Bicyclists say streetcar tracks can catch tires and are slippery when wet, posing a danger of falls and serious, even fatal injuries. But solid data about streetcar-track crashes doesn’t exist, so the city remains unsure of the problem’s scope.
A look at her helmet explains the pieces of the story Melissa Riesland can’t recall. Its outer plastic is cracked. On its left side, the Styrofoam that encased her skull is crushed to about half its original width.
It was a drizzly morning commute three years ago in May and Riesland was pedaling to work, something she’d done for 13 years.
She was stopped, waiting at a light on Westlake Avenue. Be careful out there, a construction flagger told her.
She can’t recall the fall, doesn’t remember going to Harborview Medical Center, and only later learned that she’d lain in the street and snored as if she were taking a nap.
A witness told police that her tire had become caught in the streetcar tracks. Riesland believes her tires slipped on the wet tracks’ surface.
“I’m an experienced biker, so I know you go across them at 90 degrees,” she said.
Riesland suffered a skull fracture and a traumatic brain injury. For five days she was in the hospital. For nine months she attended therapy sessions.
Every cyclist seems to have a streetcar story.
Taylor Hurley, a former bike messenger who builds custom bikes under the brand Mobius Cycle, estimates 30 percent of her biking friends have crashed on the tracks.
When she mentions her wreck, “Everyone I talk to is like, ‘Oh my God, I know …’” before telling their tale (or a friend’s), she said.
Although the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT)’s design for streetcar tracks has evolved to better tolerate bikes, cyclists say the tracks are a danger that often ensnares members of their flock.
Some question whether tracks and tires can coexist, particularly after a woman died after falling near the tracks on East Yesler Way. The investigation of her death is ongoing, but family and friends believe the streetcar tracks played a role.
Although anecdotes abound, the scope of the problem isn’t known and there aren’t always simple solutions on space-constrained Seattle streets.
Solid data about streetcar-track crashes doesn’t exist. SDOT has analyzed collision records, but the data include only incidents reported to the police and fire departments. Streetcar-track wrecks are coded as “Pedalcyclist struck object in road,” the same way a crash caused by a pothole would be entered.
Wrecks go unreported. Many are not serious enough to warrant a police investigation or emergency response.
Alexander Spencer, a fair-weather bike commuter in South Lake Union, was on Harrison Avenue earlier this summer when his front wheel got caught in tracks (“that’s like a drumstick in your spokes,” he said). He skinned a knee, bruised his side, hurt his shoulder and scraped up an arm. He hurt badly enough to stay home from work for almost a week. He posted his experience on Reddit but did not contact officials.
When asked in a public-records request for incident reports about bicycle collisions involving streetcars or their tracks, Seattle police found 10 cases since 2008 that were likely among the most serious crashes.
The cases included both experienced and new cyclists. Hurley rode Seattle’s streets “eight hours a day” for six years. “Even with my skills, I could not escape the fate that befell me,” she said.
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A box truck, she explained, forced her out of the right lane on South Jackson Street in October 2014 and in between the streetcar’s tracks. She was able to push her front wheel free of one track, but the track snagged her rear wheel as she tried to angle out. She went over the handlebars and landed on her shoulder, breaking her sternum, damaging her heart and deadening the nerves in her left thigh, she said.
Wrenching to make adjustments on bikes is painful for her, and the last time she tried to ride, it left her so sore she used a cane for three days.
“My leg is completely numb,” she said.
About six months later, Jadivan Elzughbi, who had been living in Seattle all of 13 hours, had a similar incident on Broadway. Realizing there was a cycle track adjacent to where he was riding, Elzughbi tried to navigate across streetcar tracks but caught a tire and fell on his side. He suffered a broken hip.
After her wreck, Melissa Riesland had to relearn to read complicated material.
“If a character doesn’t come back for a few chapters, I don’t remember who they are,” she said.
She started with “Little House on the Prairie” books, worked her way through teen fiction like the “Leviathan” series and after two years could manage adult books like “A God in Ruins.”
Three years after the wreck, “I’m pretty (well) recovered, as much as that’s possible. But it feels I’ll never be quite what I was,” she said.
Long push for safety
Seattle first installed modern streetcar lines in South Lake Union in 2007. SDOT initially considered banning bikes on Westlake Avenue but decided against it.
After several crashes, six cyclists sued the city. Although the city acknowledged the tracks could be hazardous, a judge agreed with the city’s argument that it had a right to build the streetcar line in the manner it chose and that the cyclists had not proved the city breached its duty to provide reasonably safe streets.
The city has since adjusted the right lane of Westlake, where there are tracks, to make it transit-only. Interim Rail Manager Michael James said the move was made to bolster bus passage through South Lake Union but also helps with bikers.
“We don’t want cyclists in a lane that has streetcar tracks; it’s not the safest place for them to be,” James said.
The city also adjusted how bikes and streetcars interact when it designed the First Hill Streetcar. Instead of putting the tracks in the right lane, as it did in South Lake Union, tracks are in the center, which is less attractive to cyclists. SDOT built protected bike lanes running the length of Broadway on Capitol Hill. On East Yesler Way, bike lanes provide a division from traffic.
Cyclists still must navigate difficult intersections, though. On South Jackson Street, they ride in a general-purpose traffic lane adjacent to the tracks.
Study confirms risks
Other cities have struggled with bikes and tracks. A study of serious cycling wrecks in Toronto, which has the most extensive streetcar network in North America, found that 32 percent of cyclists in the study had wrecked on rail.
“On streets with streetcar tracks, there was threefold higher risk of being in a crash and ending up with an injury in the emergency department,” said University of British Columbia researcher Kay Teschke.
Teschke said that 85 percent of streetcar-related wrecks were caused by a cyclist’s wheel being caught in the flangeway gap, the space in the track that holds the wheels to the rail. In the others, the cyclist’s tires slipped on the rail. Women were more likely than men to be injured by streetcar tracks.
“Women tend to cycle a little slower, on average. It seems possible that might contribute to them lingering a split-second longer in the track,” Teschke said.
The researchers concluded the way to prevent wrecks on the tracks is to provide riders with protected bike lanes or give the streetcars a dedicated right of way. Protected intersections should also be installed, they said.
In Seattle, “that section of Broadway that has separated bike lanes is just beautiful,” Teschke said.
SDOT is designing a third line, the Center City Connector, to join the two existing lines on First Avenue.
“We’re looking to complete that design early next year,” James said.
It calls for a center-running transit-only lane, and a general-traffic lane on its right. Traffic delineators would line the streetcar lane.
“Unfortunately, on First Avenue we just can’t fit protected bikeway,” James said.
But James said cyclists have a capable north-south route with Second Avenue’s protected bike lane.
“We need to make sure the connections to and from Second and First and the crossings of the streetcar are designed as safely as they can be,” James said.
Has the city done enough? The question looms again.
The family of Desiree McCloud, the cyclist who died on East Yesler Way, has retained a lawyer to investigate a potential wrongful-death case against the city.
“The family feels that her death was avoidable — or even more accurately, that her or somebody else’s death was predictable,” said Jeff Campiche, their attorney.
At a community meeting a month after her death, family and community members asked for alterations to the stretch where she was killed. So far, no changes have been made. James said SDOT is waiting for the conclusion of the investigation.
Riesland, the rider badly injured on Westlake, said she never seriously considered legal action. She’d seen news of the six cyclists’ lawsuit being dismissed. Insurance covered most of her expenses.
She’s moved on. When returning to work as a technical editor went poorly, she applied for job retraining and is now studying health information management at Shoreline College.
Learning has bolstered her recovery.
“Being in school, it structures my brain,” she said. “It forced my brain to work.“
She bought a new bike.
“I’m determined to ride again,” she said, but on wide, flat trails.
No longer confident, she keeps her seat abnormally low. At first her husband ran behind her as she pedaled, giving assurance she could get past any tentative wobbles.
Ever since her crash, she has feared someone would be badly hurt or killed on the tracks, as McCloud’s family believes was the case in her wreck.
“I’ve been waiting for something like this to happen,” Riesland said.