Caution is essential for those riding Great Allegheny Passage
From the perspective of a cyclist, a ride along the Great Allegheny Passage recreational trail can unfurl a bit like a movie in slow motion.
There are river vistas, panoramic scenes of modern and archaic industry and spectacular wildlife sightings in many stretches of the trail.
But with little more than a blink of the eye and turn of the sprocket, the cyclist can be up close and personal with vehicular traffic that occasionally intersects or runs directly parallel to the trail.
Pedalers face perils from pokey pedestrians, dog walkers and double-wide baby carriages.
Riders heading out to local sections of the GAP — which runs through Elizabeth Township, Liberty, McKeesport, Duquesne and Steel Valley communities before reaching its terminus point in Pittsburgh – or other local trails, such as the Clairton Connector, McKeesport loop or Montour Trail, should enjoy the scenery but should be alert and ready to adjust for changing road conditions.
Bike rider and wildlife photographer Dana Nesiti of West Homestead said he saw a speeding cyclist wreck last fall when he swerved to miss a child who was on the trail in the area of the bald eagles' nest in the Hays section of Pittsburgh. The rider was taken away in an ambulance, Nesiti said.
“It gets crazy. You get 20 or 30 people down there (near the nest) and guys who think they're Lance Armstrong and won't slow down,” Nesiti said. “I've seen a lot of close calls.”
The approach to the area of the eagle's nest is well marked with identifying signs, and other nearby potentially hazardous road crossings along the Steel Valley Trail in the Waterfront shopping district are posted with stop signs, but trail safety advocates say some riders continue to ignore the warnings.
Last summer, police in West Homestead stepped up their presence in the area of Sandcastle and Costco in the Waterfront because of complaints from motorists that cyclists were not heeding stop signs at places where car and trail traffic intersect.
Bill Roth, a former borough engineer for West Homestead and a trail advocate, defended the configuration of the trail in the area of the Costco and other Waterfront businesses, saying it is in accordance with current safety and design standards.
“You can pass laws and put up signs. If (cyclists) ignore the signs they do it at their own peril,” he said, adding, “If you're going to be stupid, there are consequences.”
Roth, who is a cyclist, said “courtesy” should be the watchword for all trail users.
“Eagle watchers shouldn't be standing in the middle of the path and cyclists should use caution,” he said. “You've got to be aware. Kids can jump out in front of you.”
Roth noted a lot of cyclists, in an effort to avoid crowded conditions on the designated trail through the Waterfront, will opt instead to travel along Waterfront Drive with vehicular traffic.
“It's perfectly legal to do that but they have the obligation to obey traffic control devices like stop signs and signals,” he said.
Roth said when the trail in the Waterfront gets too busy for him, he usually rides south toward McKeesport where there is typically less traffic.
But even on the trail less traveled there are intersections and passages where bike and vehicular traffic briefly mix, like the Regional Industrial Development Corp. industrial parks in Duquesne and McKeesport.
Cyclists and motorists have to share the road along Fourth Avenue in McKeesport from Walnut Street by The Daily News building to the Marina at McKees Point. It's a busy stretch of road that passes a police station and other offices, and it has the potential to surprise trail riders who might not have experienced much in the way of traffic for the past several miles.
Improving the interface between bicyclists and the communities they are riding through is the goal of the Progress Fund's Trail Town program. McKeesport, Elizabeth Township, the Steel Valley and Pittsburgh's South Side were among a handful of communities to receive Trail Town designation this year.
Trail Town program manager William Prince said his organization is looking at ways trail and vehicular traffic interchanges can be improved in these newest trail towns.
For example, he said Lysle Boulevard in McKeesport presents a daunting barrier for trail users looking to access that city's business district and noted there is not yet a safe route for cyclists in the Waterfront to get from the trail to the central business district along Eighth Avenue in Homestead.
Other trail points Prince said need improvement are along Doner Street in Elizabeth Township near the Boston trail head and on the South Side where the trail meets the Hot Metal Bridge.
When they encounter one, Prince said, it is extremely important for riders to remember, “That stop sign is there for a reason.”
“You've got to go through towns with a cautious eye,” said Prince, likening the experience to a motorist coming into town off a highway. “When you come to the town, you slow down and take the time to enjoy it. Respect the rules of the road and safety at intersections.”
Eric Slagle is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.