Bicycling magazine consistently ranks Portland, Ore., as the best bicycling city in the country. Pittsburgh has been ranked one of the worst. But now, along with Milwaukee, Wis., they share the distinction of being the first U.S. cities to implement a free online bicycle trip planner through byCycle.com, a grass-roots bicycling version of vehicle trip planners such as Mapquest.com.
Pittsburgh's part in the project started with Friendship resident Jessi Berkelhammer, who has relied on cycling and public transportation for the past 10 years. As official bike intern with the city's Department of City Planning last fall, Berkelhammer had access to a database of information collected for a printed Bicycle Routing System map. It was created after the city determined that cycling conditions were due to a combination of "topography, climate, urbanization patters, and policy decisions."
The city map is a wall-sized printout of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) data. But it has few legible street names, and at $7.50 each, "Not a lot have been sold," says assistant director of city planning Patrick Hassett.
"Their map is not designed with the road needs of cyclists in mind," Berkelhammer says. With money from the Sprout Fund, the local nonprofit arts grantmaker, Berkelhammer spent around 200 hours refining and adding Pittsburgh route data to Portland's byCycle site. The result: an improved, online, interactive bike-routing system.
Unlike trip-planners for automotive vehicles, which mainly consider distances and speed limits, byCycle takes additional factors into account: hill elevation, frequency of turns, pavement quality, number of lanes, and a factor Berkelhammer created, the "bike-ability ranking." She assigned each city block a number, from -6 up to 5, corresponding to its ride-ability; streets are by default zero, while official bike-route streets get a 3 and bike trails a 5. Hazards, such as the highways, are off the scale ... literally. She also used her experiences and suggestions from other cyclists to make further adjustments, such as setting the notorious Armstrong Tunnel at -5.
"A bicycle trip-planner is particularly useful in Pittsburgh, as the city has such a complicated topography and street layout," says Berkelhammer. "Experienced cyclists all have our own tricks and shortcuts, but it takes years to develop these. [byCycle] is helpful to inexperienced cyclists or experienced cyclists who don't know Pittsburgh so well."
The Pittsburgh site is no-frills. Berkelhammer hopes a testing event, which had been set for June 27, will iron out some of those kinks. Unfortunately, she's moving to Seattle less than a month afterward. The site will then lack maintenance or a chance to expand.
But already another local cycling advocacy group, Bike Pittsburgh, is developing its own bicycling map. Stuart Anderson, shop coordinator for the local recycle-a-bike group Free Ride, is still happy to see the byCycle Web site go up. "People come into the shop sometimes and want to start commuting, but Pittsburgh's roads can be really intimidating," he says. "Having a resource like [byCycle] is tackling the first hump in using bikes for commuting."
See www.tripplanner.bycycle.org; contact Jessi at firstname.lastname@example.org