Seattle has paid $1.55 million to a bicyclist who sued after being tossed by streetcar tracks into the path of a Metro bus in May 2015.
Daniel Ahrendt’s leg and pelvis were broken during the crash on South Jackson Street west of 12th Avenue South. He nearly died from blood loss, then spent 30 days at Harborview Medical Center.
Bicycle tires frequently catch in a nearly 2-inch gap alongside the steel rails, on both the First Hill Streetcar route and the older South Lake Union line. In a third proposed line, postponed until 2025, tracks would curve across bike and car traffic on Stewart Street, while bending toward First Avenue, where streetcars would run in their own median strip.
Ahrendt, then 26, was riding west in the left lane and attempting to overtake a bus in the curbside lane. Both stopped for a traffic signal on Jackson at 12th, a complex five-way intersection.
When the light turned green, the bicyclist sought to move into the curbside lane, but the bus driver proceeded alongside, so Ahrendt had to stay left, where the rails are, said his lawsuit in King County Superior Court, filed by attorney Catherine Fleming. The bike’s front wheel caught in a track gap, he fell, and the bus ran over his lower body.
He no longer bicycles and has moved to New York City.
Last week he wrote in a statement: “I learned through my attorney that nine other similar bicycle/rail gap accidents had occurred where bicyclists fell due to the First Hill Streetcar tracks before my crash. Seven accidents had occurred after my crash. I hoped that my lawsuit would help prevent additional, similar bicycle accidents.”
The city didn’t admit liability, in the settlement wording.
“The vast majority of cyclists in Seattle and around the world safely navigate streets that have embedded streetcar rails,” said a statement by City Attorney Pete Holmes’ office. “Without commenting on any particular accidents or cases, all users must follow the rules of the road and travel with awareness of street and traffic conditions around them.”
The track position, in the interior lanes of Jackson, was expected to reduce conflicts with bicyclists, who tend to use curbside lanes. But heavy bus traffic and right-turning cars create pressure on Jackson for cyclists to merge left.
The case revived questions about whether the city should install rubberized track filler, to lower the odds of a bike being snared.
Filler exists on a short length of Eighth Avenue South, to help people using walkers to cross more easily. That rail near the maintenance barn takes less punishment than the main trackway where all-day train trips would constantly wear out the filler, the city argued in court papers.
The Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) said it kept bike safety in mind by creating separated bike lanes for 1.2 miles along Broadway where the streetcar also runs, but still considers rubber fill unworkable.
“Since this incident occurred, we have been evaluating safety of bikes and streetcars across the two existing lines and considering a variety of potential safety improvements along the system which we expect to be able to share in the near future,” spokesman Ethan Bergerson said by email Thursday.
Besides this case, the city paid almost $500,000 to the family of Desiree McCloud, who fell and died while cycling amid streetcar tracks on East Yesler Way in 2016, KIRO television reports. A reader call-out by The Seattle Times three years ago attracted more than 100 anecdotes from cyclists who say they fell in streetcar rails.
The SDOT is promoting South King Street, a calmer two-lane road, as a safer east-west bike route through the Chinatown International District. Sidewalk and signal improvements on King are scheduled to begin in August.