Pittsburgh Business Leaders See Bikeways as Cure for Road-Space Shortage

intersection treatment penn ave
Along Pittsburgh’s new downtown bike lane, all intersections are signalized, but cyclists won’t receive dedicated signal phases and most crossings are unmarked. People will need to be on the lookout for turning conflicts whether they’re on bikes or in cars. All renderings: City of Pittsburgh

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Michael Andersen blogs for The Green Lane Project, a PeopleForBikes program that helps U.S. cities build better bike lanes to create low-stress streets.

Downtown Pittsburgh has a perfectly good reason to be running out of room for more cars: Its streets have been there since 1784.

“In Pittsburgh, we have too many cars chasing too few parking spaces,” Merrill Stabile, the city’s largest parking operator, said last week. “I am in favor of building a few more parking garages. But we’ll never be able to build enough to meet the demand, in my opinion, if we continue to grow like we’ve been growing.”

That’s why Stabile is among the Pittsburgh business leaders backing a plan announced Tuesday to reduce downtown’s dependence on car traffic by adding a protected bike lane to Penn Avenue.

Jeremy Waldrup, CEO of the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership, said the protected lane, which will return Penn Avenue to one-way motor vehicle flow by removing an eastbound traffic lane, will make it comfortable for most people, not just the bold few, to bike downtown.

“One of the most important things is that we have as a city developed this incredible trail system, many of them leading to downtown,” Waldrup said. “But once you’ve made it to the borders of downtown, you’re literally on your own to get into the city.”

Penn Avenue’s new one-mile bike lane, installed as a pilot project over the next few weeks, is part of a wave of protected lane projects in American central business districts.

car view penn ave
How the bike lane will look from behind a windshield.

And it’s happening one of the country’s oldest downtowns: a triangular grid built for horses and carriages that by 1900 had become the 11th-largest city in the United States — and has spent the century since then trying to find room for cars.

“The Penn Avenue corridor that we’re looking at is kind of in the heart of our cultural district,” Waldrup said. “Tens of thousands of people come into this area for culture.”

Will Bernstein, who commutes daily into downtown Pittsburgh, agreed.

“You have the symphony, the opera more or less, you have a bunch of new restaurants,” he said. “Convenience stores and stuff. There’s actually a nice little park where they do concerts in the summers.”

penn ave map
The one-mile stretch may be extended westward in the next year.

Like Stabile and Waldrup, Bernstein thinks the Penn Avenue bike lane will make it easy for families and casual riders to get downtown by trail and then venture into the retail core for entertainment, food, and shopping.

“For people who mostly just ride on trails, if they’re riding the river trail and want to get into downtown from the point, Penn Avenue is kind of the natural route,” he said. “If people want to have lunch, there’s an ice cream shop, you know, stuff like that.”

Protected bike lanes are part of the next step in Pittsburgh’s recovery from rust-belt collapse, Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald said.

“We have a growing city after 25 years of managing decline,” Fitzgerald said. “We’re now trying to figure out how to manage growth in a concentrated downtown area in which cars just can’t handle the load anymore.”

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Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto and Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald.

Penn is one of three protected bike lanes announced this summer by Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, who joined Fitzgerald and others for a Green Lane Project study tour of Denmark in June to see how protected bike lanes and other low-stress bike infrastructure have helped Copenhagen grow without generating ever-increasing car traffic.

Another of the three projects, a quarter-mile trail link on Saline Street in the Oakland area, was striped last week and lined with vertical posts, becoming the city’s first protected lane. The third is just north of it, on Schenley Drive and Panther Hollow Road.

“On the East Coast, you know, we had cities that were built before the automobile and then we adapted them to be primarily used for the automobile,” Peduto said in an interview. “And now we’re in that next phase, and we’re trying to figure out how all modes of transportation can work in a system.”

You can follow The Green Lane Project on Twitter or Facebook or sign up for its weekly news digest about protected bike lanes.

  • Patrick Miner

    Never in my nearly 30 years have I been prouder to be a Pittsburgher!

  • Jeffrey Baker

    You guys have been doing a pretty good job of selling Pittsburgh this year.

  • Michael Andersen

    Pittsburgh’s been doing a pretty good job of selling itself!

  • Jeffrey Baker

    I should probably plan my visit for before the place freezes solid.

  • Pittsburgh, IMO, is awesome. It’s one of my favorite cities in the world. It’s a weird mix of Appalachia and rust belt, but a little east coast too.

  • Guest

    It’s a confluence of more than just rivers.

  • John C Miklos

    Now, if we could only get a cross-town cycletrack on Smithfield…

  • Justin

    If only San Francisco Business leaders saw it the same way as well, just imagine the difference it would make, but no they’re still stuck in status quo mentality

  • Mike Fenton

    How about an extension to the T that goes from the airport to downtown to Monroeville? That would make a huge difference in traffic.

  • User_1

    I’m sorry but I don’t see those plastic floppy things as “protection”. Maybe you can find a better classification of what you are trying to convey here?

    At least LB uses some flowerpots to fall under this “protected” umbrella. One good classification you guys to work towards is, will the driver suffer some kind of body damage to their cars if they stray out of their intended routes? Hitting the floppy things would hardly fall into this classification.

  • Kenny Easwaran

    Maybe these things won’t injure drivers, but they will certainly provide much greater visual protection, and most drivers are in the habit of trying to not to cause their car to go through solid objects.

    Apparently even empty cups will provide a great amount of protection for bicycles:

    http://brooklynspoke.com/2012/08/20/the-solo-cup-bike-lane/

  • User_1

    Oh I didn’t know the goal was to injure the drivers. Can I make my own design for protecting the bicyclist? I can guarantee it won’t be plastic floppy things or empty cups! Which btw I can achieve the exact same thing the person in your example did by using some cigarette butts and a bit of bubble gum!

    I will agree that the “protection” in the article here is “visual protection” but that does not fall under the “protected umbrella” as I’ve stated above. Personally there is no confidence that this “visual protection” would be of any help or having the desired affect of achieving much greater ridership. Does it have any affect? I would say yes, but it’s about like building a mountain road without guardrails!

  • Kenny Easwaran

    Ah, it looked like your criterion for “protection” was “will the driver suffer some kind of body damage to their cars if they stray out of their intended routes”. I think I missed the “to their cars” part.

    But still, protection for cyclists doesn’t need to cause damage to cars.

    And the article I posted earlier showed that even something as non-visible and visibly ineffective as empty cups was able to achieve greater safety. I would guess that it would also achieve greater ridership, though not as great on either front as these things.

    I’m sure we’d all be happy to see your proposed alternative designs, though it’s important to remember that price is one criterion for actual use, and in general there is likely to be a preference for protections that won’t actually cause damage to cars, even if it physically prevents them from entering the bike lane.

  • User_1

    Like it almost always is, looking back on what I wrote it looks like I missed a word or two on my message. It was suppose to read, “One good classification you guys could work towards is, will the driver
    suffer some kind of body damage to their cars if they stray out of their
    intended routes?”. And yes, I think having a deterrent such as the driver suffering auto damage to their cars is a BIG deterrent in getting everyone on the same page. After all they’ll suffer no damage if they follow the intended route and their day will be filled with happiness. It’s when they don’t follow intended routes, they have things coming down on them. Isn’t that how life works alot of times? I’d much rather have that penalty be running into a flower pot rather than me! How bout you?

    You mentioned cost in implementing changes. Can’t get much cheaper than installing flower pots! I’m betting it’s even cheaper than the plastic floppy things!

  • I remember riding all over Pittsburgh as a teenager in the 40’s on the great streetcars! For 12cents I could ride from Mt. Lebanon to Oakland, visit the museums, Pitt, etc. So glad the city is coming back since I have a soft spot for it.

  • John Morris

    @User_1 I don’t think you realize how narrow most downtown Pittsburgh streets are. A good case could be made for many bike and transit only streets.

  • John Morris

    Visit Pittsburgh, most of these streets don’t have space for traffic, bikes and a flower pot.

    The good news is that these lanes will discourage driving downtown and calm traffic. A huge benefit for pedestrians.

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