City Streets in State Officials’ Hands Can Be a Recipe for Disaster

Cyclists rally for a safer Carson Street in Pittsburgh. Photo: Bike PGH
People rally for a safer Carson Street in Pittsburgh. Photo: Bike PGH

Cities shouldn’t have to fight with state departments of transportation to ensure streets are safe for their residents. But too often that’s exactly the case, and when cities lose, the result can be deadly.

A tragic story from Pittsburgh illustrates the problem. Just a week after Pennsylvania DOT debuted a car-centric redesign of iconic Carson Street, a motorist struck and killed cyclist Dennis Flanagan there. More than 1,200 people have now signed a petition demanding a safer design. Here’s an excerpt from a letter from Bike PGH Executive Director Scott Bricker to PennDOT Secretary Leslie Richards:

West Carson was closed for approximately two years, and while inconvenient for many, it did not create the predicted traffic nightmare associated with a typical blocked arterial. In the lead up to the closure and during construction, Mayor Bill Peduto, Councilwoman Kail-Smith, Senator Wayne Fontana, Representative Dan Deasy, community leaders, residents, City of Pittsburgh Departments of City Planning and Public Works, and Bike Pittsburgh unsuccessfully lobbied PennDOT District-11 to create a more inclusive design that would connect these communities via bike to other bicycle facilities only a stone’s throw away, namely the Station Square Trail and the Montour Trail to the Pittsburgh International Airport. In fact, the City of Pittsburgh pitched PennDOT District-11 a conceptual design eliminating the needless turning lane for most of the distance and using the remaining width for bike lanes, only to be silently rebuffed. Instead, PennDOT’s engineers decided to go against these wishes and charge ahead with a design that only exacerbates the speeding problem, and which gave no dedicated safe space for people who ride bikes to get around.

Within nine days of West Carson reopening, McKees Rocks resident Dennis Flanagan was killed while riding his bike, a tragedy that confirms the new design had failed. Had he just had a safe space to ride on West Carson Street, the deadly crash would have been avoided. While it may be tempting to blame the victim, we believe Dennis was doing the best he could with what he was given which was poor road design without a safe space to ride on the street itself.

To justify eliminating safe bicycling infrastructure, the engineers decided that a turning lane the entire length of the corridor was more important than bicyclist safety despite the fact that there are only two major left turning movements along the entire two-mile stretch of West Carson Street. The justification PennDOT used for this turning lane was to minimize the chances of high speed rear-end collisions; speeding that also could have been addressed utilizing bike friendly design. As predicted, this lengthy turning lane now acts as a defacto passing lane, only empowering the most aggressive drivers. Instead of designing the road to function at a lower speed, West Carson Street became a superhighway with 14’ lanes and a nearly useless turning lane that solved no safety or transportation access issues. A telling observation we made on our community bike ride with Dennis’s family was that on the return trip to Pittsburgh from McKees Rocks, not a single car was seen using the turning lane during the entire 20 minute ride back, proving that the majority of this extraneous car lane width could have easily been allocated to bicycles.

Pittsburgh advocates are asking for PennDOT to go back and redesign Carson so it’s safer for everybody.

Elsewhere on the Network today: Bike SD says “no way” to Measure A — an $18 billion highway bonanza promoted by the San Diego Association of Governments. Market Urbanism considers the crackpot claim that NIMBYs prove no one likes cities. And Green City Blue Lake takes stock of Cleveland’s progress on transportation during the city’s annual “Sustainability Summit.”

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