For years, the city's only bike lanes have been on the wide but meandering Beechwood Boulevard in Squirrel Hill. Now, the city's pledged to pay for marking off as many as five new bike lanes. It's enough to make the city's oft-disrespected cyclists giddy: Finally, biking on city streets will be given some official recognition, backing up demands to "Share the road!" with the officious enforcement of reflective paint.
But before the lanes roll out, city planners and cycling advocates will have to find some real-life roads among Pittsburgh's narrow, hilly streets that meet a civil engineer's standards for safe bike-car coexistence. And cycling advocates fear that the current draft of the bike-lane guidelines asks for too much. The guidelines, which were released in draft form last month, demand bike lanes that are so wide, flat and safe that Pittsburgh could end up with hardly any lanes at all.
According to the proposed guidelines, only streets 54-feet wide can accommodate an exclusive bike lane in both directions, one lane of car traffic in each direction and parking on both sides -- a rarity around here. Any additional turning or travel lanes and the road would need to be wider still.
The guidelines were produced by consultants Trans Associates of Robinson Township for the city planning department for about $15,000, which includes the cost of marking lanes. (A phone call to Trans wasn't returned by press time.) It takes welcome swats at old annoyances. "They specifically mentioned [the need for] bike-friendly drainage grates," says Bike Pittsburgh board member Jessica McPherson, along with other hazards such as potholes, railroad crossings and roadside debris.
"But," McPherson continues, "the current draft is too conservative for Pittsburgh. It might be great for Indianapolis. Pittsburgh is an older city, a densely built city with challenging topography. We haven't actually gone out and measured, but I'm afraid if we're restricted to these guidelines, there won't be many bike lanes."
McPherson and other Bike Pittsburgh officials aren't surprised by the city's conservative bike-lane proposal; the city doesn't want a lawsuit for marking a less-than-ideal bike lane. "Some routes might be fine for Bike Pittsburgh members, but we want a stranger coming to the city to feel fairly secure and not end up in a situation that will scare the daylights out of them," city planner Richard Meritzer told City Paper last August and reiterated on Jan. 3.
"Shared use" bike routes, also discussed in the proposal, provide a more flexible alternative, possible on 28- to 44-foot-wide streets, depending on whether parking was allowed at both curbs. Of course, bikes can share almost all roads anyway; "shared use" roads would simply be more prominently marked and promoted as cycling routes.
"There's lots of streets that would qualify if you were willing to sacrifice on-street parking," says Bike Pittsburgh President David Hoffman. "But parking's a sacred cow."
McPherson points to European cities like Berlin, in which bikes share bus lanes or partitioned sidewalks, as places for Pittsburgh to emulate. "People say there's a lot of challenges" for such old cities, she says, "topography, weather, drivers' attitudes -- but it some ways, it's better. You can get places without having to ride miles and miles. The roads are narrow, but that means the cars can't go very fast, either."