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Will First Hill Streetcar tracks be a hazard to cyclists?

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer: Will First Hill Streetcar tracks be a hazard to cyclists?

With the city facing a lawsuit from six cyclists who were hurt when their tires got wedged in the South Lake Union Streetcar tracks, some bike commuters wonder how their safety will be considered in designs for the First Hill Streetcar.

Seattlepi.com first reported Monday on the lawsuit, which alleges the city ignored safety hazards in the design and routing of the South Lake Union Streetcar.

David Hiller, advocacy director of the Cascade Bicycle Club, says the Seattle Department of Transportation appears to have learned from the South Lake Union experience.

"The good news is SDOT has seen what's happened and is working very closely with us and the bicycle advisory board on the First Hill Streetcar plans in order not to repeat some of the same errors that were made in South Lake Union," Hiller said.

SDOT spokesman Rick Sheridan, who refrained from commenting on the lawsuit, says: "We are meeting with the bicycle community to understand their perspective about the First Hill Streetcar and the elements that support bicycling along that alignment."

SDOT, with $132 million supplied by Sound Transit, is planning to build a two-mile streetcar line linking First Hill, Capitol Hill and the International District. The Seattle City Council last month chose a route that will run up Jackson Street to 14th Avenue South, where it will cut over to East Yesler Way and up to Broadway for a two-way straight shot to the future Sound Transit light rail station near Cal Anderson Park.

Construction is set to begin next year and finish in 2013. It will be the city's second modern streetcar line.

There's no decision yet on how the First Hill Streetcar will share the road, Sheridan said. But the city envisions at least a traffic lane or lane reserved for bicycles between the streetcar track and the curb, he said.

The Broadway route will be built within the existing street width and SDOT is considering several ideas for managing transit, bike traffic and parking. The Capitol Hill Community Council has proposed a cycle track separated from traffic for bicyclists

"We think there is merit to that proposal and we want to make sure that we understand the need and concerns of the cycling community as we look to include things like that in our design," Sheridan said.

A safety flaw with South Lake Union Streetcar, according to the lawsuit, is the streetcar runs along Westlake Avenue in curb lanes, where passengers can easily board from the sidewalk. But that's also where cyclists usually ride. And with little room to navigate, there is more risk of tires getting caught in the gap between the rail and the road. That risk was even greater because so many cyclists used Westlake to get into downtown before the streetcar opened in 2007.

The lawsuit alleges the city was informed of risks through its own studies and engineering reports but didn't follow recommendations to mitigate it until after the streetcar opened. Hiller says Cascade urged the city to consider running South Lake Union's streetcar in the median, warning that it would difficult to completely shut off Westlake as a bike route.

City officials, according to documents, felt Westlake wasn't wide enough to accommodate stops in the median. That also may have made the project more expensive and more unpopular with residents.

Judging by comments to seattlepi.com, some people think the lawsuit is frivolous and that bicyclists need to accept more responsibility for their safety.

On the other hand, I've spoken to six other cyclists since Monday who say they also were hurt trying to navigate around the tracks. Seattle is trying to encourage bike-riding as an alternate mode of transportation and some cyclists try to make this point: If this were a highway, and a gap in the road had caused cars to spin out and crash, would we see this the same way?