A month has passed since 2 cyclists and a dump truck had a fatal interaction at the intersection of Eastlake and Fuhrman here in Seattle. I went past the site on the way home tonight to see what’s changed in the last 4 weeks. What’s there is mostly paint “ painted ghostbike up on the street sign, painted signs on the sidewalk and roadway, and a touching memorial to 19 year old Bryce, the cyclist who was killed.
What is going to make this intersection safer? It only took the 10 minutes I was at the corner for me to see another close call between a car and bike. If history’s any guide, we’ll be lucky to get paint. Unfortunately I don’t think paint would have made any more difference than if the cyclists had brakes (they did), freewheels (they didn’t), or if they were wearing helmets (they weren’t, and it wouldn’t have mattered anyway).
I’ve been a bit disappointed by the local media coverage, and the citizen response. The Stranger’s gone out of their way to point out the danger of brake-free track bikes. The Seattle PI found time to fit in a note that neither cyclist was wearing a helmet in the second paragraph. Both imply that the cyclists were doing something wrong and were thus at fault in the accident. It may very well have been the case that Bryce and Caleb were doing something wrong, but these two facts have nothing to do with the accident. If you want a real chill just read the citizen comments on the PI article (although a read today suggests that the worst ones have been deleted).
The scenario is one of my own personal worst cycling fears: cars turning right at an intersection. Riding a bike lane (as the cyclists were) puts you in the path of danger when an automobile makes a ˜free right turn’. A recent interesting study from London highlights the subtle dangers riding the bike lanes “ cyclists who left the intersection while the light was still red were involved in far fewer accidents than those who waited for the green and got creamed by cars turning left (the equivalent of a right hand turn here in the States).
There are 3 ‘infrastructure’ solutions floating around right now: Blue Lanes: Bike Lanes around and across intersections. I understand the safety evidence from Portland is good but I’m still not convinced these are enough. The two cyclists hit by the dump truck were in (or very near) a painted bike lane – I’m not sure how much more paint applied to the lane is going to solve the problem.
I think a more promising approach is Bike Boxes which actually put cyclists out ahead of the lane of traffic in a designated space. This has the advantage of putting the cyclist directly in the line of sight of the motorists rather than counting on them to read the street as well as the traffic lights and signs. In fact, many commuters I ride with take this approach at 34th and Stone Way, pulling our bikes into the left hand side of the right lane so we don’t get creamed as cars try to make a right.
Bike signal heads on traffic lights are another appealing option. The advantages here are again that the motorists can focus on familiar signaling, while the cyclists get a ‘head start’ from the traffic, hopefully moving them out of the intersection danger zone before many cars start to move through.
None of these are perfect, and if you read through the comments on some of the PI articles you’ll see that an option popular among motorists is to move bikes off streets. Presumably they mean on to bike paths or physically separated bike lanes. I’m still on the fence regarding bike paths. The stretch of the Burke-Gilman around the top of Lake Washington is a prime example of some of the dangers of bike paths – driveways and roads cross the path at random intervals allowing ample opportunities for automobile/bicycle interactions.
Segregated bike lanes got some press earlier this year as New York City prepared to add some. Sheldon “Ineffable” Brown has some insightful things to say about the press, and about physically separated lanes. They’re no substitute for educating all roadway users.
My unstudied opinion is that Seattle would do well to adopt Bike Boxes, and a more effective educational campaign for cyclists and motorists. “Give 3 feet” really seems a bit lame – it’s basically imploring automobiles to lend cyclists an extra bit of space, volunteer a bit of extra courtesy. I’d like to see a campaign aligned around “Give me the lane – it’s the law”. Empowering cyclists to use roads as needed to travel safely should go hand in hand with educating motorists that bicycles are actually allowed on the street.
Infrastructure may help, but I can’t think of any way more paint would have prevented the terrible events on Eastlake and Fuhrman. I’m very saddened for Bryce’s family. I sincerely hope the neighborhood council and city will sit up and take some notice of this intersection and other high-conflict areas in Seattle and take some steps to try and reduce the chances of it happening again.