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February 4, 2016

Searching for safer streets

With two Pitt staff members killed while bicycling in the last four months — one in Oakland — and several local pedestrians struck by buses, the Staff Association Council (SAC) scheduling of three brown bag talks on safety in Oakland is especially timely.

The message of the three presenters — from a local bicycling group, the Pitt Police and the University transportation office — for the first session on bike and pedestrian safety Jan. 27: The situation can be improved, but it’s going to take a lot of time and the coordination of many stakeholders.

The intersection of Fifth and Bellefield avenues should have a dedicated walk signal for pedestrians, when all traffic is stopped, according to one staff member at the SAC session on safety. The staff member said four staff members from one department have been struck at this intersection.

The intersection of Fifth and Bellefield avenues should have a dedicated walk signal for pedestrians, when all traffic is stopped, according to one staff member at the SAC session on safety. The staff member said four staff members from one department have been struck at this intersection.

Dan Yablonsky, business development manager for the cycling advocacy group BikePGH, pointed out that since 2000 there has been a 408 percent increase in the number of people riding bikes in Pittsburgh, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, making the ’Burgh the 11th most biked city among America’s 60 largest. On the same survey, the Steel City is also the fourth most walked urban area, and fifth when those two modes of transportation are combined. “It’s an incomplete number,” Yablonsky added, since it fails to count more occasional or seasonal bicyclists and pedestrians.

But there may be a reason people need to be cautious about bicycling in Pittsburgh: A Bicycling magazine survey just prior to 2000, he noted, rated Pittsburgh America’s third-worst city for bicycling, due to safety concerns.

Making bicycling safer, and making bicyclists feel safer, will be a tough task here and elsewhere. Yablonsky cited a 2012 Oregon study by the Portland Bureau of Transportation in which only 1 percent of people’s responses pegged them as “strong and fearless” cyclists, meaning they would bike no matter what the conditions. Yablonsky puts himself in the next most confident category: the 7 percent of people who are “enthused and confident” about bicycling most places. However, he added, while “running with the bulls is not an issue” for such cyclists, bicycling on urban streets should be a much less dangerous endeavor than braving a bovine stampede. Sixty percent of Portland survey respondents agreed, rating themselves “interested but concerned” when it came to two-wheel travels through city streets, and 30 percent said simply “No way, no how” to the prospect of even trying to bicycle in such an environment.

How to lessen car/bike accidents? One method is to lower speed limits, “because they have a serious impact on the toll of a crash,” Yablonsky reports. Cyclists struck by cars going 20 mph have a 90 percent survival rate, but only a 10 percent survival rate when the car is going 40 mph.
“How are we designing our streets so that speeding is not an option, aggressive driving is not an option, distracted driving is not an option?” he asked.

BikePGH has for many years offered a map of the city’s safest bike routes. Recently the city began installing bike lanes from Downtown to the city’s outskirts, and BikePGH has counted more than 1,000 cyclists a day on some of the Downtown routes alone. “We’re getting closer to that connected network, but we’re not there yet,” Yablonsky said.

Bike lanes offer different degrees of safety: lanes entirely shared with vehicular traffic; lanes marked with white lines immediately next to traffic; buffered bike lanes behind a double white line, separating them somewhat from passing vehicles; and protected bike lanes behind a line of pylons or even a concrete berm.

In October, Pitt staff member Susan Hicks was killed, Yablonsky believes, “because the decision wasn’t made to provide a safe place to ride a bike.”

Still, he allowed, “Oakland is an incredibly complicated beast,” with streets and street improvement controlled by or of concern to many stakeholders, including Pitt, Carnegie Mellon University, PennDOT, the Oakland Transportation Management Association (OTMA), the Port Authority of Allegheny County, and of course the City of Pittsburgh.

Yablonsky suggested that persons interesting in creating a safer Oakland attend the Uptown Ecoinnovation town meeting ( on Feb. 25, at a time and place still to be determined.

The meeting is the beginning of a monthlong planning process, led by Pittsburgh’s Department of City Planning and involving Uptown Partners of Pittsburgh, Oakland Planning and Development Corp., Sustainable Pittsburgh, the Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh, the Port Authority and Allegheny County Economic Development, aimed at creating better connections between the Downtown and Oakland.

Pitt Police Officer Guy Johnson says trouble always has stemmed from the Oakland interaction of pedestrians, cyclists, buses and cars — many of the latter driven by visitors looking for unfamiliar addresses for doctor’s appointments: “I’ve been here 32 years. Some of the pedestrian problems we had when I first started we still have,” Johnson said.

And, he allowed: “A lot of these new bike lanes have caused problems,” including a lot of near misses between cars and bikes. “I can understand why motorists are confused. I can understand why bicyclists are confused. I can understand why pedestrians are confused.

“Why don’t we just put up a crosswalk here? A sign there? Well, the University of Pittsburgh does not have that privilege,” he pointed out, citing the approval process involving other stakeholders.
“It’s not as easy as you think, that you can just cite every violation,” he said, noting that Pitt Police made about 4,400 traffic stops in 2015. “As many as we made, I’m sure there’s as many that have gotten away with it.” Plus, he said, “Catching a bicyclist is tough — you almost have to corner them, but we have done that.”

Officers also pass out safety information at freshman orientation and this year spoke to all dormitory RAs and gave them a guide to speaking with their students about traveling safely around Oakland among pedestrians, bikes and vehicles.

He said, “People are so distracted. They’re getting where they want to go without caring about anybody else.”

Kevin Sheehy, director of Parking, Transportation and Services as well as treasurer of OTMA, reported that a recent “campus crawl” by students, police and staff members, organized by SAC, had “found all kinds of deficiencies … Not all those deficiencies are ours … so things aren’t just going to happen overnight.”

He added: “We’re living in a society where nobody walks with their head up. People drive with their heads down. Too many people are looking at their phones.” To warn pedestrians about the contraflow lane on Fifth Avenue, which accommodates buses traveling from Downtown, Pitt has painted thick yellow lines at the entrances to crosswalks near Nordenberg Hall and elsewhere, which are intended to catch the eye of pedestrians looking down at their phones.

He added that Pitt has long used the Complete Streets concept, recently adopted by the City of Pittsburgh, which approaches street planning from a pedestrian point of view.

One result has been “bump-outs” — corner spots for pedestrians to queue up to cross major campus streets, which create a shorter crossing time.

One Pitt staffer who works near the corner of Fifth and Bellefield told Sheehy that she knew of four people in her department alone who had been struck by vehicles at that intersection. She asked whether the intersection could be changed so that traffic is stopped in all four directions simultaneously, as it is at the Bellefield and Forbes intersection and the Forbes and Fifth intersections at Craig Street.

Sheehy replied: “It is in the final stages of being totally proposed” by Pitt and other stakeholders.
Another staff member remarked: “Newton’s law, the second one in particular, doesn’t care who was at fault” in a vehicular accident involving pedestrians or bicyclists. “The pedestrian and bicyclist will lose every time.”

So how can speeding laws be enforced? the staff member asked.

Yablonsky, of BikePGH, noted that speed enforcement via radar is outlawed in the city. To permit it would require passage of new legislation in Harrisburg.

“It’d be great to see the University take the lead on that,” the questioner concluded.

—Marty Levine

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