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Pittsburgh initiative seeks increased safety as commuter habits evolve

| Sunday, Nov. 22, 2015, 10:20 p.m.
Bicyclists, pedestrians and vehicles use a busy intersection Downtown where Stanwix Street and Liberty and Forbes avenues meet on Wednesday, Nov. 11, 2015. Envision Downtown is looking into ways to improve safety at Downtown intersections.
Guy Wathen | Trib Total Media
Bicyclists, pedestrians and vehicles use a busy intersection Downtown where Stanwix Street and Liberty and Forbes avenues meet on Wednesday, Nov. 11, 2015. Envision Downtown is looking into ways to improve safety at Downtown intersections.
A woman waits in the median to cross Liberty Avenue, Downtown, on Wednesday, Nov. 11, 2015.
Guy Wathen | Trib Total Media
A woman waits in the median to cross Liberty Avenue, Downtown, on Wednesday, Nov. 11, 2015.
Pedestrians cross Fifth Avenue at the Ross Street intersection, Downtown, on Wednesday, Nov. 11, 2015. This is one of the most dangerous intersections for pedestrians, according to a report by Envision Downtown, based on PennDOT data from 2007-14.
Guy Wathen | Trib Total Media
Pedestrians cross Fifth Avenue at the Ross Street intersection, Downtown, on Wednesday, Nov. 11, 2015. This is one of the most dangerous intersections for pedestrians, according to a report by Envision Downtown, based on PennDOT data from 2007-14.
A woman crosses Smithfield Street just as a vehicle turns onto Sixth Avenue on Wednesday, Nov. 11, 2015.
Guy Wathen | Trib Total Media
A woman crosses Smithfield Street just as a vehicle turns onto Sixth Avenue on Wednesday, Nov. 11, 2015.
Pedestrians cross the Smithfield Street and Sixth Avenue intersection in Downtown Pittsburgh on Friday, Nov. 20, 2015.
Tribune-Review
Pedestrians cross the Smithfield Street and Sixth Avenue intersection in Downtown Pittsburgh on Friday, Nov. 20, 2015.

The path to safer streets in Pittsburgh begins Downtown.

This neighborhood of 120,000 daily commuters and at least 7,000 residents is one of the first focal points for Mayor Bill Peduto's “complete streets” initiative announced in April. Decades ago, these streets were widened to accommodate the rush of automobile traffic, but the trends of the 21st century have altered the way Pittsburghers move through them — or would like to.

About 54 percent of Downtown commuters use public transit, 6 percent walk or bike, and 40 percent drive cars.

“You can't expect it to be safe to bike or walk, or efficient to drive a car or a bus, when you design it for one way and all of the sudden there's five different ways,” Peduto said.

The conversation to improve street safety amplified after the deaths of three people in Oakland last month, including a woman on a bike and a married couple who were crossing the street after stepping off a bus. In the weeks ahead, city officials will meet with the National Coalition of Complete Streets to discuss safety plans citywide.

Pittsburgh ranks eighth in the nation for the number of non-car commuters, according to the Census Bureau's American Community Survey. The launch of app-based car services and Uber and Lyft, and the Healthy Ride bike-share system, are further morphing mobility habits, Peduto said.

“It's solvable,” Peduto said. “The world is not going to be frozen in time, and Pittsburgh can't try to be frozen in time. Cities need to be designed for all, so we're going to keep moving forward.”

This summer, the city and Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership began a project called Envision Downtown to address improvements in the commercial heart of the city.

Hustle and bustle

On any given weekday afternoon, pedestrians wait, watch and hustle through the three-street intersection near Gateway Center. Cars bob and weave around buses stopped along Sixth Avenue, hoping to catch the green light up ahead and avoid getting stuck behind a stop.

On Ross Street — the bustling connective corridor behind the Allegheny County Courthouse and the City-County Building — at least 44 pedestrian crashes were reported from 2007 through 2014.

Garish Jasdi, 31, of Green Tree works out of the PPG Building and said he thinks pedestrians ought to pay more attention to the streets they traverse.

“Some people don't use common sense,” Jasdi said. Or, he said, “They're on their phones.”

Jason Tyler, a stylist at Cardamone's Salon at Forbes Avenue and Wood Street, said he sees pedestrians crossing behind the construction vehicles at the newly opened Tower at PNC Plaza, where street work continues.

Jon Westor, owner of Katie's Kandy on Wood Street, believes construction is an impediment to pedestrian pathways as he walks Downtown, scouting for a new store location.

“It's the construction — it's too much,” he said.

Steve Fay, 27, lives and works Downtown. He spends eight to 10 hours a day toting a briefcase through Downtown as part of his sales job. He said he'd like to see more pedestrians cross streets in crosswalks, where they are supposed to, so that they can be safe without interrupting traffic.

“With some of the updates in traffic and navigation tools, I feel like it would help direct people a little easier,” Fay said. “When I'm driving Downtown, people just don't have respect for the green light.”

Subtle changes

David White, executive director of Healthy Ride, cites New York City's closing of Times Square to vehicular traffic as one example of how cities can change traffic patterns to improve pedestrian safety. Transforming two intersections of Broadway into public plazas reduced pedestrian injuries by 35 percent during the one-year test, according to the federal government.

Other policy changes are more subtle. Lowering speed limits; creating more visible, heightened sidewalks; and encouraging pedestrian-friendly zones are all traffic calming measures, White said.

“America is now more urbanized than it has ever been in history,” White said. “Right now, if we continue on this path of encouraging single-person trips in motor vehicles, our entire transportation system will break.”

The National Automobile Dealers Association forecasted new vehicle sales at 17.3 million in 2015, and 17.7 million in 2016, a likely peak with a decrease in 2017.

Sean Luther, executive director of Envision Downtown, said the primary goal is keeping pedestrians safe. One of the group's first initiatives was a variety of seemingly small yet noticeable improvements under way at the intersection of Smithfield Street and Sixth Avenue. Bright white pavement markings show where pedestrians should cross, and the sidewalk curbs were broadened to give transit users more room to stand.

Luther said most of the improvements are flexible and subject to change, based on how they are used.

“You can't just build a public space and expect people to use it,” Luther said. “You have to develop the public realm for how people use it.”

Breaking tradition

Ideas for improvements come from a volunteer panel of architects and engineers, Luther said, most of whom work Downtown and are familiar with its footprint.

In October, they conducted street surveys with Gehl Architects as part of a $150,000 study on the patterns of people Downtown, paid for by private dollars, Luther said.

Intersection signal timing, a specialty of engineers and traffic technologists at Carnegie Mellon University, could play into upcoming improvements. The signal changes would be similar to those in East Liberty, where new residential and retail development has brought extra traffic.

Envision Downtown plans digital notifications along Fort Duquesne Boulevard that would alert drivers when parking garages fill up, to prevent them from circling blocks to seek out an open garage.

Luther said one area of focus for improvements in spring is the triangular intersection of Stanwix Street and Liberty and Forbes avenues, where pedestrians must cross long intersections.

Traditional models of transportation planning do not always fit the goals of modern urban living, said Ken Zapinski, senior vice president for energy and infrastructure with the Allegheny Conference on Community Development. That includes providing choice for transportation options, he said.

“It starts with a shift in perspective,” he said “It's not just engineering streets to get as many cars through there as fast as possible.”

Melissa Daniels is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-8511 or mdaniels@tribweb.com.

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