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Originally published January 21, 2009 at 12:00 AM | Page modified January 26, 2009 at 4:20 PM

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December's snow remedy wreaking havoc on cyclists

One minute, Gary Prince was riding his bicycle to work along the University Avenue bridge. The next, he was looking groggily into the face...

Seattle Times consumer affairs reporter

One minute, Gary Prince was riding his bicycle to work along the University Avenue bridge. The next, he was looking groggily into the face of a motorist who had witnessed Prince keel over onto the road next to him

"I hit a patch of gravel, landed in the roadway and passed out," said Prince, 52, who remembers little else about the circumstances of the crash that broke his pelvis, and left elbow and wrist on Jan. 9.

Prince, an avid cyclist who commuted 18 miles a day, had crossed the bridge and entered the bicycle lane when he went down on one of the small sand berms that have formed on the sides of streets throughout the city.

A vestige of the city's efforts to provide traction on icy streets during December's snow storms, the sand has made navigating Seattle streets tricky — at times treacherous — for bicyclists.

David Hiller, advocacy director for the Cascade Bicycle Club, said he's heard from about a dozen riders who got hurt. "We know people who have been injured, and some of those injuries have been serious."

Instead of salting roads to melt ice — a practice the city deemed environmentally harmful — the city sprinkled more than 12,000 tons of sand along well-traveled streets throughout Seattle.

The city said it will clean up as much sand as possible to keep it from clogging up sewer drains and basins used for flood control.

The city had cleaned up about 6,000 tons as of Tuesday afternoon, according to Seattle Department of Transportation spokesman Richard Sheridan. SDOT's goal is to complete an initial pass on 1,531 miles of roadway by Thursday.

"The streets will not be completely free of sand, as that takes multiple runs over many weeks," Sheridan wrote in an e-mail.

Hiller said the pace of the cleanup has been frustrating and dangerous for many of the 2,400 people in Seattle who commute to work on their bikes.

"If the sand's deep, it's like hitting a patch of glue and ball bearings," Hiller said. "It slows down your forward progress and you slide."

Late Tuesday, the city called Hiller to hear his concerns. Following the conversation, Sheridan said the city would commit additional sweepers and crews to cleaning up bike lanes.

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The sand also has stripped away traffic and bike-lane markings on many roads, Hiller said. Some of the bicycle-lane markings were laid down as recently as six months ago, he said, and probably won't be repainted until the spring, creating additional hazards for cyclists.

"Any of our constituents out there should be able to safely travel on a public right of way," Hiller said.

Hiller and Prince — a senior-project manager for the King County Department of Transportation and a former Cascade board member — said that in the past the city has given priority to cleaning bike lanes after storms.

Seattle's bicycle-master plan calls for cycling lanes to be swept at least twice a year. Hiller said that, in practice, the city has cleared the lanes more frequently in an effort to help sustain and build ridership.

But staff turnover at the city's transportation department has called what seemed to be a policy into question, he said

The city is planning to revisit its bicycle-lane-sweeping schedule later this month, and to take up the issue when it evaluates changes to its snow-response practices.

Sheridan said the city performs "spot sweeping" of bike lanes located in areas not scheduled for street sweeping. Bicyclists also can call in trouble spots to 206-684-7623.

City crews also will be restriping lanes on major roads over the next few weeks as weather permits.

"SDOT crews are replacing only lane lines that were severely distressed following the recent spell of snow, and are giving priority to streets and bridges with the highest volume of traffic," the department said in a release.

Prince, frustrated at the pace of sand removal, went to a town meeting in West Seattle last week to meet face to face with Mayor Greg Nickels and Seattle Department of Transportation Director Grace Crunican.

"She said in the future, she would try to get special cleanup of the bike lanes," Prince said.

On Friday, Prince walked slowly around his house in Ravenna, and filled time making calls to the Department of Transportation in Portland, where he said sand removal from bike lanes is being done on a "call-us" basis. He also spent part of the day online, reading about the rides his friends will be taking over the weekend.

It could be weeks before Prince is back on his bicycle.

"I could use some good news right now."

Susan Kelleher: 206-464-2508 or skelleher@seattletimes.com

This article, published Jan. 21 and corrected Jan. 26, about dangerous conditions due to sand on city bike lanes incorrectly cited the meeting location as White Center. Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels and his transportation staff held an open house Jan. 15 at the Southwest Community Center in West Seattle to address the city's response to December's snow storms.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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