Pittsburgh as a Biking City

I have long held that Pittsburgh got a bad rap when it came to the bicycling conditions here. Sure, the only bike lane that existed before this summer was a pointless journey between two areas of the city that surely no one used on their regular commutes. And sure, many a car horn was sounded off loud and all too clear, signaling the acute lack of respect that motorists have for those of us using our own power to get around. But it’s all part of the game right? Dodge a car door here, blow through a red light there, you give and you get.

I firmly believed, though, that the best way to win this city over was to show courteous respect toward the rest of the people on the road (read:cars.) I would do my best to get out of the way of cars, when it was possible. Hand signals, respecting traffic laws, making your intentions clear and not weaving in and out of traffic willy-nilly; stick with the karma rule.

Then, I spent the last several weeks living and riding through various cities like Portland OR and Boulder CO. Cities where not only are bike lanes and racks prevalent, but the general “on the road” culture there is that bicycles not only belong, but are every bit as equal to cars. No one would cut me off in a fit of desperate frantic racing to the next stop light. At a four way stop, cars showed you the same turn-based system that they shared with each other. When I needed to park my bike, it wasn’t a longer walk than it would have been to just leave my bike at home in the first place. And the buses, each and every bus, light rail and trolley was equipped with at least 2 bike racks.

Today I returned to Pittsburgh, my beloved homeland, where I attended college, married my wife, where my son was born. I dropped off the Uhaul, grabbed my bike out of the back of it, and began peddling home. Within five minutes I had nearly been hit by a car speeding around a corner in a 35mph zone, watched as two others behind him swerved ridiculously drastically around me, and was honked at as I attempted to take a lane so that I could get off of the sidewalk, which was in such desperate disrepair that I couldn’t ride even my 700c wheels over it, the cracks and depressions were so deep. By the time I got home, I was disgusted. I wanted to write this post right then, but I figured the amount of expletives involved would have done too much harm to allow anyone to take this post seriously. So I waited.

An hour later, I’m not sure who I was disgusted at. The motorists? Sure, many of them are complete jerks, cowards hiding behind a few tons of steel, screaming at you and playing deadly games of chicken that all too often end in real consequences; sadly, most often more real for the cyclist than the driver. But can you blame them entirely? I mean, they grew up in this culture where bicycles are meant for the sidewalk or maybe a park somewhere, out of the way. So who then? Is it cyclists? I watched three young kids dart into the street, no regard for their own lives or the danger they’re putting others in. And all too often I’ve seen rebel messengers or just high horse bikers ignore red lights, hopping on and off of curbs, riding between cars, generally being dangerously annoying to those around them. But for every one of them are five or so cyclists out there wearing helmets, stopping in line with cars at red lights, and being good cycling citizens.

The only answer I could find myself definitely at was, as cliche as it may sound, the government. Not just the current Mayor and Co., but every facet of government going back into the 70’s and beyond. A city of our size, particularly a city of our size in 1975, should have figured out bike lanes a long time ago. Whatever it takes, eliminate some streetside parking spaces and build a centralized parking lot (God knows the people of America could use a few blocks of walking every day) which would free up those spaces for us to ride. And the more bike lanes, obviously, the more cyclists will feel comfortable. There is a fear out there, today, that it’s just not safe to ride in these streets. While I don’t believe it personally, the fact is that it’s probably true.

In these other cities, and not just meccas for hippy two wheelsters like Portland, but in the majority of the places I’ve visited, midwest cities that we East Coasters often think of as being backwards and full of rednecks &em; St. Louis, Kansas City, Nebraska towns with populations of 2000 or less &em; are all sporting bike lanes.

Even more basic than bikes, the status of our pedestrian system here in Pittsburgh is ridiculous. When I first arrived in Portland I thought it a little bit of overkill when I saw the zebra stripes painted to mark the crosswalks, with a flashing yellow sign sporting a ped X crossing symbol hanging above and to the sides, along with cones in the middle of the street proclaiming “It’s a state law to stop for pedestrians.” I laughed until I realized how seriously they take the right-of-way of foot traffic over cars. After a few days I got completely used to that lifestyle.

Imagine, non-motorists of Pittsburgh, if you could feel welcomed on your bike by hopping into a clearly marked lane and ride from Oakland to Southside, swing through Downtown and come back up through the Strip without ever having to contend with being forced into the door zone or pushed up onto a sidewalk. Sidewalks which often don’t exist, or are so busted up that even pedestrians are getting tripped up over them. Imagine if you could be sitting downtown after a long ride around the North Shore and easily strap your bike onto a bus that would take you up into the South Hills. Or if, as a pedestrian, you could possibly manage to cross a busy street without having to wait until rush hour let out and all of the cars died out.

This is, I understand, a utopia. In a city where hockey is more valued than public transportation, how can we lowly bicyclists ever hope to be taken seriously?

Today changed my vision of what my duty is in the Pittsburgh cycling community. It is not simply to “do my part and let the world sort out there’s”, a philosophy I generally hold true to everything I do. I don’t typically feel that preaching is an obligation of mine, and I, quite frankly, could do with a little less of it being directed at me. But what recourse do we take? Do we wait and hope that fine organizations like Bike Pittsburgh or the city’s promised-but-as-of-yet-has-it-been-delivered? Bicycle Coordinator will sway the people on there own? Do we stay out of the way of cars and show them that kindness and endless tolerance is such a virtue of ours that they should find it in their own hearts to show us a little compassion out there? Or should we rebel in the streets, haughty and arrogant as any rush hour fiend trying to fight for inches, and make cyclists so annoying, so interwoven into the realities of Pittsburgh’s horrid road system, that the voice of the masses will rise up and demand from our government they do something about it?

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