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Bicyclists are peddling cause to Pittsburgh leaders

Wednesday, Aug. 13, 2014, 11:18 p.m.
 

Ambitious Pittsburgh leaders clambering for a spot among the nation's most bicycle-friendly cities point to European cities as the ultimate inspiration.

The sharp ring of bicycle bells dashing across crowded Danish streets. Dutch canals enveloped by dusty, worn-in commuter bikes instead of cars. Children traversing urban alleyways without supervision or fear.

“We rode 70 miles,” said Mayor Bill Peduto in June, fresh from a weeklong trip to Copenhagen. “We'd stop and we'd look, and we'd say, ‘Huh. We can do this in Pittsburgh.' We saw the potential was there.”

Bicycle advocates want to sear such images into the minds of American mayors.

“To ride a bike in Pittsburgh, or any American city, you have to come through a lot of barriers,” said Zach Vanderkooy, Green Lane Project coordinator, whose organization People for Bikes gave $250,000 to Pittsburgh and funded Peduto's trip. “It's not considered normal or easy, or even very convenient, but that's what we're trying to change.”

Peduto pledged in July to make cycling projects a priority in city infrastructure plans, including the first five miles of protected, two-way bike lanes.

A stretch running from Schenley Plaza to Anderson Playground in Schenley Park cost nearly $93,000, almost half of the project's phase-one budget, said Patrick Hassett, assistant director of transportation and engineering with the Department of Public Works.

Though inexpensive compared with highway projects, the construction is not cheap, he said.

“It depends on how far we retrofit,” Hassett said. “Just the basics — markings, signage, bollards and paint — runs us about $40,000 per quarter-mile. That adds up fast.”

Funded to evolve

Twenty years ago, Pittsburgh was “kind of the worst” for bicyclists, Peduto said. “Today we're among the top 30 cities in the nation, but you know what? We can do better.”

With Bike Pittsburgh, a nonprofit advocacy group, the city installed 70 miles of on-street bicycle infrastructure, established bike corrals and valet services at city festivals, and freed up 7,000 bicycle parking spaces.

Leaders spent $22 million in building 20 miles of riverfront trails. Bike share stations and protected lanes are next, Peduto said.

Unlike larger, more bicycle-friendly cities such as Portland, Ore., and Minneapolis, Pittsburgh has no dedicated funding for projects.

“We rely on grants, mostly,” said Patrick Roberts, principal transportation planner with the Department of City Planning.

Roberts estimated the city could amass up to $2.5 million this year, $1.38 million from the city capital budget. About $416,000 of local matching money does not have to be spent immediately, he said.

“We have the money,” Roberts said. “We just need a plan.”

Business owners Pete and Dana Provenzano of Plum, who own Zano's bar just off Saline Street in Greenfield, are not thrilled with the city's piecemeal strategy.

New bike lanes along Saline narrowed the street and drove Second Avenue bus commuters who leave their cars all day deep into the neighborhood.

“I've got no problem with people who ride bikes — if they're ever looking for an inviting spot off the trail and come in for a bite, we'll take care of them — but the bike lanes took away what little parking we had,” said Provenzano. “Now the city wants to talk to us about it, but it's too late.”

Planners could have addressed parking before crews installed the bike lanes, he said.

“It's hard enough being a little local bar,” Provenzano said.

Little learners

Advocates agree early education is key to spurring any radical cultural shift. In many Dutch, Danish and Canadian cities nearly every child gets daily training.

“Biking programs are really difficult to run,” said Phil Koch, national executive director of the Marilyn G. Rabb Foundation, a Chicago-based nonprofit.

The foundation mentors up to 300 kids a year through its Positive Spin biking programs, held after school and during summer with Pittsburgh Public Schools.

“We work with more kids here than we do in any other city, and still the logistics of moving and servicing dozens of bikes, plus organizing a staffer or two for every handful of kids — it's really hard,” Koch said.

The foundation spends $300 to $500 per child, he said, including a year-end, 100-mile trip. To reach all of the district's 26,463 students, it would need $8 million to $13 million.

“Without sustained school district support, expansion on that scale from an outside group just isn't feasible,” he said.

Even if bikes were available, places to park them are not. Pittsburgh Public Schools spokeswoman Ebony Pugh said racks are sparse, with just a few spaces each at Taylor Allderdice High School, CAPA and Barack Obama Academy.

Coaxing kids to ride through steep hills and pockmarked streets is as much a product of robust public transportation as early intervention, said Chris Metka, state coordinator with the federal Safe Routes to School program.

That's where Pittsburgh has an advantage, said Eric Boerer, Bike Pittsburgh's advocacy director.

Port Authority started adding bike racks to its 702-bus fleet in 2001 — though the agency does not track their usage, said spokesman Jim Ritchie. Grants paid for the latest batch, at about $700 per rack.

More, better access

Cycle tracks and protected lanes attract less avid riders, particularly women, according to a 2013 study by Ohio University.

Peduto promised to open access to 500 rental bikes with $2.2 million in grants throughout Downtown, the North Side, South Side Flats, Oakland and the East End by next year.

Hassett said city planners want to extend that access into the Hill District and Larimer: “We have to get bikes to the people who need them.”

Simon Blenski, bicycle and pedestrian planner with the Minneapolis Public Works Department, said corporate and university buy-in helped jolt commuting goals with roving mechanics, bicycle parking garages and discounts on insurance premiums through tech-savvy ride trackers. Pittsburgh could do the same, he said.

Bike Pittsburgh's Bike Friendly Employer program boasts “the nation's largest network of certified, bike-friendly establishments,” said Dan Yablonsky, the group's business programs assistant.

BNY Mellon added parking at three Downtown locations, 4moms installed a bike share for employees to move between their Downtown office and Strip District warehouse, and Downtown-based Fukui Architects extended tax benefits for bike commuters.

“Even the city planning department has a (bike) rack on the fourth floor,” Hassett said, “but that's because it's important to us. It's a gradual evolution in Pittsburgh culture.”

Megan Harris is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at 412-388-5815 or mharris@tribweb.com.

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