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Mass Movement: Rack 'n' Roll Blues

The bikes-on-buses program deserves another chance. Luckily, it's going to get one.

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It began as the perfect day for a bike ride: a sunny, calm 75-degree Sunday. By the end of the afternoon, a deflated tire meant it was the perfect day for a ride home - on a bus. Should this have been possible? Of course! With the Port Authority's Rack 'n' Roll program, I should've been able to rack my bike and ride home on the 54C. Was it possible? Of course not, because the program's current piecemeal implementation makes it worse than useless; cyclists can never count on finding a rack, which discourages many from trying.

 

 

But Rack 'n' Roll deserves a real chance.

 

On that particular Sunday I was headed to the Arts Festival to see the Zany Umbrella Circus, a homegrown circus that -- appropriately enough -- features homemade, fantastical bicycle creations. The front tire of my bike was a little soft, but I figured it'd be fine to get Downtown.

 

Getting back was the hard part. By the time I crossed the 31st Street Bridge from the North Shore trail and began the grueling trip up Penn Avenue from 34th Street to Main, both tires were sitting so low that my brake pads were dragging rubber, not hovering pertly above the rims. That hill -- steep, long, narrow and busy with car traffic -- is a Golgotha march under perfect conditions, and there was no way I could pedal it with half-flats.

 

I immediately recalled Rack 'n' Roll, the bike-racks-on-buses program that began in the spring of 2001 with a grant from the Richard King Mellon Foundation.

 

The grant bought only 85 racks -- a mere nickel in the farebox, as it were -- which the Port Authority distributed across buses on six routes: 11D Perrysville, 21A Coraopolis, 54C Mount Oliver-Oakland-North Side, 71A Negley, 77DFG Friendship and the 500, which connects the North Side to Highland Park through Downtown and Oakland.

 

Like a lot of people, I assumed from PAT's promotions -- taken up also by groups including Ground Zero and Sustainable Pittsburgh -- that each bus on these lines would carry a bike rack.

 

Before that day, I'd heard the story of Soho cycling activist Erok Boerer almost getting stranded in Sewickley - horrors! - when the 21A he was counting on showed up with no rack. Luckily, the bus driver let him bring his bike inside. And I'd observed plenty of the designated buses without them, and even some undesignated buses with them.

 

Port Authority spokesperson Judi McNeil says that it was "never the intention" of the agency to equip all the buses on a line with racks. Nor does Port Authority keep stats on their use. Because there are only 85 racks to go around, and because buses are crowded "nose-to-tail" in the garages, it's a dispatching problem to make sure that all the trips on a line get a rack-equipped bus.

 

Contrary to what some gas-hog anti-cycling people may believe, bicyclists aren't urban fairy-nymphs happy to hang around playing their pan flutes, hoping that a bike rack-equipped bus may amble by. Bicyclists have busy schedules, too. Bike racks should make cycling more convenient, not less so.

 

Improvements are on the way. With a state grant of $290,000, PAT can buy 275 racks, nearly quintupling the current number. And they're eager to hear what cyclists want. 

 

This week, Erok Boerer and Bike Pittsburgh director David Hoffman plan to meet with PAT reps to offer placement advice. Their top suggestion will be consistency - racks for all buses in a route. Next, they want to steer PAT toward equipping busy commuter routes. By getting racks to the most people, they reason, you'll reach more cyclists more often, especially on routes serving Oakland. "Actually, I think it's a case of PAT being ahead of the curve and trying something new," Hoffman says. With additional resources, "now they'll take steps to ensure consistency and high visibility."

 

On Sunday, I didn't have a 54C schedule, so I began walking the bike up Penn. Soon, I heard a wonderful sound: the bellowing wheeze of a PAT bus lurching up the hill. As it approached, I could see that it was a 54C. Happiness! But it had no bike rack. Sadness! Minutes later, a 54C passed me heading the opposite way. On this bus, its empty chrome bike rack glittered in the sun.

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