Sewer grates across city dangerous to cyclists

Sunday, October 17, 2010 at 10:45pm

On June 6, 2006, Noami Halsey McClure left the downtown public library, hopped on her Trek hybrid bicycle and began pedaling westward on newly renovated Church Street.

The ride was smooth for the first few blocks. As she approached Ninth Avenue North, there didn’t appear to be anything in view that would obstruct the trip.

Then McClure encountered a stormwater grate with openings parallel to the street. During Church Street’s rehabilitation project, workers replaced grates with bike-friendly versions, whose openings are perpendicular to the street. At Ninth Avenue the renovation project stopped, but McClure didn’t know it.

Traveling on the right shoulder of the street to avoid traffic, McClure’s front tire unexpectedly dropped into one of the grate’s openings. She immediately flipped head first over her handlebars. McClure’s mouth, face, chest and stomach struck the pavement of Church Street.

McClure sustained severe injuries, including a lacerated liver, an infarcted spleen, traumatic pancreatitis and abrasions on her left arm, upper lip and left knee, according to a lawsuit she filed against Metro. Recognizing that the city was at fault, the Metro Council in February 2008 agreed to award McClure a $130,000 settlement.

“Given that parallel grates are a known hazard, and that Ms. McClure had ridden across at least two perpendicular grates before hitting the parallel grate, it is likely that a jury would assess a portion of the fault against the Metropolitan government,” council attorney Jon Cooper opined at the time.

More accidents

Four years after McClure’s accident, replacing tire-eating stormwater grates with bike-friendly versions is part of Metro’s reinvigorated effort to make the city more accessible to cyclists.

Metro Water is creating a database of unfriendly grates, an evaluation that for the time being is concentrated only downtown. The database is 70 percent complete. The water department is coordinating with Metro Public Works to carry out a new citywide policy whereby bike-friendly stormwater grates are standard for all forthcoming street and repaving projects.

But to date, the transition isn’t happening fast enough to prevent all accidents. Replacing hazardous grates with the perpendicular variety is occurring piecemeal — either in response to an accident, a complaint from a cyclist or during a larger road project. Accordingly, hazardous stormwater grates still exist, cyclists are still having accidents, and presumably, the city could be vulnerable to future lawsuits.

Last month, 28-year-old Cory Duclos, a Vanderbilt University graduate student, was riding his bicycle to school on Wedgewood Avenue near 12th Avenue when he ran into a parallel grate.

“My tire got stuck right in there,” Duclos recalled. “I just flipped over. I think I mostly went onto the grass. I banged my eye up pretty good though, so there’s a big cut over my eye. A couple of people stopped to help. One guy ended up taking me first to the student health center, and then from there they took me over to the ER.”

Duclos said he also sustained some scrapes on his shoulders. Informed about the previous suit against Metro, Duclos said he would look into legal options to help pay for his medical expenses. He still hasn’t received his medical bill.

Responding to an email sent by Duclos, Metro promptly replaced the storm grate that caused his accident. Still, Duclos said he’s noticed the parallel stormwater grates elsewhere, especially in the city’s inner core, where infrastructure is the oldest.

“Cycling in the downtown area is always kind of scary anyway,” Duclos said. “To have those there, it kind of adds an extra difficulty in getting around the city. The hope would be that there wouldn’t be anything like that. I’ll admit that I should be watching for [the grates]. It’s definitely something I’ll keep my eye out for more than I did in the past.”

Replacement is slow

John Kennedy, deputy director of Metro Water, said before the city gets to the point of being able to “systemically go through and replace” the grates, his department must finish the inventory study, which is still 30 percent from completion.

“One of the things we’re up against is that we really didn’t have a good systematic inventory of these grates,” Kennedy said. “We know where most of these grates are, but we didn’t know how old they are or how they were oriented in the roadway. … We started documenting grates in the downtown Nashville area, trying to get a handle on how many are bike-friendly, how many are unfriendly.”

Given the thousands of stormwater grates found throughout Davidson County, Kennedy said it would be speculative to say how many pose hazards to bicyclists. “I would say just in general terms, there’s probably more unfriendly than there are friendly,” adding that until recently the city had no uniform standard for stormwater grates.

Kennedy said the cost to replace grates varies. Asked if Metro plans to begin a wholesale replacement of grates after the database is complete, Kennedy said he would like to move in that direction, but the city must be strategic about it.

“We estimated that if we just said, ‘OK, we’re going to bite the bullet and start replacing all of these, and we’re not going to stop until we’re done,’ then we’d be looking at millions of dollars in costs,” Kennedy said. “We’re trying to approach it systematically and where we can get the biggest bang for the buck.”

More than previous mayors, Dean has made transforming Nashville into a more bike-able city a priority, even creating a new bicycle and pedestrian coordinator position in his office to lead the way. Dean recently launched a new bike-share program and set aside $3 million for new bikeways in his capital-spending plan.

Metro Councilman Jason Holleman, who’s heard the stormwater grate issue raised by cyclists, said he would prefer the city to tackle it more aggressively, but he recognizes cost must be considered.

“If we’re going to get serious about being a city that is friendly to bicyclists and pedestrians, it’s an infrastructure issue we’re going to have to address,” Holleman said.

“Obviously, there’s limited resources in Metro government, but I do think we need to look for ways to accelerate how we address this problem,” he added. “I’d certainly rather spend money on grates and not on personal injury lawsuits.”

16 Comments on this post:

By: xhexx on 10/18/10 at 6:57

As a motorcyclist and bicyclist, you have to look at the road surface in front of you. These lawsuits are ridiculous.

By: budlight on 10/18/10 at 7:29

What came first? The sewer grate or the dumb butt on the cycle? Even people WALKING have to be aware of glitches in the side walk and the curb. I agee with xhexx - lawsuits are ridiculous. Get a car, some wider vision or riide the damn bus, but if you do, be careful, they have steps!

By: HokeyPokey on 10/18/10 at 7:36

Hear that you darn bicycle crazies?

Git Bigger Bootstraps!!!

By: Ex Civil on 10/18/10 at 7:37

Come on Mayor Dean
Waiting until the storm drain inlet grate inventory is completed before starting a comprehensive replacement program for those grates with slotted opening parallel to the flow of traffic??? How many more people have to be injured before you tell Public Works to get on with it? They do not need a complete inventory to begin a SAFETY program, if you know of the existence of a hazard it is irresponsible to wait on corrective action, 70% complete is surly sufficient information to begin corrective measure, i.e. replacing on conforming grates!! Please tell Public Works to get on with it, failure to act on a know safety issue is criminal. Remind the Public Works officials that criminal acts result in prison time.

By: JeffF on 10/18/10 at 9:06

"an evaluation that for the time being is concentrated only downtown."

Yep, that statement pretty much sums up the official policy of all Metro government agencies, departments, and offices. This is a top-down policy beginning with Dean's infatuation with an area with few actual voters.

By: budlight on 10/18/10 at 9:46

Ex Civil; let the bike riders get real; they don't obey traffic laws; they dare you to hit them and the city needs sidewallks in other areas BEFORE they clamour to acccommodate 1/10 of less than 1% of taxpayers. Bike riders need to ride the bus; it's safer. And they don't stink as much when they get to work, do they?

By: no428 on 10/18/10 at 4:56

As the "dumb butt" on the cycle I feel compelled to respond, though there is likely no point as most of the people who seem to have written here seem to have their limited views set in stone.
I do not violate laws when I ride my bicycle -- that is precisely WHY I was injured -- I was riding in the bicycle lane, not on the sidewalk, at a very low rate of speed and was looking in front of me at the road when the incident occurred. There was no other place for me to go other than in front of traffic or on the sidewalk and I was stopping for a stoplight. I saw the grate before I hit it but could not avoid it.
The two years I rode my bicycle in Nashville were worse than most other cities I've lived in, including larger cities on both coasts. The lack of bicycle lanes, LARGE parallel grates in the supposed "bike lane" and constant harassment from drivers who feel compelled to scream obscenities at me (the law abiding, helmet wearing, light and reflector using cyclist) for being on a bike instead of driving mad it a difficult choice to get on my bike each day. But I believed (and still do) that by not driving when it isn't necessary I can get places quickly, not add to pollution, not take up YOUR parking spot or increase traffic on YOUR commute as well as get a bit of exercise and enjoy some weather on the way.
I am a contributing member of society, not to mention a tax payer, and in general I abhor the idea of lawsuits. I do not condone ridiculous suits for people doing stupid things and wanting someone to pay; I hate the fact that I felt compelled to bring a suit against the city of Nashville, which could certainly spend the money in other ways. I started the process by contacting the city and trying to alert them to the danger posed to law-abiding, tax-paying normal people who prefer to commute or travel by bike. Unfortunately, the city of Nashville had the same attitude that most of you seem to -- if you think there is a problem with riding a bike in Nashville then you should just buy a car. The public transportation system in greater Nashville was abysmal at the time, so that was not really an option. It is appalling to me that the city would rather wait for more people to get injured (and possibly sue) instead of working on the problem and trying to make it a more pedestrian, public-transportation and bicycle oriented city.
Nashville has many fine attributes, but my tax dollars are now going elsewhere.

And thus concludes my rant.

By: billalia on 10/18/10 at 5:50

Since at least 2008 Metro Nashville government has recognized that parallel grates are a known hazard, yet the city's deputy director of Metro water said in the article that the Metro Water Department must finish an inventory study before the city systematically replaces the grates. Really?
If you had banana peels on the floor throughout your home, would you inventory each one before picking them up?
After the May floods, Metro government removed most of the debris -- another known hazard -- in a few months. Yet the very real and costly danger of parallel grates continues to persist.
Metro councilman Jason Holleman had it right when he said in the article that he'd rather spend money on grates and not personal injury lawsuits. It's time to replace the parallel grates, and not just those in downtown. They can be inventoried after they are removed from the streets.

By: Kosh III on 10/19/10 at 6:27

"Metro Water is creating a database of unfriendly grates, an evaluation that for the time being is concentrated only downtown."

A low percentage of bike riders are downtown, but of course Dean doesn't recognize anything beyond downtown as being important.

Start the replacement NOW. Citywide--that means downtown, Madison, The Nations, Inglewood, Hermitage, Bordeaux etc etc

By: HokeyPokey on 10/20/10 at 6:29

Thanks for your side of the story, DB.

Sadly all the cock-sure, strutting, manly conservatives seem to have been scared shirtless by your sudden appearance and have skittered off to the boys-only clubhouse to grouse and grumble about the gummint, free-loaders, unjust courts and commies on bicycles, two-by-two.

But don't worry, they'll come back. They always do.


By: kgbean on 10/20/10 at 9:38

Bicyclists face a variety of hazards around Nashville. There will always be the risk of potholes, cracks, debris, railroad tracks and misaligned grates. Ride defensively by taking your fair share of the road, giving you room to maneuver and make cars pass you safely - don't ride over in the gutter or on the white line where there is no shoulder. Use lights bright enough for you to see hazards - not just a tiny blinkie.
In comparison, I have friends that ride in big northern cities like Chicago and New York where maintenance crews can't keep up with freeze thaw damage. Cyclists have to ride very defensively to avoid "bottomless" potholes and deep wide cracks.
I'm going a little soft on my opinion of how much of the limited bike/ped/city resources should go towards fixing this problem. Types of grates that the city should definitely fix are grates in bike lanes, grates that are out in the safe travel area for bicyclists (either a safe shoulder or where the car's right tire rolls.)
Mayor Dean's office is working very hard to make Nashville more walking and biking friendly. Keep showing support, keep up the political will. Ride safe, ride often.

By: localboy on 10/20/10 at 10:18

no428...sounds like you moved. How are things where you live now?

By: dangerlover on 10/20/10 at 4:33

"Bike riders need to ride the bus."

Seriously? I mean, are you seriously serious?

By: Loretta Bridge on 10/21/10 at 9:43

Just another way for our POLITICIANS to waste our money. What is the percentage of people that ride bikes compared to cars and buses. Is the percentage high enough that our tax money needs to spent on this?

By: dangerlover on 10/21/10 at 12:56

Yeah! Stupid POLITICIANS. Always wasting our MONEY on STUFF. I don't know what the percentage is, or what percentage even MEANS but I'm still MAD. Stupid BIKE riders. Ugh! I'm so mad!

By: HokeyPokey on 10/22/10 at 5:38

YEAH! How do they ride them bicycles wearing Full Muslim Garb anyway?