Having heard about some free food being given away at 20th and Pine Streets in Center City, Philadelphia, Madeleine Salvatore jumped on her bicycle and began heading north on S. 11th Street. It was a beautiful day out, she says, not a lot of traffic on the street, and as she approached the intersection of 11th and Fitzwater Streets, she knew the bike lane would soon dead end, so she began to merge over the old, unused trolley tracks into the motor vehicle lane.
“I guess I didn’t quite hit the right angle,” she says, “because my tire got caught in the tracks, the bike stopped dead, and I tumbled off to my left side, smashing my elbow and knee into the pavement.”
Embarrassed and disoriented, Salvatore limped to the sidewalk and sat down, noticing both of her left-side limbs barely worked. After 20 minutes on the sidewalk, a neighbor along 11th Street came outside, helped her up, and cleaned her wounds in his garage before driving Salvatore, and her bike, back home. She’d always heard that eating it on the 11th Street trolley tracks was a right of passage for Philly cyclists, so wasn’t really sure there was much else to do.
She’d soon post about her ordeal on Facebook, and a friend suggested she get in touch with Bicycle Lawyer Stuart Leon. A trial lawyer who works exclusively for bicyclists, Leon has seen his share of trolley track cases, especially along the former Route 23 trolley line, which still stretches between South and Northwest Philadelphia.
Over his career representing injured cyclists, Leon has worked for seven Route 23 trolley track victims; four were specifically injured on 11th Street.
“We consider the abandoned Route 23 rails to be one of the single most existential threats and dangers to the health and safety of bicycle commuters in Philadelphia,” says Leon. “They are a trap that many commuters and bicyclists must cross, often at least twice a day. Eventually they will crash you out, no matter how skilled a bicycle rider you are.”
Something had to be done. In addition to campaigns to get the trolley tracks covered up by advocacy organizations like the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, Leon began researching the issue from a legal perspective, for his clients.
Turns out, Pennsylvania courts had ruled SEPTA, who owns the rails, is immune from crashes caused just by rails—but, while working with an engineer, he was able to determine that the rails are a dangerous and defective condition that SEPTA is both legally responsible for, and aware of as a hazard.
Between 2017 and 2018, Leon sued SEPTA four times for crashes involving just the rails—including for Salvatore’s crash.
Things did not go swimmingly. At least not at first.
“We went to court on the first case. The law was against us, and we lost, but we got a split decision from the Arbitration panel—which means we got one vote in our favor,” says Leon. “We appealed the decision and continued our fights on all of the cases.”
At a later meeting with several SEPTA lawyers in charge of litigation, Leon discussed a resolution that would get his clients paid for the damages incurred, outside of court. And throughout the process, Leon had continued discussing doing away with the problem completely—by paving over the trolley tracks. Leon had actually hired an engineer to look at the tracks’ danger, and report it all back to SEPTA.
The City of Philadelphia had already begun paving over the unused tracks at intersections around the city for safety purposes; these dangerous tracks on 11th Street too, he said, should be paved over.
In Summer 2019, more than five years after Salvatore’s crash, the City of Philadelphia moved forward with a plan to re-engineer 11th Street, proving better sight lines for pedestrians crossing the street, a 2-way parking-protected bike lane, and paving over the trolley tracks, between Reed and Bainbridge.
Salvatore had been watching the project closely; after all, she hasn’t been on a bike since her 11th Street crash.
“I honestly cannot even express how heartening [the project] is. I have tons of friends who bike, and my brother is a veteran Philly bicyclist, and it will be great to worry just a little less about all of them,” says Salvatore. “Every year when it gets warm, I think it’s going to be the year I start biking again, until I am confronted with the reality that trolley tracks are still all over my neighborhood and I do not have the confidence to tango with them again. But … they covered up most of the ones on Passyunk Avenue where I live, and soon the ones on 11th will be gone, which would be my main passageway into center city.”
A lack of obstructions on 11th Street, with the 2-way protected bike lane, is a big win for cyclists across the city. And while the improvements have not yet been completed, at the time of this article, the city believes all protection for the bike lane, enforcement of illegal intersection parking, and new signage, will be installed within a few months.
“I say it every year, but, I actually—and I’m serious this time,” adds Salvatore, “think this might be the year I start biking again.”