Pittsburgh: Wheels in Motion – Bikes, Cars and People

NOTE: This is the third in a series of posts about Pittsburgh.

Pittsburgh is an amazingly unique city. But as I mentioned in my first post, I also think that it is an interesting mean when we look at various issues in planning, city life, and transit.

And one issue that Pittsburgh’s been grappling with in a big way is the expansion of bicyclists and pedestrians in the city.

pittsburgh copyWith the long-standing pedestrian/bicyclist populations in the near North Side (now the “North Shore”) and South Side now joined by bikers across the city – especially in easily accessible areas in the near East End like Lawrenceville – there are more bikes on the road, and more people walking to work.

Younger people who are staying in the city – as well as new transplants – are partly attracted by Pittsburgh’s low cost of living. And with mass transit teetering on a crumbling fiscal cliff, many folks are investigating bikes and walking as alternatives.

But this expansion of alternative transit modes has resulted in conflict in a city and a region that has been primarily car-driven for decades. And that conflict has already played out in big and small ways across the city – ending, in some cases, in tragedy.

  • In 2010, a mother jogging with her two young children, ages 3 and 1, was killed at a busy intersection in Pittsburgh’s Mt. Lebanon neighborhood. While there were other contributing factors in the crash (the driver was under the influence), the sidewalks in the community, which were previously known for ease of accessibility and safety, have seen conflict with an ever-increasing number of drivers.
  • Several bicyclists were severely injured or killed in the last year when they were struck by automobiles, and many of those accidents were hit-and-run. One such accident that claimed the life of a 46-year-old Homewood bicyclist happened in July 2012, only weeks after another hit-and-run nearly killed a 23-year old Larimer bicyclist. A few weeks later, a retired University of Pittsburgh professor was also struck while on his bike in a hit-and-run (that driver was found and is facing charges for leaving the scene).
  • And in perhaps the most vivid sign of conflict, a bicyclist was stabbed by a driver in September in what appears to be an incident of road rage.

While cars are still a dominant mode of transportation, almost every city has had this debate about adding bicyclists and pedestrians into the vehicular mix. The topic gets a passionate response and a healthy case of finger pointing at “the other guy” – depending, of course, on your preferred mode of transportation.

I’m not interested in trying to tell you who’s to blame for these specific events. Accidents are accidents. Pittsburgh has some very challenging geography that makes all modes of travel more challenging.

There definitely needs to be a greater awareness that all driving in and around the city isn’t the same as highway driving. The fact that several major highways and parkways terminate in the Golden Triangle creates a situation where cars that had just been going 70 MPH are suddenly transitioned to slower city driving.

I worked in the Golden Triangle for years and this was always a huge issue: cars were barreling through the downtown corridor as if they were still on “highway” driving mode. That made it dangerous for bicyclists and pedestrians.

Roads are, with the efforts of the city and groups like BikePGH, becoming more bike-friendly.

But when you dig a little deeper, there are telling signs in the comment thread in the article about Colin Albright, the bicyclist that was stabbed, and in other articles. (An article about bike safety after two Pittsburgh bicyclists died has a discussion thread where the first comment is, “Get a car.”)

Granted, online discussion threads aren’t known for their eloquence and civility. People say some pretty insane things online. But I think the tone of these discussions is pretty telling.

These debates are a pretty vivid illustration of some of the conflicts happening around…well, around bikes and cars and transit. And around change, a process Pittsburgh is usually reluctant to embrace.

There’s the continuing conflicyt between Old Traditional Pittsburgh and 21st Century Pittsburgh. (“Why would you want to ride a bike? A car works just fine! We all drive cars! Any normal person would have a car! We’ve all had cars since your Pap bought his first LaSalle!”)

This is also to a large degree a “city vs. suburb” conflict (in the places it’s happening), since those constituencies see road use from a different perspective.

These events may have been specific to Pittsburgh, but it also speaks to the larger evolution of how we use city and regional roads.

In Chicago, my current hometown, there’s more significant support for bicyclists. There is significant designated space on Chicago’s streets for bikes. The major conflict here is pedestrians vs. cabbies (but that’s a whole other blog post).

There’s still some negative reactions from drivers to bicyclists and bikes in Chicago, but the sheer number of bicyclists here is a sizable – and vocal – constituency. And Mayor Rahm Emanuel has supported the expansion of bike-friendly lanes, significantly expanding the number of city streets with lanes or street markings for bicyclists.

There’s a significant coordination with CTA and Metra for bicyclists. I know people who use CTA or Metra trains and their bikes to commute from Wisconsin and Indiana.

And though the sheer number of cars and bikes in some areas of Chicago can still make bike safety a tricky balance, I’m glad that bike visibility and awareness has continued to trend up in Chicago. My partner bikes to work every day – even on the coldest winter day – and I’m always thinking about his safety during his commute.

As for Pittsburgh, it continues to evolve from its 20th century model, and just as the region is rethinking land use and river use, the ‘Burgh will also have to rethink the ways it uses its roads and city streets to best serve its citizens.

POSTSCRIPT: The roads may be a challenge for Pittsburgh bicyclists, but ironically, the region has an impressive network of regional bike paths, including a long-distance path that runs from the city all the way to Washington, D.C.

And there are several bike paths and walking paths near the city itself that groups, including Riverlife Pittsburgh, are working to implement.

ALSO: I wanted to look at this from a high-level perspective and think about how we look at sharing the roads in different cities; anyone who wants more information about how advocates in Pittsburgh are working to raise awareness about bike transit should check out BikePGH.

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