Seattle judge says City not liable in streetcar track lawsuit

Conditions on Lovejoy-5
New tracks on Lovejoy.
(Photo © J. Maus/BikePortland)

There’s been a big development in a legal battle up in Seattle that has similarities to an issue we have here in Portland. As we shared back in June 2010, several Seattle residents who crashed while bicycling across streetcar tracks filed a lawsuit claiming that the City of Seattle, “knowingly allowed unsafe conditions.”

According to the Seattle Times, that lawsuit has been tossed out by a judge who says the City is not liable. Before you jump to the conclusion that the plaintiffs are just whiners who need to figure out how to ride their bikes (a common reaction whenever this topic comes up), what’s important to note is that the case didn’t center around whether or not the tracks posed a danger to people on bikes. All the City had to do in their defense was prove that they followed existing engineering standards.

Here’s a snip from the Times (emphasis mine):

… the cyclists hadn’t proved the city fell short of any design or engineering standards when it placed the streetcar tracks on the right side of the roadway, where bikes were likely to travel, rather than in the center.

“We never disputed the tracks were a hazard,” said Rebecca Boatright, assistant city attorney who handled the case. “The legal question was whether we fell short of any engineering standard in designing a road with a streetcar. The judge concluded we did not.”

This might not be over just yet as, “An attorney for the six cyclists said they will file a motion to reconsider the decision,” reports the Times.

This situation has parallels to the concerns by many here in Portland about our streetcar tracks — especially the new ones in the Pearl District that have been placed on the right-hand shoulder where a bike lane used to be.

Despite crashing on tracks becoming almost a given part of bike life here in Portland, no one (at least to my knowledge) has filed a lawsuit. Instead, local non-profit group Active Right of Way (AROW) launched a grassroots effort to work with the City and Portland Streetcar officials to improve the situation.

What’s interesting to me is that, while the cycling citizens in both cities have taken different paths to air their concerns, the overall impact of their actions netted similar results.

Portland Streetcar Inc. and the City of Portland have made some changes (although not as quickly or significant as hoped for) in response to the activism by AROW. They have added warning signs, they’re working on an educational video, and tonight they’ll start a project to move an ill-advised streetcar utility pole that was placed too far into the Broadway Bridge bikeway. And even though they beat the lawsuit (so far at least), it did, “prompt design changes in the planned First Hill Streetcar,” reports the Times.

In the end, what the situations both here and in Seattle show is that we need new streetcar design standards that include a greater awareness and sensitivity to the bikeway environment. And, when those standards call for additional measures — and agencies squawk about the added cost — we need to have a dedicated set-aside fund in all streetcar projects for bikeway mitigation.

It’s clear that people are still getting injured while biking around these tracks. The problem won’t go away until we acknowledge the problem is legitimate (blaming the victims is not an acceptable solution) and then work to reform the funding and construction guidelines.

— Read more about the Seattle lawsuit here and peruse our past coverage of Bikes and Streetcars.

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