In early January I was hit by a car in West Seattle while biking home. Thankfully, the collision was minor and I got away with no physical injuries. The car may have fared worse with a scratch and a dangling mirror. In the interest of preventing anyone else from getting hurt at a key intersection, I am telling the story of what happened and what I think can be done to prevent it from repeating.
I was biking home from a morning appointment, and it was daylight and raining. I was headed eastbound on SW Avalon Way in the right-side bike lane, just past Alki Lumber, and approaching the intersection with 35th Avenue SW. There were vehicles on my left side in the general traffic lane. Traffic was moving forward toward a fresh green light at the intersection and I passed one or two cars that were still accelerating. I was moving 10-12 miles per hour.
As I entered the intersection, the driver of a small white car made a right turn onto 35th Avenue SW and collided with me. The collision occurred at a relatively slow speed and a shallow angle. The car slowed or stopped and I continued rolling forward, and I remember waving an arm and probably dropping the f-bomb. I stopped my bike on the sidewalk on the southeast corner of the intersection. The driver of the car had put on their flashers and pulled over on 35th.
I dismounted and assessed the situation. I was able to stand and did not find any major injuries or sense any major pain. My bike seat had twisted clockwise, but otherwise I didn’t find any damage to the bike right away. The driver of a pickup truck stopped next to me at the curb and asked if I was alright and said he saw the incident. I said yes and thanked him for stopping, and he departed. Since I was uninjured and a little angry, I was tempted to just head home, but sense got the better of me.
I decided to talk to the driver, who had exited her vehicle and started talking to me from across the street. I waited for a pedestrian signal and walked my bike back across 35th. She apologized and I explained I thankfully had no injuries. She said she did not see me. I told her I did not see a turn signal, otherwise I would have slowed to allow her car to turn ahead of me. I requested her insurance information and she provided this and we also exchanged phone numbers. I took a picture of the license plate. She mentioned how surprised she was at how nice I was being, and I said this was a lesson for being more careful in the future. We parted ways. I took a few pictures of the location and then biked home.
At home I further assessed my leg, not finding any cuts, bruises, or other obvious signs of injury. My wife got home 30 minutes later and together we decided I did not need professional medical attention (urgent care). I then tried to file a non-emergency police report online with the Seattle Police Department. Apparently you cannot do so, even for minor collisions. So I called the Seattle non-emergency number and I waited 25 minutes before someone finally answered, and they texted me a link that leads to reporting through the Washington State Patrol. I submitted details there and instantly got a PDF copy of what I entered.
I am extremely fortunate that a very small, sanely-sized vehicle was involved here. The car was so small that the rightside mirror was at my leg level and I smashed it off with my thigh, and my pedal left a good streak in the door. Amazingly, I stayed upright on my bike through the incident. It probably helped that I was riding a heavy e-bike with a beefy frame and wide tires.
I hate to wonder what would have happened if it had been a freight vehicle or even today’s common pickup truck or SUV, which are increasing in size to ridiculous and unsafe dimensions and are scientifically documented to be greater risks to people walking and biking. A taller vehicle would have quite likely pushed me off the bike entirely, risking a head injury even with my helmet. And in a larger vehicle the driver may not have noticed the collision as quickly (or at all), and I could been run over by the rear wheels as they rounded the corner. That type of car-bike collision has happened time after time in Seattle and other cities and it frequently results in death.
As an urban planner and transportation safety advocate I have a duty to document the incident so that others may learn from it, including the people who have the greatest power to prevent this from happening to anyone else: the employees and leaders at the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT).
Fixing the Intersection
First, history. I reviewed the SDOT collision data for this intersection. It goes back to 2004, showing a total of 107 incidents through October 2022. Three of those were car-bike collisions, and two of those involved minor injuries. The data shows no serious injury or fatality collisions at the intersection.
This is an average of six collisions per year and they mostly involved car-on-car incidents, which doesn’t seem that much, but anything more than zero is unacceptable, especially when vulnerable street users are involved. Six of the 107 collisions resulted in injuries to people walking. Since 2004, the area has become more populated with new apartment buildings built around the intersection.
Note that SDOT’s data may not be complete. If a police investigation is not involved, it’s up to someone in the collision or a witness to voluntarily file a non-emergency report – just like I did. This level of effort and altruism seems unlikely for the vast majority of people involved in minor incidents.
According to Google Streetview historical images, this block of Avalon had a paint-only bike lane installed sometime around 2011-2014, at which time the roadway was narrowed from five car lanes to four. The bike lane was upgraded in summer 2020, as part of the 35th/Avalon repaving project, in which it was separated with paint and plastic lane posts and the vehicle lanes were narrowed.
Next, physical observations. The current bike facility is still not truly a “protected” bike lane; with stripes and sticks, there is nothing to stop errant drivers from crossing into the bike lane at any point. This particular block is also challenged on both sides by driveways, including that for the Starbucks drive-through which often sees drivers backing up into the roadway in the mornings (stop drinking that anti-union sludge and visit a local coffee shop, people!). And the drive-through for The Habit burger joint (previously a KFC) spits out cars just inches from the Avalon/35th intersection, a very unusual and unsafe design that engenders wonder at how the plans for that site were approved.
I live down the hill and use this intersection in all modes. I’m mostly biking, sometimes driving or riding the bus, and occasionally walking. Generally, it works fine. Sometimes the traffic light timing is frustrating since it seems to prioritize north-south drivers on 35th who are racing to and from the West Seattle Bridge, but until today I had not really felt unsafe while riding a bike or walking. The corners have good visibility and it’s not especially busy during most of the day. The upgraded bike lanes have been part of the reason I bike more because they give a nice separation from traffic and make me feel safer, even if they aren’t perfect.
I see several options for improving safety here:
1. Revise signage and signals to remind drivers of the presence of a bike lane and to be more cautious. This could include a flashing right-turn yellow arrow and the addition of a yield sign (better yet, do this at every unprotected bike lane intersection in Seattle).
2. Make the bike lanes here truly protected with concrete curbs, enhancing the bike’s visibility and separation. This could include some kind of small island or nose at the crosswalk, shortening the turning radius and encouraging drivers to turn slowly. Concrete is expensive and costs need to be prioritized, so we can start with roughly the two blocks here on either side of 35th. The rest of the Avalon bike lanes down to Spokane Street work fine with buffers from moving traffic offered by parked cars and a bus lane (though some of the other intersections there can be hairy when biking downhill).
3. Add a protected signal phase for bikes. This stops turning traffic (with no turns on red lights) while letting people on bikes proceed with less worry about moving cars. This is standard practice on Seattle’s marquee and busy downtown bike lanes like 2nd Avenue and 4th Avenue, but the feature hasn’t made its way into most of the outlying neighborhoods. However, this method does usually require a turn-only lane to be present for cars, and currently the Avalon/35th location uses a combined lane that allows cars to move both straight and turn right. There is also a dedicated left-turn lane in both directions.
Making an eastbound lane right-turn only would probably require taking away one of the two westbound car lanes, but this could provide the opportunity to mirror the protected signal phase on the other side of the intersection too. Plus, there is really no benefit to having two westbound car lanes. Avalon has one westbound car lane for its entire length except for a 460-feet stretch through this area. A concept for how to configure this is shown below.
Of course, driver distractions or lack of proper precautions (like looking in your mirror and flicking on the turn signal) are always a risk regardless of the type of infrastructure. It reminds me of the idea to retest young and middle-aged drivers at least every 10 years (and perhaps seniors should be retested every five years to check for physical abilities). This would help to keep drivers updated on changes in law and infrastructure design; when I went through drivers’ education around 2006-2007, I don’t recall a single mention of how to interact with bike lanes, and since that time many Washington cities have added them. In any case, the point is that safe bike infrastructure adds more chances for reducing the chances and severity of collisions amid inevitable human mistakes.
Fixing Other West Seattle Streets
Most of 35th Avenue SW also desperately needs a traffic calming project, like was done on its south end at the city limits several years ago. SDOT (and previous mayor Jenny Durkan) had the opportunity to do this, but in 2018 they cancelled the project’s second phase apparently due to political machinations, not due to any technical or fiscal constraints that I have been able to find.
While we’re on the subject of West Seattle biking, I am also of the opinion that all of Alaska Street between 35th and California needs to replace the bus lanes with protected bike lanes. I drive that stretch and ride buses through here often enough to say that traffic never backs up enough to delay buses. The bus lanes are frankly unjustified and give drivers the opportunities of a speedway with all of the extra asphalt available. It is a popular and designated bike route through the heart of the Alaska Junction commercial district, and yet people are also forced into a lot of unsafe maneuvers. The lack of left-turn lanes and marked crosswalks are a key problem, particularly for the few blocks between Fauntleroy and California (pictured below).
And heck, if we’re dreaming, Fauntleroy Way south of Alaska Street has no business being a stroad with six car lanes (four for moving and two for parking). With only around 16,000 vehicles per weekday (pre-pandemic and probably less now), traffic volumes are not enough to justify this number of lanes. The sad southbound bike lane in that stretch is basically useless and I choose to ride in in the adjacent vehicle lane to avoid risk of car doors opening. There is plenty of space to add protected bike lanes in both directions here, especially since this is a particularly busy couple of blocks with hundreds of new apartments and a dozen ground-floor commercial businesses. Fauntleroy already narrows to a more reasonable configuration immediately south at Edmunds Street.
Hopefully, some of these ideas will be implemented before light rail arrives in West Seattle which will attract even more people to walking and biking on these streets.
Since the collision that inspired this post I’ve already biked through the intersection again. In fact, in the latest trip a right-turning driver used their turn signal and very patiently waited for me to pass after a little of the one-two Seattle awkwardness (you may go, no you go, please I insist, alrighty then). I’ll certainly be more careful at this particular location and all other intersections in the future as I bike around Seattle.
More importantly, I hope the City leadership continues to use this kind of feedback to refine and upgrade bike and pedestrian infrastructure throughout the city. There is no lack of funding for this work – tens of millions of dollars are spent on automobile-centric streets and highway projects in this city every year. And there is no lack of technical understanding of the best practices in street design; we need to look no further than Seattle’s other top bike corridors and NACTO’s Urban Street Design Guide and Urban Bikeway Design Guide, which encourage the types of techniques I have listed above.
With that, I’ll sign off with some quick tips and lessons learned from this incident. Wishing you safe and happy biking and other travels on all modes of transportation.
Traffic Collision Tips
- Be the better human (assuming you’re conscious and not laying on the pavement). By staying calm and collected, I was able to collect necessary information and constructively engage with the driver. Getting mad only escalates the situation.
- Accept help from witnesses – at the very least, ask for their contact information. I wish I had done this with the pickup truck driver.
- Take pictures of everything – vehicles, the scene, license plates, insurance card, and drivers license info (the latter I forgot).
- Avoid calling 911 if there is no serious injury or no obstructions to traffic – and keep in mind the police may not show up for a long time anyway. Save the Seattle non-emergency number in your phone for easy use to report incidents later: (206) 625-5011.
- Ride your bike defensively. Assume every car approaching an intersection is going to turn in front of you, whether they are using signals or not. And assume cars will make other unpredictable and dangerous moves, like pulling out of driveways or stopping suddenly. Make your own intentions clear with hand signals.
- Keep your bike well-maintained for Seattle’s slick and bumpy streets. That means strong brakes, full tires, and good lights.
- Wear a helmet when riding anywhere near cars, even with helmets no longer being a legal requirement in Seattle.
More good resources and bike news is always at Seattle Bike Blog, The Urbanist, Seattle Neighborhood Greenways, and Cascade Bicycle Club.