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Lower Valley groups, governments work to give walkers, cyclists space

| Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2015, 8:00 p.m.
A bicyclist travels along Freeport Road with motor vehicle traffic in Aspinwall.
Kristina Serafini | Trib Total Media
A bicyclist travels along Freeport Road with motor vehicle traffic in Aspinwall.

Getting around the Pittsburgh region by vehicle sometimes can be difficult.

Now imagine trying to get to work, school or a Pittsburgh Pirates game on a bicycle — a feat some bicyclists and supporters say can be treacherous due to disconnected passages or missing trail links.

Communities and organizations across the region — and here in the Lower Valley — are working toward filling the gaps of providing safe access to bike and pedestrian ways.

“To be a regional destination, you need to be accessible — not just to automobiles but to bicyclists,” said Iris Whitworth, the executive director of Millvale-based community economic development nonprofit Allegheny River Towns Enterprise Zone, or ARTEZ.

Under the direction of Whitworth, the organization is working to improve bike and pedestrian access across Lower Valley communities as part of a broader network of trails across Western Pennsylvania.

“The big picture thinking for us is to understand how to improve quality of life,” said Whitworth, who said safe access to bike and pedestrian passages can help to attract customers to local business districts.

“We have great walkable towns ... but how do you get from Sharpsburg to Aspinwall or Aspinwall to Waterworks or Aspinwall to Blawnox?”

ARTEZ staff are working with local communities and PennDOT to provide an on-road bike route connecting Millvale to Blawnox, Whitworth said. The distance between the two communities is about seven miles.

A connection paralleling the Allegheny River is important for people who use bicycles as a mode of transportation to and from work, said Eric Boerer, the advocacy director for Pittsburgh-based nonprofit Bike Pittsburgh.

Bicyclists who work in Downtown Pittsburgh or on the North Side and live, for instance, in O'Hara would need to park in Millvale and use the Three Rivers Heritage Trail to get to work.

Boerer said weekday mornings, parking lots for the trail in Millvale are filled with vehicles with bike racks on them, indicating a number of bicycle commuters.

“They ride along the trail into the city … but they're driving to Millvale,” he said. “Maybe they live in Aspinwall where there's no connection. If they bike, they have to ride possibly dangerous and sketchy roads.”

Creating passages northward along the river can open up access to people who work in the RIDC Park in O'Hara and other points north, Whitworth said.

“Not everyone has a job downtown or on the North Side,” she said, indicating the broader goal of creating trail access is to connect to other cities such as Erie, Cleveland and other cities.

What's helping suburban leaders work to create trails is the increased efforts of City of Pittsburgh leaders, Boerer said.

“Even five years ago, the city wasn't ready to put in a bike lane like Penn Avenue,” Boerer said. “We're talking to these communities and they're calling the city for advice. They see how popular it is in the city.”

Whitworth said municipal leaders are recognizing the benefits, even if some might be slow to get on board.

“In the long term, (bike and pedestrian ways) help,” she said. “There is so much energy around cycling in the Greater Pittsburgh region.

“That's here to stay.”

Whitworth said bike lanes help to make cyclists feel safer.

“That low-stress bike riding is important for Pittsburgh,” she said. “We know the benefits are there: the health of our residents and savings in money if they can commute by bike. The benefits are clear.”

For Aspinwall Councilman Mark Ellermeyer, being able to commute from home to Downtown Pittsburgh or the North Side without using an automobile would be welcomed.

“We have people who are walking — an increasing amount of people who are going to be walking. We have a burgeoning cycling culture. We have a community that values the ability to walk places and the ability to ride their bikes. So we need to provide for those audiences,” he said.

Bobby Cherry is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at 412-782-2121 or rcherry@tribweb.com.

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