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Commuters trade the gas pedal for bike pedals

| Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2005

Stephen Wreschnig gets up every morning and commutes to work, like most people do. But, like a growing number of people, he doesn't drive.

He spends an hour riding his bicycle 10 miles from his Shaler home to his Downtown office, in rain, shine and even snow.

"It's a nice ride," Wreschnig says of his journey through Lawrenceville and the Strip District. "The crossing guards say hello, I get to see three different neighborhoods and I get some beautiful views."

Although Wreschnig has been cycling for 20 years, hundreds of people around the area are trading the gas pedal for bike pedals after gasoline prices peaked at more than $3 per gallon earlier this month, according to local organizations. The average price for a gallon of regular unleaded gas on Monday was $2.99 in the Pittsburgh area, according to AAA.

"We've gone from 50 to 60 bicycle commuters Downtown in 2002 to several hundred in 2005," says David Hoffman, executive director of Bike Pittsburgh, an advocacy organization. "We've also gotten lots more requests for information on cycling in the city."

Hoffman reports that about 100 bike racks installed Downtown were rarely used a few years ago, and nearly each one is full every day now. A survey done by Bike Pittsburgh also shows bike sellers are selling more communter-oriented equipment and clothing compared to three years ago.

"It's a great thing to do," says Richard Meritzer, a senior planner with the city of Pittsburgh, who is in charge of the city bicycle plan. "It's ecological and it's healthy."

Although Pittsburgh's topography and urbanization patterns make cycling conditions poor, many people are tackling the tasks of bicycle travel.

Wreschnig's commute is not always ideal. He struck a car door as it opened once, and his been hit by vehicles "eight or nine times."

Cyclists risk more than drivers, as a light hit to a car may damage a fender or the paint, but the same hit to a bicycle could result in injury or death.

"In a car, on a bike, or walking, people do stupid things," Meritzer says.

The Department of City Planning issued the City Bicycle Plan in May 1999 to outline improvements being made to city streets and trails to make them more bicycle-friendly. The plan includes several facilities such as more bike trails, bike lanes and signs. While several projects are complete or under way, there are still close calls between cyclists and drivers on Pittsburgh's streets.

"They're all crazy," said David McMonagle, of Mt. Lebanon, after his car squealed to a stop on Oliver Avenue as a bike cut him off last Thursday. "They're maniacs. I'm surprised people don't get killed every day around here."

Occasionally, people do. Last month, veterinarian Dermot Foran, 36, of McCandless, was injured while cycling and died a day later. The site of the accident is marked with a "ghost bike," a white bicycle frame that is becoming known throughout the nation as a memorial to those who suffer bicycle accidents.

"We have as much of a right to be here as anyone else," says Eric Cruit of the Mexican War Streets, who does not own a car but bikes most places in the city.

"We have a long way to go before cyclists and motorists ride on each other's wheels, instead of walk in each other's shoes," Meritzer says.

However, Wreschnig says that most of the drivers he has encountered have been polite and patient, except the "one percent that can be obnoxious."

"I had a few people yell at me to get off the road," says Mac Booker of his cycling trips between East Liberty and Oakland.

A student at the University of Pittsburgh, Booker joins several of his peers in choosing a bicycle as the prime mode of transportation.

"I ride to campus or to lunch," says Pitt student Matt Rawlings, who works at the student station WPTS-FM. "Pretty much wherever."

"You have to be very aware of your surroundings, because drivers aren't," says Sun Hu of Squirrel Hill. "It's a zen thing."

Meritzer offers the Pennsylvania Bicycle Driver's Manual to cyclists who inquire about biking in Pittsburgh. The guide contains state laws governing bicycles and the best ways to avoid injury and damage while cycling on roads shared with cars.

"We need more bike education for bikers and drivers," Meritzer says. "It would make things a whole lot better."

Good to go

Bike routes to take

  • Eliza Furnace Trail: Also called the "Jail Trail," it is a 2.6-mile trail from Greenfield to Downtown, shared by pedestrian, skaters and cyclists. Possibly the most efficient way to get Downtown by bike from Greenfield, Oakland or Squirrel Hill.
  • Panther Hollow Trail: With verdant scenery but a few slopes, it stretches 2 miles from the Swinburn St. Bridge to the Panther Hollow Bridge. It is more challenging, but also a good way to get to the Eliza Furnace trailhead.
  • Strip District Trail: 1.4 miles of flat trail stretches from Point State Park along the Allegheny riverfront. It is a good way to avoid Downtown traffic while coming from the North Side or Strip District.
  • Roads to avoid:

  • Boulevard of the Allies: This or any other busy multilane road should be avoided. Trails and smaller streets are the best way to get the same places, and high speeds don't allow drivers enough time for reaction to bicycles.
  • Busways: Streets and roads used exclusively for Port Authority bus routes are dangerous because buses cannot swerve or stop quickly. Routes along trails or streets, such as Baum Boulevard, are better.
  • Riding in style: Bike fashion

  • Jerseys: The staple of professional cyclists, mesh jerseys are making appearances on city streets as well. Their light construction lets the rider feel the wind, and their sometimes outrageous designs draw attention from passersby. These, along with the matching shorts or tights, are not recommended for winter cycling.
  • Shirts: Beginning with the "Life is Good" T-shirt, cycling has its share of cult designs on T-shirts. A good example of the stereotype is "Cycling is life. The rest is just details." An enterprising designer replaced "details" with "gasoline-powered."
  • Bags: Technically called the "courier bag," packs with a velcro strap that are slung over one shoulder are popular among cyclists, because of their light strength and low coverage of the back, which can be a sweaty mess while cycling. Some of the best courier bags have a sheath for a tire pump or reflecting tape across the back.
  • Lights: The small red LED lights that can be mounted on bicycle tubing can also be clipped on back pockets or bookbags. Many cyclists leave the lights hanging off their bags full-time like a badge, making it easy to spot a biker in a classroom or crowded elevator.
  • Helmets: Probably won't help you get a date, but cyclists should always wear one.
  • - Michael Mastroianni

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