The Square Circuit

Academia, parenthood, living in a bankrupt city, and what I read in the process.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

chicago and bicycles

After spending just a few minutes in Chicago last week, I was amazed at how many cyclists were on the streets. Granted, it was a beautiful day when we arrived, and it was a Sunday, but the place looked like Portland (the most bike-friendly city I know). And Chicago, unlike Portland, isn't all that natural a bike city, I wouldn't think. I was genuinely impressed. Turns out Mayor Daley is a big booster of bicycles, and pledged "to make Chicago the most bicycle-friendly city in the United States." He might not be there yet, but especially on the North Side it's pretty remarkable.

In Pittsburgh, things aren't anywhere near as good. There is a Bicycle/Pedestrian Coordinator in the mayor's office, and a plan that is underway to make the place more friendly to bikes, but two major culprits, I think, will make things more difficult here even than in car-oriented places like Chicago. First of all, there's Pittsburgh's general yahoo attitude toward bikes. Yinzers don't like bicycles and don't think they belong on the streets. Now this is pretty much a universal attitude in the US, at least outside of college towns and liberal utopias like Portland and Seattle, but that doesn't make it any easier to combat. Second, and this is particular to Pittsburgh, I think that our geography makes it more difficult to designate bicycle spaces on city streets. The streets are narrow and winding and hilly, and it's hard enough to get around here that people would scream and yell if a lane of traffic was taken away. They've done this in various places--Liberty Blvd in Bloomfield, East Liberty Blvd in East Liberty, and Beechwood Blvd in Squirrel Hill--but there's little enforcement of the parking regulations (especially on lower Beechwood). It's a good step. The city also created bike lanes on Forbes between Dallas and Braddock, the stretch through Frick Park where drivers regularly exceed 50 mpg, but on the westbound side the lane disappears at the entrance to Homewood Cemetery, leaving cyclists nowhere to go, and it's even worse eastbound, where the lane is narrow as it nears Braddock and the buses veer right into them. I give Ravenstahl credit for making this a priority, but I still think he can do a better job.

Now when will they extend the bike trail on the left bank of Mon from where it ends short of the Glenwood Bridge past Sandcastle? It's about parking.


  • At 10:21 AM, Blogger Der Geis said…

    I don't buy into the "there's too many hills, the roads are narrow and windy, boo hoo" argument against biking in Pittsburgh. San Francisco has hills and yet biking there is doing very well. Most European cities in general and Copenhagen in particular have narrow, twisty roads with rivers and canals running right through the city and yet bicycling infrastructure is doing spectacularly there. In Copenhagen, a third of all commuting is done by bicycle. In Pittsburgh it's 6/10 of 1 percent. Copenhagen has accomplished this because 30 years ago they decided that this is what they were going to do. They spent the money. Invested the political capital and made it happen.

    Pittsburgh could do the same thing but it will take people to stop crying about how impossible it is and just start making it happen.

  • At 7:06 PM, Blogger mantooth said…

    while I agree that Pittsburgh cyclists need to be more insistent and need to demand more both from drivers and from city government, I disagree that San Francisco's geography is quite so similar. Hilly, yes; but the ravines and hollows and creeks and rivers and "runs" and such that characterize our geography don't exist in SF. Not a reason not to try, I agree; but it is a factor, especially for an essentially bankrupt city.

    (On that note, I was amazed and pleased to see that the city actually completed the bike/walk trail on the Hot Metal Bridge a couple years back. I was certain they'd use that money on something else.)

    I also think that SF has got a ways to go in terms of bike-friendliness. The cyclists there are admirably loud and uncompromising in insisting upon their rights, but there isn't great bike-path marking there and there have been more cyclist deaths than a city like that should have.

    None of this should be interpreted to suggest that I'm satisfied with Pittsburgh's progress on making its roads bike-friendly: I'm not. I bike on the East End, through Oakland and Uptown and into Downtown regularly and the level of bike-awareness is unacceptable. I think the city should jump on its recent attention as "the rust-belt city that reinvented itself and resurrected its environment" to stress sustainable commuting.

  • At 6:01 PM, Blogger elbowspeak said…

    Even the "liberal utopia" of Seattle has plenty of problems encouraging/supporting its bike traffic. Folks around here like to pat themselves on the back for their inherent Puget Sound cycling awesomeness, but there are geographical and planning bottlenecks that make traversing the city - especially east-west - a low odds crapshoot that only long time riders feel comfortable taking on daily.

    I imagine the flat grid-ness of the second city makes it more adaptable to cycling conversion than the geographically bound cities like Seattle and 'Burgh. SF, as you say, has very few geographical bottlenecks - just stupid hipsters riding brakeless fixies, eschewing helmets and lights. That's why so many die. Too cool for bike school.

  • At 12:59 PM, Blogger mantooth said…

    preach on, brother. I love city cycling, as you know well, and the fixed-gear hipsters in SF and DC and (increasingly) even here in the Burgh give us all a bad name.


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