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In Seattle, bike crashes on streetcar tracks lead to lawsuit

Posted by on June 1st, 2010 at 2:51 pm

Bicycle Master Plan ride #3

Mixing with streetcar tracks
in Northwest Portland.
(Photo © J. Maus)

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer reports today that six people who crashed while biking across streetcar tracks are now suing the city for negligence because more was not done to make the tracks safe:

“Six cyclists who crashed while crossing the South Lake Union Streetcar tracks are suing the city of Seattle, claiming officials ignored hazards to pedal-power commuters.

All six were hurt when their tires got stuck in the flange way gap between the rail and street. They claim city officials were negligent in designing the tracks and knew of the risks but failed to post warning signs until after several people had been hurt, according to the lawsuit, filed last week in King County Superior Court.”

“Bike-track crashes are a major and underreported problem for Portland-area bicyclists.”
— From a report by Alta Planning and Design

The plaintiffs are seeking compensation for damages, medical expenses, lost wages, and attorneys’ fees. Streetcar tracks have long been an issue in Portland and they are the cause of many injuries and crashes. Could this sort of lawsuit spring up here? Are our city planners doing enough to keep people safe and avoid legal liability?

One thing’s for sure. Bike crashes on rail tracks are issue of concern to many people in Portland.

In April 2008, 1,520 people completed the “Bike and Transit” survey conducted by the Bicycle Transportation Alliance.

Over 67% of respondents said they’ve had a bike crash on streetcar or light trail tracks and 36% said they agreed with a statement that the expansion of street “will degrade existing bicycle routes.” Of those survey respondents who labeled themselves as a “learning or timid” bike rider, 63% said they were worried about falling on tracks (compared to 50% overall).

Detail from a map of bike crashes from a survey on riding around light rail and streetcar tracks.

In an analysis of the survey results, Alta Planning and Design wrote: “Bike-track crashes are a major and underreported problem for Portland-area bicyclists.”

Later that year, Alta included the survey in a report they completed for the Lloyd District Transportation Management Association titled, Bicycle Interactions and Streetcars: Lessons Learned and Recommendations.

Alta said PBOT and their partners, are “poised to create a new model of bicycle-streetcar integration,” but that so far,

“…streetcar designs to date have not provided adequately for bicycles, and as a result many cyclists report having crashed on tracks and experiencing anxiety and fear about the possibility of a crash.”

It will be very interesting to see how the case plays out in Seattle. Read more about it from the Seattle PI and the Seattle Times.

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Marcus Griffith
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Marcus Griffith

I took a nasty fall on the new green line when it was under construction. Portland never got around to posting any type of warnings during construction. I turned onto the street with the max lines in the evening and due to the hour and the high traffic, didn’t even see the tracks until my wheel got stuck.

I give kudos to the SUV drivers around who stopped and let me get back up.

are
Guest

construction is one thing, but i really cannot see the city compensating people for snagging a wheel in the gap when it is such an obvious risk.

Nono
Guest
Nono

I also crashed once on the streetcar rail. I was pretty embarassed but I don’t get angre at the city. I say learn from it and suck it up! It’s common sense that you’re tires are going to get caught in it.

Allison
Guest
Allison

Is there a way to design tracks that don’t present risks to bikes? Are we ignoring some obvious solution?

Because it seems to me that the only other option is no streetcar – which isn’t really a good option IMO.

SkidMark
Guest
SkidMark

Frivolous lawsuit. Anyone on two wheels should know enough to cross tracks as close to perpendicular as possible. They are made out of steel and likely wet,if you try to cross them close to parallel your tire will slide and catch in the track. Sue yourself for not being able to ride a bike.

Sorry but bicycle riding requires a minimum amount of skill.

t.a. barnhart
Guest

current streetcar construction is pretty good about warnings. and the old evil tracks on SE 2nd are being removed & covered – at last. many broken bones done there (i was lucky & only skinned my knee). the main need is for bicyclists to learn how to ride on tracks – always cross at 90 degrees, or as close as possible. even 45 degrees is a risk. slow down. be prepared for a fall. tracks are not going away, anymore than potholes, cracks in the road and stupid car drivers. the streets are inherently dangerous, and this is one more thing to learn to cope with safely.

cyclist
Guest
cyclist

I’ve got to agree with everybody else here, I learned a long time ago that if you want to be safe you get as close to perpendicular as you can.

BURR
Guest
BURR

The streetcar is a boondoggle pork barrel project that has a terrible cost-benefit ratio, endangers cyclists, and has cut in line in front of cyclists when it comes to access to what could have been several major cycling routes in town.

SkidMark – rail tracks are a real hazard to cyclists, and it’s not always about how well you know how to ride a bike; even experienced cyclists can fall on rails, and the more rail they lay in our streets, the more cyclists are going to get hurt.

SkidMark
Guest
SkidMark

I’ve fallen crossing tracks, I wasn’t anywhere close to perpendicular, so my fault. I stay off anything steel (like manhole covers) when it is wet and I try to stay off traffic markings too because they are almost as slippery as steel. Maybe skill isn’t the right word, perhaps basic knowledge or common sense is.

Paul Souders
Guest

Crossing tracks isn’t the big issue, it’s turning across tracks in your own lane, e.g. turning right off of 10th ave, or left from Harrison to Naito. In order to cross “as close to perpendicular as possible” you need to turn from the outside lane.

I’ve had two friends — experienced bike commuters both — break collarbones on this maneuver.

are
Guest

there is also unloading your front wheel

A.K.
Guest
A.K.

I am scared of falling on tracks to so I… don’t ride next to them!

One of the sweet things about a bike is how easy
it is to take an alternate route.

cold worker
Guest
cold worker

the world is a terrifying and dangerous place. i’m staying in today.

Jason
Guest
Jason

I crashed on the streetcar tracks while avoiding jaywalkers in March. Just got back on my bike last week but I’m still months away from being back to normal. It never even crossed my mind that it was anyone’s fault but my own. Timely story indeed.

Ed
Guest

How about just avoid the railway? I’ve only ever crash once in the rail line ’cause I was still new to Portland, but after that I avoid all the rail line streets except on Lovejoy where in the Pearl its got a bicycle lane. Just avoid it! Don’t ride on it. There are plenty of streets that are perfect for cyclists. I think its awesome soon there will be a new street car rail line on MLK and Grand.

KWW
Guest
KWW

I once fell in streetcar tracks on a motorcycle. I thought I had enough angle to the tracks to make the crossing, but it was wet and I crashed horribly.

That said, streetcar tracks have been in cities for over 100 years co-existing with bicycles. The time honored simple solution is to dismount and walk across.

Don’t claim this is a new problem with no solution.

Lea
Guest

I broke my wrist and foot getting my tire stuck in the street car tracks. I feel like there should be a solution but I also know most bikers will experience this- you are lucky if you get away unscathed. I feel like cities think street cars are the way to go when they are largely not effective modes of transportation (I am not including Portland’s MAX in this which is NOT a streetcar). Is there an organization that is documenting these accidents? I would love to contribute.

Ed
Guest
Ed

One thing you can do to protect yourself is to use 2″ wide road tires on a mountain or cruiser style bike since they cannot fit into the tracks as easily.

When the tracks pull your front wheel along the direction they are going, you will fall off in the opposite direction since there is nothing supporting you. The best bet is to let go of the handlebars and bike and put out your foot to catch yourself.

In order to cross the tracks carefully you first have to be aware that they exist. I was on top of the tracks on MLK before I had any idea they were there. Can we lay down a layer of reflective red paint adjacent to the tracks? Cheaper than a hospital bill.

These crashes are incredibly common, when I went to the hospital for an injury and told them I rode a bicycle they just assumed I had crashed on the tracks. I hope all of you stay safe.

MIndful Cyclist
Guest
MIndful Cyclist

Ed (#18): I beg to differ on the 2″ tires. The only time I ever got caught it one was when I was riding was when I was on a mountain bike and thought I had plenty of angle to be safe. When a tire is carrying over 150 pounds, it will give. You are right that it is more difficult than with a narrow road tire, but not that much.

My question, though is this: Did the city of Seattle put up those yellow signs that warn of hazard or have the biker crashing like we have? If they didn’t, the cyclists may have a case.

Agreed, though. Be aware of the tracks, slow down and make certain you are perpendicular, and walk across if you have to. It is not like the tracks showed up over night and there was no warning.

ac
Guest
ac

[img]http://www.womansday.com/var/ezflow_site/storage/images/media/images/11-bike-on-tracks-wacky-road-signs2/893987-1-eng-US/11-bike-on-tracks-Wacky-Road-Signs.jpg[/img]

jimmy
Guest
jimmy

i avoid getting tripped up by the tracks by starting with both wheels in the tracks. this way i dont even have to steer the bike.

Steven Vance
Guest

#4: A rubber filled flangeway might be a solution. It is used on a multi-modal bridge in Chicago. However, I cannot speak for its use on a track that is used much more often (the Chicago one is used a couple times a week by one very short train).
See the Cherry Avenue bridge here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/jamesbondsv/3845122785/in/set-72157622111235192/

joel
Guest

this falls under the department of eye-rolling to me. this is not a new problem, and not a problem thats going to go away unless people exercise proper care when crossing rail tracks on a bike.

firekayak
Guest
firekayak

I am encouraged by the majority of the responses to this article. It shows that people today still have common sense. If there is a slot in the road…be careful around it. Thank you to all that support commons sense.

rick browning
Guest
rick browning

Almost everyone who has posted on this topic so far is an incredible, pathetic Uncle Tom. Do you guys think for one second that a facility designed for C- A -R – S would ever, under any circumstance, be designed and built with an obvious known hazard that, unless taken at just the right angle, caused your car to skid and flip over??? The postings on this topic to date are a prime example of how as cyclists we are so beaten down and have such a low expectation of safe, commodious facilities that we blame ourselves for the crappy, dangerous state of “normal” roadway facilities. Wake Up!!! You deserve the same level of safety and ease of use as cars!! More in fact. You are the ones at greater risk. You are not surrounded by a 2 ton full metal jacket. You are the ones that are part of the solution, not part of the problem: transporting yourselves with virtual zero carbon footprint. And yet obsessive, massive, hugely expensive efforts are made to design and construct roadways to be safe for cars… while cyclists are left with… wheel trapping hazards and signs that say, in effect “good luck”. Been down so long it looks like up to us.

Opus the Poet
Guest

In Seattle they put the streetcars and the bikes in the same place but didn’t use the bike wheel excluders that cost an additional $1k/mile over standard tracks without them, when the excluder is installed with the track. I understand they cost a bit more to put in after the fact, plus you have to shut down the streetcar while you install the excluders. No streetcar, no bikes, and no cars on the street because part of the street has to be torn up to install the excluders and because of the people working in the street, plus the fact that they are working on the tracks makes running the streetcar unsafe.

Hazel
Guest
Hazel

I’m curious about the new tracks on NE MLK. I was riding north the other day and when the tracks turn west on to Broadway, it’s safest to swing out into the middle lane to get a good angle. This doesn’t seem like a safe move on such a busy street.

NecroPsyChroNauTron
Guest
NecroPsyChroNauTron

Never crashed on tracks, not on bike, not on longboard either.
Guess these people don’t know how to look at the road in front of them and react accordingly?
Someone get these people an oversized hamster ball!

Chandler
Guest
Chandler

Are they filing to force changes in the tracks or that the design in Seattle leaves little room for cyclists? Like zero.

This should be an issue of putting designs together correctly. Or close to it. Less rail … more cars.

Yes, I crashed in Portland (while worrying about if I would crash). I stopped paying attention and went down. Everyone was helpful and I was very red.

BM
Guest
BM

What whiners those people are. They should see some of the hazardous track crossings we have here in San Francisco, not to mention the road conditions. Oh almost forgot the “cheese graters” at 2nd and Market. They’re vents for the subway below and are just wide enough to suck down bike tires and send you flying. The grates are also have ridges to allow car tires to grip on to them. You only make that mistake once.

suburban
Guest

To je Skoda!

Garth Bowden
Guest

Unfortunately the only thing that these lawsuits can cause is cities banning people from riding bikes on the streetcar tracks. That doesn’t sound like an improvement to bikeability to me, so I’d rather the legal standard for these tracks be “ride at your own risk”.
Portland already has signage to that effect.

This is not substantively the same situation as storm drains and other such bike tire trap risks because you literally can’t design a streetcar track that doesn’t have this kind of gap.

Red Five
Guest
Red Five

I never have problems with rails in my Subaru.

drew
Guest
drew

Over the years,I picked up lots of clip-on battery powered rear lights on Boones ferry road where the tracks cross at an angle in Tualatin. Detrius from previous bike crashes.

Motorcycles crash on the tracks too. Two wheeled riders sometimes have learn the hard way. It took me 2 crashes to learn. Did not break bones thank goodness. Now I would never crash over tracks because i know how to ride in the vicinity of tracks.

Learning how to ride a bike means constant judgement on what you are riding over. If you screw up, you fall. The lawsuits are frivelous; initiated by riders who lack the skill to ride safely.

BURR
Guest
BURR

It used to be two ER visits per day in Portland from crashes on rail tracks, but with the proliferation of new rail, I’d double that number today.

These are tracks that run parallel to a cyclists direction of travel, on major through streets throughout the inner city, all of you ‘ride at your own risk’ people have your heads in the sand about the increased danger these facilities pose to cyclists; it is real, and the injury rate should be unacceptable.

One more case of crappy road design, compounded by a large and well funded special interest group – the streetcar boosters.

are
Guest

re comment 25, please tell me you are kidding. why don’t you try taking a car into one of those concrete barriers along a highway median, or drop a wheel into a soft shoulder, or hey, just straight into a bridge abutment? yes, there are hazards to motorists in the roadway as well, built right in. the trick is to avoid them. what this has to do with uncle tom? the rail wasn’t put there for the benefit of motorists.

Opus the Poet
Guest

I think what some people are overlooking is that streetcar tracks are occupying shared space with motor vehicles and bicycles. This isn’t a train that crosses the road at widely spaced intervals and more-or-less perpendicular to the direction of travel, it runs with traffic and shares space with traffic. Also there are people and bicycles that can’t “bunny-hop” over them, it’s physically impossible for some people and some bicycle designs to perform that maneuver, me for instance, I have “issues” with any kind of jumping motion. Or my bikes that range from crank-forwards to full-blown recumbents with an almost horizontal riding position. If I was trapped on the left side of the tracks anything to the right of those tracks would be very hazardous for me to try to get to, vice-versa the right side of the tracks and reaching destinations on the left.

There are devices that prevent bicycle tires from getting caught in streetcar tracks and as I posted above they are cheap to install when tracks are first being installed, on the order of $1k higher than track without them. The trick is that someone has to recognize that bicycles will be on the same streets as the streetcars and that the tracks are as big or bigger hazard to bicycles as the streetcar itself.

Drew
Guest
Drew

I suppose if you can’t manage tracks, grates, gravel, ice, litter, oil slicks, or tree root caused surface irregularities; there is always the option of using a tricycle.

Chris Smith
Guest

I think you’ll find the eastside extension to be a bit friendly toward bikes. We have generally avoided having rails next to bike lanes, either by keeping Streetcar in the left lane (Broadway/Weidler), using cycletrack configurations (7th) or using streets that don’t have bike facilities (MLK/Grand).

Places where the rail turns a corner will continue to be a challenge.

We are continuing to monitor the availability of flange-filler materials. So far we have not found one that does not have operational problems (like causing de-railments). We’ll keep watching the technology develop.

With each extension we incorporate new learnings, but don’t hesitate to let us know when we don’t hit the mark.

Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor)
Guest

Chris Smith,

thanks for chiming in.

glad to hear the eastside project is “a bit friendly” to bikes but I think that’s just the point. Many people (myself included) in this city are done with being just “a bit friendly toward bikes.”

Like Rick Browning above, I think these comments are very telling of something I’ve known for a long time — that people who bike and bike advocates are so used to getting the short end of the stick that they constantly self-marginalize themselves and settle for crumbs instead of standing up and demanding things.

While you “keep watching the technology develop” for safer rail tracks, people are falling and breaking bones and perhaps even worse — choosing to not bike at all because they are afraid of the tracks.

And I used to commute up Grand, on the space that is now used by the streetcar. The presence of those tracks and of the streetcar makes my use of that road much more tricky.

Seems like maybe we need a policy where all streetcar project funds have a dedicated set-aside for bikeway infrastructure development. We have the Bicycle Bill for highway projects, perhaps we need something similar for rail projects?

spare_wheel
Guest
spare_wheel

“These are tracks that run parallel to a cyclists direction of travel”

Not only that, but PDX has designed bike paths that require taking tracks at 33-45 degree angles.

Here is one terrible accident to happen:

http://maps.google.com/?ie=UTF8&hq=&hnear=Portland,+Multnomah,+Oregon+97210&ll=45.504993,-122.673923&spn=0.00048,0.001206&t=k&z=20

spare_wheel
Guest
spare_wheel

“These are tracks that run parallel to a cyclists direction of travel”

Not only that, but PDX has designed bike paths that require taking tracks at 33-45 degree angles.

Here is one terrible accident waiting to happen:

http://maps.google.com/?ie=UTF8&hq=&hnear=Portland,+Multnomah,+Oregon+97210&ll=45.504993,-122.673923&spn=0.00048,0.001206&t=k&z=20

Vancouver Bob
Guest
Vancouver Bob

looks like tracks can be better designed…

al m
Guest

It’s Amerika, where you can always blame someone else and get money for your own stupidity!

cip
Guest
cip

Y’all are such a wuss! I rode my bike in Bucharest, Romania. Plenty of streetcar miles there. The tracks are basically buried train tracks with concrete ties (think Springwater trail)and tram rails similar to the ones here. In between the rails you will find super slick cobblestones that are anything but smooth or level. Due to the massive amounts of salt they throw there in winter, the edge between the cobblestones and the asphalt (trams run in the middle of the streets in Europe), all sorts of balljoint and shock/brakes eating monster of potholes form at the edge of the tracks. Add to the mix fumes belching trucks and a total disregard for cyclists, pedestrians or lanes, and you got the “perfect” cyclotrack!

Bob
Guest
Bob

Thank goodness there wasn’t a car nearby otherwise you all would blame it on the evil automobile!!!!!!!

Michael M.
Guest

In contrast to Rick’s (#25) “Uncle Tom” contention, I would say these lawsuits reflect a growing sense of entitlement felt by some people whose preferred mode of travel is bicycles. I have misgivings about that. I would rather see the sense of entitlement that many who drive cars diminish. I think what transportation planners and advocates should be aiming for is an equitable and balanced approach that de-emphasizes the primacy of the car (less free on-street parking, or less on-street parking in general; more streets prioritized for pedestrian, cycling, and public transit modes, lower speed limits in urban areas, fewer travel lanes for autos, etc.). The problem, it seems to me, is not streetcar tracks per se, it is that we are all fighting for the same limited space and there is no political will to reduce auto-mode convenience in any substantive way. Streetcars and light rail at least create “facts on the ground” that somewhat mitigate the utility of auto-mode travel, but we haven’t really closed off streets to cars.

I think everyone needs to understand that we all have to make accommodations in order to provide a meaningful and useful array of modal options. That means there will be places it won’t be convenient to ride bikes safely, but it should also mean there will be places it won’t be convenient to drive cars. These lawsuits (and the line of advocacy they represent) don’t signal that “bikes belong,” they signal that bike riders want the same privileged, entitled place currently occupied by people who drive. That’s a step in the wrong direction.

jeff
Guest
jeff

More buses and light rail, but get rid of the street cars. In addition to creating hazards for bikes, they’re slow, expensive, and non-adaptable.

bikieboy
Guest
bikieboy

are(#36) – the hazards to motorists that you list are all outside of the intended driving area. If you encounter any one of them you’ve already lost control of your vehicle.

Tourbiker
Guest
Tourbiker

I do hope the Judge spends just enough time on this case to convey the message to the Plaintiffs..

“what …are you and your clients Idiots”???

OnTheRoad
Guest
OnTheRoad

#39:
We have generally avoided having rails next to bike lanes, … using streets that don’t have bike facilities (MLK/Grand).

Just because streets don’t have “bike facilities” doesn’t mean that bicycles don’t use them. I use Grand Avenue all the time to get to certain destinations.

What’s wrong with using trolley buses that don’t require rails, instead of fixed-rail streetcars?