the project team also commissioned a preliminary analysis of the streetcar/cycling compatibility in the various design alternatives. SDOT has also said they will favor a center alignment whenever possible in order to keep the tracks away from the typical placement of cyclists on the street. Even more ambitious is a possible cycle track that SDOT is currently studying. Rail Transit Manager Ethan Malone referred to this track in an email statement sent today:

“We are considering a community-initiated proposal to incorporate a two-way bicycle facility as part of the design for the streetcar on Broadway.  This new bike facility, known as a “cycle track,” would  provide a dedicated space for northbound and southbound cyclists on Broadway, separated from general vehicle traffic and the streetcar tracks.  We are in the process of analyzing how this facility would function and it appears promising.

The cycle track was originally pitched to SDOT by the Capitol Hill Community Council as part of their Complete Streetcar Campaign [full disclosure: I’m a member of the CHCC and have worked on this campaign], which the CHS community endorsed in April. Along with the cycle track, the campaign calls for a 2-way Broadway alignment North of Union St. (which the city council approved in May), and an extension of the streetcar North, beyond the planned terminus at Denny St. While the city council has not allocated funding for the estimated $20 million extension, they have endorsed the plan and requested that any excess funds from the streetcar project be put towards the extension. The CHCC’s Complete Streetcar Campaign is currently lobbying Sound Transit to fund preliminary planning of the North Broadway extension, arguing that it would make the project eligible for any future federal funding of rail investments.

As currently planned, the First Hill Streetcar would connect the Capitol Hill and International District light rail stations, via a 2.2 mile route through First Hill. The $132 million project was approved by voters as part of the ST2 transit initiative on the ballot in Fall of 2008. Earlier this year a heated debate arose over the alignment, but in May the City Council approved a route that runs along Broadway to Yesler, then turns on 14th to Jackson. SDOT hopes to have a full design finalized and construction to begin by the end of 2011. They are planning to have the streetcar operational by the beginning of 2014, two years prior to the opening of the Capitol Hill light rail station. For more information on Seattle’s streetcar plans, check out Seattlestreetcar.org.

UPDATE: The PI has also picked up the question of bike safety and the Broadway streetcar this morning. Much of the comments from City officials echo the same sentiments recorded here. This passage describes one essential issue in the SLUT design:

A safety flaw with South Lake Union Streetcar, according to the lawsuit, is the streetcar runs along Westlake Avenue in curb lanes, where passengers can easily board from the sidewalk. But that’s also where cyclists usually ride. And with little room to navigate, there is more risk of tires getting caught in the gap between the rail and the road. That risk was even greater because so many cyclists used Westlake to get into downtown before the streetcar opened in 2007.

But the PI points out that some bicyclists say they have also been hurt trying to “navigate around the tracks.”

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20 thoughts on “Cyclists sue City over SLUT — Will the pedal vs. rail debate continue over our streetcar?

  1. As a cyclist, this is embarrassing. This lawsuit is stupid. There are lots of crash dangers when riding a bicycle in a city. Use some common sense while riding.

    Up next, cyclist files lawsuit for wet roads.

  2. Cyclists and railroad tracks have had to co-exist for more than 100 years. Cyclists and streetcar tracks have been getting along just fine in Portland, where streetcars run all over the city.

    How about taking personal responsibility for your riding skills, and not trying to fleece taxpayers?

  3. I’m by no means a consistent bicycler, but I do like to ride for fun. This lawsuit truly is an embarrassment.

    Is Seattle the only city with streetcars integrated on city streets? (Hint: No)

  4. The city did screw up the design and it will interesting what the courts say. For better or for worse, lawsuits are a way to force large bureaucracies to pay attention. I’m confident the First Hill Streetcar will be better designed in part because of all the complaints about the SLUT.

  5. These six ought to spend less time suing and more time learning how to ride. They really ought to be ashamed of themselves.

  6. …that’s what my momma always said. i find that keeping my eyes open and scanning for hazards such as train tracks helps me to avoid all sorts of potential accidents when biking.

  7. What a useless lawsuit. In Melbourne bikes share the road with tram tracks that are absolutely everywhere. People crash on them, but it’s the fault of the cyclist for crashing, not the tracks. These cyclists should really focus their ambitions for something positive.

  8. As a regular cyclist and bike commuter I want to throw out a little sympathy to these individuals.

    Now I understand that most cyclists won’t have too much trouble with the tracks, but having them break up the right lane with two small gaps is a huge pain. It means you have to constantly be on guard on where your wheels are and you either have to ride BETWEEN the two gaps or on either side, which puts you either in the line of fire of car doors or the speeding cars in the left lane. It is a huge inconvenience and the tracks made an already uncomfortable cycling route that much more uncomfortable.

    At it’s not like Westlake is just any old street. Westlake is THE route on a bike from anywhere North to downtown Seattle or vice versa. Unlike the surrounding streets it runs directly into the heart of the commercial/business district and has a very mellow grade.

    The fact that the city put in these tracks on such an important cycling route in what is quite possibly the worst design FOR cyclists is truly sad. It shows a complete lack of planning for a comprehensive transit network and unfortunately put at odds two transit modes that can and should be complementary.

    Is a lawsuit necessary, probably not? But I do think it is useful in publicly displaying the mishaps of SDOT and assuring that they do not repeat them in future projects.

  9. Will Seattle’s amazing tolerance for cyclists persist? Thanks to Critical Mass, many drivers already hate ’em, now the transit users and advocates can hate cyclists, too. Cycling community — will you try for the trifecta and go after the pedestrians, too?

  10. There is absolutely nothing wrong with the design. If you can’t handle riding over tracks, then take an alternative route.

  11. As someone who’s been run into by many a biker on the sidewalk this has long since happened. I’m pretty sure 99% of the bikers in seattle don’t understand that it is a LAW to give right-of-way to pedestrians on the sidewalk.

  12. The bicyclists always lobby against shared bike/ped pathways in new ROW design processes in the city where I work. They want their own dedicated bicycle lane, which then really limits the amout of ROW left to provide thoughtful, human scale ped areas.
    It’s a real shame they can’t work together with pedestrian and transit efforts to team up against cars, which is what we end up with as a result.

  13. It is the law where?

    RCW 46.61.755 A bicycle is a vehicle on the road or a pedestrian on the sidewalk

    Based on the code, a person walking on the sidewalk is no different than a person riding a bike on the sidewalk in Washington State.

  14. I’ve personally watched 2 accidents happen on Westlake because of the tracks. However, both were preventable. (Of note, I have no idea if either of these two I saw are a part of this lawsuit)

    Neither cyclist was wearing a helmet. Both were in slightly rainy conditions (when the streets are slickest). And both appeared to be bike messenger cyclists. 1 had to have an ambulance called.

    First off, no helmets. Neat guys. Second off, messengers have NO regard for their safety or street safety or safety of others. They do not stop at lights (which was the case of these accidents, as they were trying to keep momentum and one weaved around a car, to get by, and then hit the rail on the wet street and splayed everywhere). I do not have sympathy for these guys. Like I said, no idea if they are part of the lawsuit, but the lack of disregard that a percentage of the cyclists in this town have for the road, cars and pedestrians is criminal.

    I’ve been hit by a cyclist on the sidewalk, twice, and then told to get out of the way (they came from behind, on the sidewalk, on Broadway). Lame. I do not understand bike riders on sidewalks. USE THE STREET! You go to fast and are too large for sidewalk riding.

    Just last week, I watched another messenger run a stop light, try to make a corner on a wet street in front of oncoming traffic, bike slid out, he literally glided across 6th and Pike caused 2 cars (where they had the right of way going through 6th on Pike) to slam on brakes, swerve and nearly cause accidents. He’s laying in the middle of the street for over 30 seconds with no helmet in a tee shirt and jeans (again, his fault, wet street, ran a light, took the corner sharp in front of traffic) causing traffic to back up. All his fault. No regard (yes, I offered help, as did others, he seemed to think his bloody arms were funny and ‘awesome’, picked up his bike and went on his way).

    It’s these people and accidents that we all see. The lack of regard. The lack of safety. So while yes, I see responsible cyclists all the time, they aren’t the ones who make an imprint on my brain and body and the safety of others. It’s sad that so few ruin it for so many. That’s not to say I don’t think there could be changes in the streetcar rail placement. I think there could be. But it’s also the responsibility of the cyclists to practice safe driving and habits (helmets anyone?).

  15. I ride a bike too. The law suit is just plane nuts.Its like riding into a wall. Is it the walls fault? Much is being spent on the Lt Rail, transportation and BICYCLE road changes. It is now time Bicyclists put their money where their mouths are. ROAD TAX….Like Electric Cars. Road Tax is spent on Roads, potholes, water grates, green zones etc. I see LOTS of Bicycle road changes. I follow the Rules while riding a bike or driving a car(see getting your driving license rules). Many Bicyclists don’t. A license on the back of the bike will let Cops issue tickets, putting more money into the city coffers for Bicycle road improvements. Isn’t this what the Bicyclists, Mayor and Council want? -Clav

  16. What is the road tax you are referring to?

    Road maintenance and repair on roads where bicycles can go (not highways) comes out of the general fund. Motorists and bicyclists who pay taxes contribute equally.