Courtney Ehrlichman makes the commute to her Carnegie Mellon University job with her young daughter on an Xtracycle fitted with a Hooptie. That’s a bicycle designed to haul cargo with a child carrier attached. And it’s part of the changing street scene in Pittsburgh.
More people are biking in Pittsburgh, according to data and similar anecdotes. And everyone from planners and the city’s new mayor to national biking organizations are taking notice.
“I used to know everyone who was riding on the street,” says Ehrlichman, 34, who lives in Friendship and has been biking on the city streets for 16 years. “Now I’m completely anonymous when I ride, which is pretty cool.”
Pittsburgh has become a top city for bike and pedestrian commuters, according to a recent national benchmarking report by the Alliance for Biking and Walking, which compares data from 68 large and mid-sized U.S. cities. Data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey suggest, for example, that 11.4 percent of Pittsburgh commuters walk to work and 1.5 percent bike. Only Boston, Washington, D.C. and San Francisco have higher rates of combined bike and pedestrian commuting.
In bike commuters alone, Pittsburgh had the 14th highest rate behind such cities as Portland, Honolulu, Denver and Minneapolis—a city where 3.6 percent bike to work, proving that long, cold winters don’t necessarily stifle bicycling.
There are many reasons for biking’s surge in popularity, not the least of which are the personal and social benefits associated with it, says Scott Bricker, executive director of the bike advocacy nonprofit, Bike Pittsburgh. “It addresses public health, air quality, economics. It’s a lot cheaper to own a bike than it is to own a car. On top of it all, it’s fun and healthy.”
Pittsburgh’s relatively high bike-commuting ranking is somewhat surprising given that the city’s existing bike infrastructure is generally considered poor. In the Alliance for Biking and Walking report, Pittsburgh ranked the lowest among similar-sized cities for miles of signed bike routes. And it ranked near the bottom for miles of on-street bike lanes.
That is likely to change sooner rather than later. One reason is that public officials increasingly recognize the potential value in becoming a bike-friendly city.
Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, who has emerged as a biking advocate, sees efficient and diverse transportation options as being among the drivers of a city’s economy. “Today’s economy is based on getting people to the workplace. A 21st-century city must invest in a multi-modal system if it wants to be a global leader.”
The nonprofit PeopleForBikes recently awarded Pittsburgh a $250,000 grant to help the city create safer streets for bikes. In the first stage of Pittsburgh’s biking transformation, the city is constructing bi-directional bike lanes that are separated from traffic in the city. Three of these so-called “green lanes” are expected to be completed this fall.
One will be downtown along Penn Avenue from the Convention Center to Point State Park, which will require making Penn inbound-only for vehicles between 11th and Stanwix streets. In Oakland, a green lane will be added to Schenley Drive from Schenley Plaza to Anderson Playground. And the city’s Greenfield neighborhood gets a green lane along Saline Street between Greenfield Avenue and Swinburne Street.
Peduto, who envisions a much more extensive bike system, has thrown his support behind Bike Pittsburgh’s “Better Bikeways” plan, which calls for separated bike lanes throughout city neighborhoods, improved intersections, and connecting existing bikeways and links to the river trail network. It’s a long-term vision whose challenge is in fitting many disparate pieces together throughout the city, including ways to tie the biking system to other infrastructure, such as light rail and bus routes. “It’s about the growth of the city,” the mayor says. “And how a city can grow in its own infrastructure by adapting it slightly to make it more conducive to everybody.”
Improving access to bicycles through a bike share program is another key component to the city’s bike plan. A citywide bike share is expected to open next spring with downtown being the largest network and home to the most bikes and stations.
“Bike share will play an important role in getting more novice riders on the streets and really changing the culture of bike riding downtown,” says Jeremy Waldrup, president of the Downtown Pittsburgh Partnership. “You don’t have to ride your bike downtown from home. You can jump on a bike and make a quick commute to a business meeting 15 blocks away. You don’t have to walk. You don’t have to jump in a car. You can jump on a bike-share bike and be there in 10 minutes.”
Investing in bike infrastructure is seen as a recruitment tool for attracting talent to the city, particularly young talent. Waldrup is one who believes people increasingly expect comprehensive biking and pedestrian infrastructure in a city. Peduto is another, saying he is hopeful that by becoming more bike-friendly, “we become more of an attraction to millenials, who are increasingly giving up cars in favor of bikes, public transportation and ride sharing, like Uber and Lyft.”
Biking’s rise in popularity comes at a time when Pittsburgh is growing younger. City residents aged 18 to 24, for example, increased 17 percent from 2000 to 2010, U.S. Census Bureau data suggest. No fewer than 50 city neighborhoods are experiencing an increase in young residents. In 32 of those neighborhoods, the young adult population has risen 10 percent or more.
And downtown, where the residential population has soared in recent years, 45 percent of residents are under the age of 40 and 27 percent of them are under 30, according to a Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership residents survey.
To create a viable biking culture in Pittsburgh, the bike system needs to work for different levels of cyclists, not just those comfortable and experienced cycling on busy streets, says Elly Fisher, assistant director of the Oakland Planning and Development Corporation. “Some [cyclists] are going to have no qualms with riding down Fifth Avenue and other people are never going to do that. We need to build facilities for all different levels. We have facilities for streets for all different levels and speeds. If you don’t feel comfortable getting on the freeway, you can go around. So we need to have different ways, different pieces of the bicycling infrastructure for people to get around.”
Infrastructure can include ways to address Pittsburgh’s abundance of hills and stairs, such as bike stairways or ramps that run alongside outdoor pedestrian stairways. The city’s first bike ramp was built on Louisa Street in Oakland. Another is in the works for the stairs behind the Frick Fine Arts building that go down into Panther Hollow.
The primary concern for city cyclists is safety. The Alliance for Biking and Walking report suggests that the higher bike commuter rates are, the lower the rate of bike fatalities tends to be.
Bricker says that better bike infrastructure will also promote safety.
“Typically, what we’ve seen with the [implementation of green lanes] is that real safety follows that as well. Drivers drive more cautiously. Bicyclists aren’t riding on sidewalks, so that makes pedestrians safer. Intersections are safer because it’s kind of like adding a sidewalk for bikes.”
Other steps for improving safety include promoting awareness among drivers of the presence of bikers on the road and educating novice cyclists on proper riding practices, such as not cutting through intersections. Ehrlichman says enforcing bike-related laws would also help, including the requirement that drivers give cyclists a four-foot berth when passing and that they not drift into marked bike lanes.
In September, some 1,000 bike-pedestrian engineers and planners, transportation officials and advocates throughout North America will get to experience Pittsburgh’s biking and walking environment when the city hosts the Pro Walk Pro Bike Pro Place Conference for the first time. They’ll find a city whose biking population is on the rise, where once-industrialized riverfronts have been made inviting with walking and biking trails and where city government has grand plans to make it a biking mecca, including a mayor who last month put his money where his advocacy is and bought his first new bicycle in 30 years.