Meetings about proposed bike infrastructure in Pittsburgh are usually tense. Advocates tend to get riled up quickly, public officials defend themselves, and residents usually make unsubstantiated claims about cyclists.
Normally, this tension hurts the productivity of a meeting. But at a Pennsylvania Department of Transportation meeting last week, Scott Bricker, head of cycling-advocacy group Bike Pittsburgh, encouraged the drama to make a point.
“It was us saying, ‘You have to consider us,’” says Bricker. “We are citizens, taxpayers; these are our roads and we need to be provided for.”
The meeting, which was held to reveal preliminary plans for redesigns of Forbes Avenue near Carnegie Mellon University, took place just one day after cyclist Dennis Flanagan was struck and killed by an SUV on West Carson Street in the West End. Some in the crowd of more than 250 expressed gratitude for the inclusion of bike lanes in the Forbes Avenue plan, but many questioned what they called design flaws, and argued that the plan fell short on safety measures.
“I think I speak for many when I say we are looking for more safety,” said Pittsburgh Bike Share director David White, addressing PennDOT officials. “Pedestrians and cyclists do not feel safe presently. You are coming off as tone-deaf. We are looking for separated bike lanes and connectivity.”
The plan includes adding several piano-key crosswalks at intersections and about a half-mile of bike lanes between Craig and Beeler streets. Critics noted that the lanes won’t be separated by plastic buffers and that they don’t extend south of Craig Street into the heart of Oakland and beyond. (This past October, Susan Hicks was fatally struck by cars one block south of Craig Street on Forbes.)
Dan Cessna, of PennDOT District 11, which includes Allegheny, Beaver and Lawrence counties, says bike infrastructure wasn’t included south of Craig because the details of the proposed Bus Rapid Transit line along Forbes from Downtown to Oakland have yet to be finalized. Officials at the meeting told the crowd that plastic barriers were not written in due to issues like snow plowing and bus drop-offs. Cessna says it wasn’t fair for PennDOT to be called “tone-deaf” because, he says, they were at the meeting to receive input, not just to present their plans.
“We are willing to go back to the project and make changes,” says Cessna.
But the fiery nature of the meeting could have been due to the relationship between PennDOT and the bike community, which Bricker says hasn’t been very positive.
Bricker says in the past PennDOT has created bike- and pedestrian-friendly infrastructure (like a sidewalk from the 40th Street bridge down to Millvale), but most of those projects are completed only when it is convenient for the agency. “We are not saying [PennDOT] never [does] things for bikers, it is just a fairly rare occurrence.”
For example, for PennDOT projects in Pittsburgh for the next three years, bike/ped projects make up less than 1 percent of the budget. Census figures show city bike commuters make up 2 percent of the population.
Bricker is also critical of PennDOT because of Flanagan’s death, which happened just one week after West Carson Street reopened following reconstruction but without bike lanes, which officials and advocates have sought since 2011.
“Our infrastructure gets built for what we measure, and the only thing that PennDOT measures is for throughput of vehicles,” says White, of Pittsburgh Bike Share. “They do not measure for ped safety or bike counts. The cycling community feels like there is disconnect because those are things that are important for people who don’t want to drive.”
But White is hopeful things will improve. Statewide bike/ped coordinator Roy Gothie says PennDOT has initiated a bike/ped training course for district employees, and updates to the bike/ped master plan should provide additional guidance over the next 18 months.
“The intent of this course is to provide PennDOT, local agencies and consultants an up-to-date perspective on integrating bicycle and pedestrian facilities. ... It encourages consideration of more friendly bicycle and pedestrian facilities,” writes Gothie in an email to City Paper.
Cessna says PennDOT will work closely with Pittsburgh city officials and the Port Authority and should hold another meeting on the Forbes plans by the end of the year.