Though the 41-year-old cyclist who was killed in Toronto on Monday has not been publicly identified, his death, on a seemingly cycling-friendly street, highlights one of the most common dangers to the urban cyclist, say advocates, and raises questions about who is liable when rubber meets rail.
Police say the man was travelling southbound on Wychwood Avenue around 5:30 p.m., when his tire became lodged in a stretch of unused streetcar track. Remnants of a southbound streetcar lane run for around 200 metres in the southbound lane; the northbound stretch is slightly longer.
The man was not wearing a helmet, and police say he was carrying a bag of food on his handlebars.
In American and Canadian cities, similar incidents have sparked litigation against municipalities. Seattle lawyer Bob Anderton represented six cyclists who had been injured after falling along the city’s South Lake Union Streetcar line.
In a complaint submitted in Washington State Superior Court in 2010, Mr. Anderton argued that the city had breached its duty to keep streets safe, by failing to provide adequate warnings for a streetcar route that it had acknowledged posed a danger to cyclists.
“We spent all this money to create a danger knowingly,” Mr. Anderton said.
A judge recently dismissed Mr. Anderton’s case, but others have been more successful, including two Montreal cases.
Marnie Scanlan, a 33-year-old personal trainer was thrown more than two car lengths from her bike in 2003 after hitting an indentation in the road. She broke her shoulder and tore her rotator cuff, requiring several surgeries.
The City of Montreal argued that cyclists were responsible for avoiding potholes, but testimony revealed that the indentation was not easily visible. Ms. Scanlan was awarded $113,193.10.
Four years later, Juliet Wilson Davies crashed her bike after her wheel became trapped in the grates of a drain in a small viaduct. She suffered multiple injuries to her face, wrist and hand, and a skull fracture left her paralyzed.
Again, the City of Montreal argued that the responsibility for spotting hazards lay with the cyclist. But after testimony showed that the grates covered the width of the road, Ms. Davies was awarded $868,820. Her husband and daughter were awarded $10,000.
But Alf Kwinter, a personal injury lawyer in Toronto, argues that any litigation against the City of Toronto for stray streetcar tracks would be an uphill battle.
Mr. Kwinter said a successful suit would require three things: proof of high bicycle traffic on the stretch of street in question, examples of previous accidents, and evidence “that these tracks have no business being there.”
And the ubiquity of streetcar tracks in Toronto would complicate matters.
“The problem is that there are tracks all over the city that are being used,” Mr. Kwinter said. “Why don’t used tracks constitute a danger as well? It’d be a tough case.”
Mr. Kwinter cited the small gap between subway cars and platforms as a similar quandary. They might be dangerous to passengers, but building a successful legal case around a piece of necessary infrastructure is difficult.
For cycling advocates, the short-term remedy to a common danger for cyclists is a mixture of education and infrastructural changes.
“It’s just so easy to blame the cyclist, especially in this situation,” said Geoffrey Bercarich, an active volunteer in the Toronto cycling community.
Some basic tips, Mr. Bercarich said, can mean cyclists won’t have to make the decision he faced when tracks at Queen and Spadina snagged his tire about four years ago: “It was either my face or my shoulder,” he recalled.
Mr. Bercarich opted to break his fall with the latter, and suffered a dislocated shoulder.
More caution on the road from both cyclists and drivers is necessary too, which is why Mr. Bercarich, along with the group Advocacy for Respect for Cyclists, marks the scenes of fatal cycling accidents with a ghost bike – an unrideable bicycle painted white, which serves as a makeshift memorial and beacon to other cyclists on the road.
“The loss could be any one of us,” Mr. Bercarich says. “Helmet or no helmet, bell or no bell, light or no light.”
Cycle Toronto, an advocacy group that has recently worked to prevent the removal of the Jarvis Street bike lanes, issued a statement on Monday calling for “a comprehensive study of the safety hazards posed to cyclists by streetcar tracks.”
Jared Kolb, director of campaigns and membership for Cycle Toronto, said that most cyclists-- or at least someone they know -- have fallen on streetcar tracks before.
“We’ve got to do some measurement here to understand the scope of the problem,” Mr. Kolb said in an interview.
Daniel Egan, manger of Cycling Infrastructure and Programs, said in an e-mail that a city study of bicycle-motor vehicle collisions in 1997 and 1998 did not find streetcar tracks to be a significant factor.
Mr. Egan added that bicycle collisions are not reportable unless a motor vehicle is involved.
“We don’t have a way to track collisions that are not reported,” Mr. Egan said.
Mr. Egan argued that tracking non-reported bicycle crashes would require surveying cyclists who attend emergency rooms with bicycle-related injuries.
TTC spokesperson Brad Ross said the tracks on Wychwood would only be removed if the city undertook major construction on the road. Mr. Ross said the TTC maintains unused tracks in a state of good repair so that they stay flush with the roadway.
Mr. Bercarich said a memorial ride is scheduled for August 13 and that a ghost bike would be locked at Wychwood and St. Clair avenues.
With files from Andre Picard