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.
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.”