How Bike Pittsburgh Is Making Our City Safer for Cyclists
Pittsburgh was once one of the worst cities for biking. Thanks to 20 years of efforts from BikePGH, that has changed.
Twenty years ago, Pittsburgh was a much less bike-friendly city — in fact, according to Bicycling Magazine, it was one of the worst cities in the United States to ride a bike.
“The overall environment seemed really hostile,” says Scott Bricker, co-founder and executive director of the nonprofit BikePGH.
Only three bike lanes existed in Pittsburgh in 2002: on Beechwood Avenue in Squirrel Hill, in Highland Park and in Riverview Park in Observatory Hill. These lanes were built in the early 1980s and totaled a little more than 10 miles. A trail system also ran through the North Side, Downtown, the South Side and Oakland, but it lacked bike racks and didn’t have many on- or off-ramps.
The combined lack of designated bike lanes and education about biking rules and safety created a dangerous environment for cyclists in Pittsburgh, Bricker says. Eventually, enough was enough.
“We were sick of seeing our friends hit and hurt,” says Bricker, who started using a mountain bike to get around Pittsburgh when he attended Carnegie Mellon University, where he graduated in 1999. “We all knew people who were threatened by drivers, and we were sick and tired of it.”
Bricker founded BikePGH with David Hoffman and Lou Fineberg in the winter of 2002 with the mission of making Pittsburgh a bike-friendly city.
Its work focuses on three major themes: advocacy, education and community. The goal is not only to create biking infrastructure but also to create awareness around bike safety and to establish a welcoming biking community.
The group found inspiration in cities across the United States that had successfully built strong biking infrastructure and culture — such as Chicago, New York City, Seattle and even hilly San Francisco (a place where Bricker lived for a short time after college). Bricker says BikePGH’s founders pushed themselves to look beyond the Rust Belt.
“We wanted to say, like, ‘Here’s the best stuff going on in the United States. We should pursue that,’ and not say, you know, ‘Look at Chattanooga, [Tennessee], or Buffalo, [New York], or Cleveland, or something,’” Bricker says. “And actually, I think we ended up inspiring some of those cities like Cleveland and Buffalo — and they’re doing great work.”
Five years passed before BikePGH’s advocacy brought Pittsburgh its first commuter-oriented bike lanes and shared lane markings, located on Liberty Avenue from parts of Lawrenceville to Friendship. Since then, new bike lanes have been established in Pittsburgh every year.
Today, Pittsburgh has more than 100 miles of bike infrastructure — 63 miles of bike lanes, 32 miles of shared lanes and 7 miles of neighborways (low-traffic streets that prioritize pedestrians and cyclists) — and more are coming. The city’s Bike(+) Plan aims to add 150 miles of bike infrastructure by 2030.
The lanes are also more connected. “Our trail system is more integrated with the on-street system now and we have more of a network,” Bricker says. “As a result, we have more and more people riding and replacing car trips.”
Bricker, 44, and his wife, Lena Andrews, live in East Liberty. They do own a car, but they rarely use it. Bricker owns seven bikes himself — a commuter bike, an electric cargo bike, a mountain bike, another older commuter bike that he uses as a spare, a road bike, a beat-up bike for winter, and a retro-commuter bike — to ride through all kinds of weather and terrains.
Expanding accessibility, however, is about more than just adding bike lanes. BikePGH, with the help of the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership and the Sprout Fund, started installing bike racks in the spring of 2004.
Seven years later, not only had hundreds of new bike racks been installed in the city, but Pittsburgh City Council also passed the Bicycle Parking Ordinance, which made bike parking installation required in all new or “change-in-use” buildings.
BikePGH also fought to get bike racks placed on every Port Authority bus, a goal achieved in September 2011. This way, Pittsburghers are able to use a combination of bikes and buses for their commutes.
Getting all Pittsburgh motorists to support the installation of more bike lanes hasn’t been easy over the years and the resulting outcry threatened to sink former Mayor Bill Peduto’s political career in 2017.
Peduto earned the nickname “Bike Lane Billy” for his avid push to create a citywide network of neighborhood bike lanes. He called the furor over bike lanes a “bikelash,” and some supporters in 2017 feared the issue would derail his campaign for a second term (he was re-elected).
“It would be easier for me to budget a UFO landing site than to put in the budget a dedicated bike lane in an area that’s unsafe for both motorists and cyclists,” Peduto told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2017. He said people view the lanes “through a cultural lens of whether or not they use it,” seeing either a brilliant investment or a traffic nuisance that shreds street parking.
Among people’s concerns were the loss of street parking along the new bike lanes, narrowed roadways and cyclists who don’t obey traffic rules and dart in and out of traffic.
Making Pittsburgh more bike-friendly also improves the overall safety of the streets for pedestrians and cars, Bricker contends. Much of this is done through traffic calming measures such as adding speed humps and speed tables — essentially, flat-topped speed humps — at intersections, reducing the width of roads and lanes by building wider sidewalks and even planting trees along the sides of the roads.
The work isn’t done, even though the city’s ranking for safe biking has improved. In its ratings of Best Cities, compiled in 2018, Bicycle Magazine ranked Pittsburgh No. 40 out of 50 cities — with Miami the worst on the list and Seattle the best.
One of the biggest cycling challenges remaining in Pittsburgh, according to Bricker, is the prevalence of gaps in the bike-lane network. Sometimes, bike lanes just end in the road and bikers have to share the road with cars until they can find another safe bike lane.
“As long as those gaps exist, and there’s sort of incomplete connections and incomplete networks, people of all ages and abilities won’t necessarily be attracted to riding as a mode of transportation,” he says.
In the next two decades, Bricker says he hopes to see Pittsburgh add more bike lanes protected by poles, concrete or pavement to separate them from moving traffic, instead of just painted lines on the road. The organization also is trying to draw a more diverse population into biking activities. For example, it created programs such as WMNBikePGH, a women and non-binary group, which aims to make the biking community less male-dominated.
“We really want to see more parity,” Bricker says. “It shouldn’t just be a thing that men do.”
In the end, BikePGH’s goal is to create “complete streets” in Pittsburgh — streets that are convenient and safe for bikers, drivers, transit riders and pedestrians alike.
“Streets should be for everyone,” Bricker says, “not just [for] people driving cars.”
Alexandra Ross, a former intern at Pittsburgh Magazine, is a rising senior at the University of Pittsburgh, majoring in English writing and Spanish.