Bicyclists say city ignores safety concerns


On July 6, 2007, Terry McMacken became part of a statistic.

Bicycling across the Ballard Bridge in Seattle, McMacken rode into a low concrete wall designed – extraordinarily poorly designed, his lawyers say – to separate cyclists and pedestrians from the cars and trucks on 15th Avenue West. He was thrown into traffic and stuck by a car, receiving injuries that would later force surgeons to amputate his right arm and shoulder at the collarbone.

That day, McMacken joined the ranks of the 140 or so cyclists injured each year on Seattle streets. Like many, the crash that took his arm and left him with lasting brain damage could have been avoided, some say, had the city done more for riders.

“The fixes are very simple,” said attorney Jack Connelly, who’s representing McMacken and his wife in a lawsuit filed earlier this month against the city of Seattle. “The concern that we have is that there were people telling the city about this problem well before this incident.”

A perceived lack of attention to bicyclists motivated Friday’s Critical Mass protest ride on Capitol Hill. That ride took a violent turn when several of the riders got in an altercation with a driver, who police say was dragged from his car and pummeled after striking several cyclists.

Three cyclists are under investigation in the clash, a police spokesman said. Charges have not been filed.

The episode drew condemnation from bicycling organizations, prompting Cascade Bicycle Club managers to issue a statement criticizing Critical Mass for “undermining any potential to create positive community exchange … to draw focus to improving conditions for bicycling in our city.”

Still, conditions for Seattle-area cyclists remain unnecessarily hazardous, said David Hiller, advocacy director for the Cascade Bicycle Club.

Two years ago, the city began work on a comprehensive plan to make Seattle more bike friendly. The plan was approved last fall, and work has already begun in some areas of the city.

Hiller said that the improvements will make Seattle a better place to cycle. But he said many of those changes will fix problems unnecessarily left to languish.

“I’m pleased with where we’re headed, but I’m concerned about where we are,” Hiller said. “Compared to most European cities, our accident rates remain distressingly high.”

Seattle Transportation Department spokesman Richard Sheridan said the city intends to spend $240 million in the next decade making the city easier to navigate by bicycle. The goal, Sheridan said, is to reduce the number of bicycle crashes by one-third while tripling total ridership.

Those changes come too late for many cyclists, including McMacken.

Initially knocked into a coma, McMacken had to endure many surgeries to survive the crash, said Micah LeBank, an attorney at Connelly Law Offices also representing McMacken in the lawsuit.

McMacken ultimately lost much of the right side of his torso and with it his livelihood as a union ironworker. Injuries to his brain persist, leaving him both mentally and physically disabled.

LeBank said complaints obtained through a public records request show that the city had ample warning that the Ballard Bridge guardrail was too low to protect cyclists. One letter dated Aug. 12, 2004, cautioned the city that “it is just a matter of time before a bicyclist or pedestrian is injured or killed.”

McMacken’s attorneys also obtained a response to another complaint from a city official, unnamed in court filings.

“Even though I agree with the citizen that crossing the bridge as a pedestrian or bicyclist can feel uncomfortable and unsafe, I also recognize that there are no short-term solutions,” the official said in a 2006 message.

The city has not responded in court to the lawsuit, which was filed July 16 in King County Superior Court.

John Duggan, an attorney who represents bicyclists injured in accidents, said city streets will remain an unduly dangerous place for cyclists until there are enough riders to make drivers become constantly aware of them. It’s from that theory that the Critical Mass organization takes its name.

Duggan, who commutes by bike, sees Friday’s event as an isolated one, although one that will still give bicyclists a “black eye,” he said.

Prosecutors are waiting for reports on the episode from Seattle police before deciding how to proceed, spokesman Dan Donohoe said.

Two cyclists could face malicious mischief charges. A third suspect is under investigation for assault and had not been arrested.

The two who were arrested posted bail of $1,000 each and were released from the King County Jail. Neither returned calls for comment Monday.

The clash happened during a Critical Mass rally, which typically include 100 or more bicyclists traveling as a group. Rather than stop at traffic signals or stop signs, bicyclists block traffic at intersections so the caravan can get through.

On Friday evening, several bicyclists surrounded a car on 14th Avenue East and East Aloha Street. After stopping, the driver lurched forward and struck two bicyclists.

Cyclists then attacked the driver, who was punched and smacked in the head with a bicycle lock, police said. The car’s tires were slashed and windshield smashed, causing $1,500 in damage.

Critical Mass participants have protested the arrests, arguing that the driver instigated the violence. One bicyclist, whose leg was run over, told the Seattle P-I that the driver was irate and aggressive, and shouting before he struck the cyclists.

Despite outcry from Critical Mass participants, police reiterated Monday that, in the department’s view, the driver’s reaction was understandable.

“Put into context, he was surrounded by this group and from what I understand they were beating on his car,” police spokesman Mark Jamieson said. “I think a reasonable person would be a little fearful and would want to get out of that situation.”