“At the risk of sounding like an old-timer,” begins 30-year-old Erok Boerer, Bike Pittsburgh membership and project director, “when I first started riding in Pittsburgh, you would know pretty much every single person on a bike.”
That was just 10 years ago. Now, Boerer says, “there are tons more and I hardly know any of them.”
Despite Pittsburgh’s skinny roads and steep hills, cyclists’ numbers have been steadily chugging upward, with little official encouragement. This season brings an unprecedented number of major bike events and accomplishments to Pittsburgh, including BikeFest, a bike-recycling convention, new bike lanes, a new bike map and even a new bike bridge. All told, these events could make this summer a breakthrough season.
So, leave off with the Evian-priced gasoline and stock up on chain grease – it’ll be a busy summer.
The anyone-and-everyone spirit of local biking is captured in Bike Pittsburgh’s own BikeFest, now in its third year, which kicks off June 29. BikeFest is BYOB-style “wiki-festival”: Anyone is invited to organize events and rides, as long as it has something to do with bikes.
This year features a “bike-in” – like a drive-in -- movie, The Triplets of Belleville, which will screen on the lawn of the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts. Other events include a swap meet at the REI store, the annual BikeFest party and an Underground Railroad historic sites tour. A Mural Ride on Sunday from 10 to 3 offers the chance to ride through numerous city neighbs, from Lawrenceville to Regent Square, Strip District and North Side, in a 35 mile ride to view the many Sprout-funded murals. And cyclists can meet and ride along with the 500 expected to arrive via the Allegheny Heritage Trail from D.C.
“As far as I know, this format is unique to Pittsburgh,” says Scott Bricker, executive director of Bike Pittsburgh. Each past BikeFests have inspired about 50 events. To view the BikeFest schedule, click here.
The Liberty Lanes
Between the time this article was written and now when you’re reading it, the number of bike lanes in Pittsburgh will have doubled.
True, “doubling” consists of going from one bike lane – on Beechwood Boulevard in Squirrel Hill – to two, with the new one on Bloomfield’s Liberty Avenue. Still, the increase is significant in a town where, a few years ago, plenty of people wrote off Pittsburgh’s streets as being bike-friendly at all.
“Five years ago, what we’re doing would’ve been unheard of,” says Bike Pittsburgh founder David Hoffman. “The city has been strapped for cash, and bike lanes and the bike plan could’ve taken a back seat. We’ve gotten [city government] to agree that this is an access issue, a quality of life issue…”
The second-ever Pittsburgh bike lane will stretch along Liberty from Herron Avenue to the Bloomfield Bridge.
At the Bridge, the separately marked lanes will give way to innovative pavement markings nicknamed “sharrows” – as in share-the-road arrows -- that will be stenciled on Liberty from Ella to Baum Boulevard. Sharrow markings – which consist of a bike silhouette below two arrows – are used where the road’s width or active street parking makes a separate bike lane impossible. For drivers, they’re a visible reminder of bicyclists; meanwhile, they nudge cyclists away from parked cars to avoid getting “doored.”
Efforts to designate new bike lanes in the city have been under painstaking discussion between city government and Bike Pittsburgh for at least two years. Recently, to the delight of many cyclists, Mayor Luke Ravenstahl embraced the development, making a celebratory ride on Liberty June 18th.
“Adding the additional bike lines has been long overdue and we have a lot of catching up to do,” says Ravenstahl. “We hope to make cycling an easy venture in Pittsburgh. Let’s do everything we can to take away the obstacles!”
Meanwhile, another work order is ready to go for an official bike lane on Greenfield Road, at the southern entrance to Schenley Park, says Patrick Hassett, assistant
director of the city’s construction and engineering bureau. Though it will take time to identify more streets as bike routes, “the idea is to get these [two] bike lanes out there,” Hassett says, “and educate the motoring public that cyclists belong on the road.”
Hot Metal Bridge
Another route will open for cyclists this November, when construction finishes on the bike-ped span of the Hot Metal Bridge which connects Oakland, Greenfield and Hazelwood to the South Side.
The completion of the span is another underdog win for cyclists, years in the making. After the vehicular portion of the bridge was finished in 2000, it seemed that the bike part would be an unfulfilled promise, especially given the beyond-tight city budget. Finally, in 2004, city planners and the Urban Redevelopment Authority found a way to shake the seat cushions and fund the modest bridge project, which is being executed by Brayman Construction of Saxonburg for $9.2 million.
Cyclists can take special pride that their section of the historic span is the true "hot metal" bridge, the one that carried the steaming ingots from mill to mill. The vehicular portion was a railroad bridge. Cyclists get the bridge of industry; motorists the span of mere transportation.
On the heels of all this, BikePittsburgh volunteers will be combing the streets this summer to test a new city bicycling map, the first since 1991’s “Sophie Map,” nicknamed for then-mayor Sophie Masloff.
“People have had to figure out for themselves” the best routes through the city, says Bike Pittsburgh executive director Scott Bricker. “We interviewed dozens and dozens of people” to come up with routes that would be the best balance of safety and convenience.
The exact distribution channels are still being plotted, but Bike Pittsburgh members will receive a copy, and they'll also be available at bike shops, possibly the Convention and Visitors Bureau, as well as in colleges’ new-student packs.
Last but not least among the summer’s remarkable cycling line-up is the annual Bike!Bike! Community Bike Shop conference, hosted by volunteers from Pittsburgh’s Free Ride recycle-a-bike project, a Bike Pittsburgh partner program based in North Point Breeze. At Free Ride, volunteer mechanics help members of the public learn to build and fix bikes, in exchange for donations of volunteer time or cash. A few rebuilt and donated bikes are also available for sale.
Organizers are expecting about 150 attendees to arrive in town this August, says Erok Boerer, “from all over the U.S., Canada, and maybe even Mexico and Guatemala.” With the goal of “improving one big wheel” rather than “reinventing many small ones” – according to the Bike!Bike! Web site -- conference attendees will share strategies and advice on various types of community bicycle projects. The conference, which started in New Orleans, is now in its fourth year.
Julie Mickens, a writer and cyclist who lives on the South Side, just learned to fix a shift cable at Free Ride. She is understandably proud.
Captions:Erok BoererBikeFest posterBike lane on Liberty AvenueHot Metal Street bike/pedestrian bridge span over 2nd Avenue3 rivers on 2 wheels bike guide
Ritch Kragness, Morgan Ross and Jessica McPherson at Free Ride
All photographs copyright © Nina T. Beckerexcept Bike Lane © Jonathan Greene
and Poster, courtesy of BikeFest