Less than two weeks before Seattle’s dangerous Second Avenue bike lane was to be fixed, a 31-year-old woman was killed there Friday when a left-turning truck hit her bicycle.
Within hours of the 8:45 a.m. crash, people brought flowers and left two white-painted “ghost bikes” at the corner of Second and University Street, next to Benaroya Hall. Bicyclists gathered in the plaza to mourn.
“It’s upsetting to see,” said Scott Kubly, the city’s new transportation director, as he walked past the handmade memorial Friday afternoon. “I think it speaks to the need for moving quickly on safety improvements.”
The woman killed, Sher Kung, was a new mother and an attorney with the firm Perkins Coie.
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A photo on her Facebook page, apparently from February 2013, shows Kung down on one knee, proposing to Christine Sanders during a snowshoeing outing. “Will you stop hamming it up for the camera and look at the ring, because I’m actually proposing,” reads a post on the page from Kung.
Perkins Coie released a statement Saturday, calling Kung “one of our brightest young lawyers.” Kung, who the firm said was heading to work Friday morning, was “an exceptional lawyer and a wonderful comrade, with boundless energy, legal brilliance, and relentless optimism. …Our hearts go out to her partner and their child, her extended family, and her many friends.”
The Seattle Department of Transportation is to convert the bike lane into a more protected route Sept. 8, from Pike Place Market to Pioneer Square. Left-turning cars and trucks then may proceed only on a green arrow — to reduce conflicts with bikes and pedestrians. Bicyclists will see a separate, bike-shaped green light, telling them when to proceed straight through the intersection.
Second Avenue has been a well-known problem for a decade, though this is the first fatality. At least 16 cyclists were involved in crashes at or near the University Street intersection from January 2007 to March 2013. The awkward positioning of the bike lane on the left side of the one-way street — combined with a downslope, parking-garage driveways and truck loadings — make conditions even trickier than on other downtown streets. Some veteran cyclists prefer to ride in the more-predictable general lanes.
Kung died at the scene, said Kyle Moore, Seattle Fire Department spokesman.
She rode a blue multi-gear bicycle, and a witness said she wore a helmet. The impact occurred partway through the intersection.
The truck driver cooperated with investigators and showed no sign of impairment, said Detective Patrick Michaud, Seattle police spokesman.
Tim Lennox, who works nearby, said he was riding his scooter down Second Avenue near the crash. He heard no skidding or crash noise.
“The driver was hysterical,” Lennox said. “He had opened the door, and he was pacing around, screaming that she came out of his blind spot. He was pretty broken up.”
Up to drivers
Michaud said bicyclists have the right of way in such bike lanes, and it’s a driver’s responsibility to check before turning. Cycling-safety advocates encourage riders to slow down and to assume they are invisible to drivers.
Police haven’t established yet whether the signal Friday morning was green, yellow or red. It’s also too early to determine whether the collision was simply an accidentor the result of a traffic violation or crime, Michaud said.
The truck was labeled with the name Rubenstein’s, a commercial flooring company. A man in an orange company shirt wept as he walked with a police officer, and a co-worker waiting nearby declined to comment later.
Last year John Pucher, a Rutgers University cycling expert visiting a Seattle conference, called the Second Avenue bikeway “death-defying” and said he nearly got hit five or six times on just one trip downtown.
There were 57 bike collisions from January 2007 to March 2013 on Second Avenue between Belltown and Pioneer Square. Of these, seven were at University Street, with nine in the block approaching University.
John Duggan, a Seattle attorney who handles bicycling cases, happened upon the scene as medical-examiner staff and police investigated. “All these incidents occur because the motorist wasn’t seeing the bike,” Duggan said.
In preparation for the improved bike lane, the old bike-lane icons and stripes on Second Avenue have been mostly removed, replaced by spray paint where new striping will be applied. A few cyclists conjectured on Seattle Bike Blog that it’s been harder than usual for motorists to be cognizant of bikes.
Markings and signals don’t necessarily create safety, Duggan said, but they make cyclists feel comfortable, which means more show up, which in turn creates visibility. “If there’s a single cyclist, the driver doesn’t see her. If there are 10 cyclists, the driver sees her,” Duggan said.
Kubly, named by Mayor Ed Murray last month to be Seattle’s new transportation chief, worked on a popular bike-lane conversion on Dearborn Street in Chicago, similar to Second Avenue.
He said three times in his previous two years, someone died shortly before the city carried out a bike-pedestrian safety project in Chicago.
In addition to green-arrow signals, parked cars on Second Avenue will be repositioned to form a cordon between the bike lane and moving cars. Pavement will be painted green where streets and parking-garage driveways cross the bikeway.
Along with the Second Avenue conversion, a short piece of Yesler Way and one road lane on Pike Street from First to Second avenues will be replaced with protected bikeways.
Then in mid-October, 500 Pronto rental bikes will be deployed at 50 stations, including some downtown. The bike-share nonprofit’s rollout schedule created urgency among cycling supporters and elected officials to finally fix Second Avenue this year — before visitors pedal through downtown.
A two-way, separated bikeway opened last fall on Capitol Hill along Broadway, as part of the coming streetcar line. City staff are trying to devise a cycle track, separate from parking lots, along Westlake Avenue North at Lake Union, as well as possibly a bike-separation on Dexter Avenue North.
“Committed to equal rights”
At Perkins Coie, according to the firm’s website, Kung was an associate working in the litigation group, focusing on intellectual property litigation, and maintained an active pro bono practice.
In 2010, she was part of the ACLU trial team that successfully challenged the military’s “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy.
ACLU Washington spokesman Doug Honig said she helped the ACLU represent Air Force Major Margaret Witt, a decorated flight nurse dismissed from the military for being gay. The case in U.S. District Court for Western Washington helped set a precedent that the military would need to prove sexual orientation had a negative impact on morale in order to dismiss someone, and made it possible for Witt to return to her position.
Honig said Kung also worked on educational materials that helped inform farm workers about their rights.
“She was fun to work with and very committed to equal rights for everybody,” said Honig, who worked with her during her year-long fellowship in 2009 and 2010.
Kung received a bachelor’s degree from Brown University and her law degree in 2009 from the University of Californina, Hastings College of Law.