Monday, March 3, 2014

Critical Mass Pittsburgh, February 2014 ride: Fifth and Forbes

Short version: Six riders biked from Oakland to Downtown and back, using Fifth and Forbes, and taking the lane. The ride was successful, and several lessons learned in both staging and planning. The weather was good, though cold. A good time was had by all. Now for the details. The first CM in Pittsburgh in almost four years was attended by only six riders, not bad for a day whose sunrise temperature was near zero Fahrenheit. CM disappeared after the April 2010 ride after several years of attracting crowds of 50 to 100. Most joined up with a newly created ride, Flock of Cycles, which is still going strong, but then as now, is more a fun ride than activist. The activist side of CM had largely proved its point, laying the groundwork for a groundswell of regular cyclists commuting to work, school, and other social activities. Most wanted to obey the law and yet have fun, and the defiant, anarchist side of CM wasn't doing it for them, was doing more harm than good. Yet a need still existed, then as now, to keep pressing for acceptance on regular streets. One of the most common needs is to get from Pittsburgh's two major central business districts, the Golden Triangle, where the rivers come together, and Oakland, home to two major universities (Pitt and Carnegie-Mellon) as well as several large hospitals and smaller colleges. Oakland alone draws more traffic than Harrisburg, Erie or Scranton. Plenty of transit service exists between the two, at least 10 parallel bus routes, and plans have existed for over a century to construct a subway or some other high-level transit system. But getting between the two, by bicycle, is not easy, particularly headed from Downtown to Oakland, which is slightly uphill. The purpose of CM, then, was to establish that cyclists can, in fact, use the main city street connecting the two, Forbes Avenue. We planned to ride as tightly together as feasible, the entire length of Fifth Avenue from Oakland, regroup in Point State Park, then ride through Downtown and back out Forbes Avenue, starting and ending at Dippy, the Carnegie Museum's life size Diplodocus (see photo). In so doing, we would have to deal with four-lanes-across Fifth through Oakland, a lot of bus traffic in the curb lane, all the while dodging some nasty potholes. Outbound, Forbes is two lanes for most of the way, but narrows to a single lane just past the Birmingham Bridge. Just past this, high speed traffic off the bridge merges from the right, which makes for a particularly challenging piece of the ride. This half mile stretch is also the steepest grade on the route, enough to dissuade most cyclists from even trying. The six of us got out on outbound Forbes for the two short blocks to Craig St, and almost immediately, within a couple seconds, nearly got hit by a large taxi van, one of the shuttle services (Pittsburgh Transportation Company #2035). *Sigh* We opted not to report it, as nothing serious happened, it was just one jerk driver, and we were as yet not a half minute into the ride. Easier to ignore and keep moving. Bigger fish to fry. We got split at the Craig St light, but the front three held up for the rest to catch up. I'm not sure how we'd handle that on a larger ride. Maybe we would have to cork, it just works easier that way after you get any significant number of riders. Or heavy marshaling work. We'll figure that out later. I was just amazed that we ran into that problem on the first turn of the ride with only six of us. Once on Fifth, we had smooth enough sailing, the biggest problem being dodging potholes. Buses were predictable, car traffic was pleasant, we were very visible. Van's bike was equipped with an extremely bright taillight, brighter than many car taillights, so brought up the rear. Fifth through Oakland requires one lane change, where it goes from four to three lanes westbound; not difficult to pull off, but might be tougher to choreograph with a larger group. Perspective from the front: It is difficult for a strong rider like myself to hold back, not race far out in front, and so lose the aspect of group criticality. I am used to gunning it through here, making it from Craig St all the way downtown in less than 15 minutes. It took us closer to 25 to make the trip as a group. Smiles from the crowd: Several onlookers noted the presence of a set of cyclists, possibly because we were there at all, possibly because we were so conspicuous with our bright attire and flashing headlights. An event (hockey game?) at Consol Energy Center induced some congestion and a lot of foot traffic, as did an ambulance working at one corner which had traffic stopped briefly. This facilitated conversation with people on the street and in cars. "What's with all the bikes?" was the question most frequently heard. "Just a group of friends out for a ride on a beautiful night," was our response. "Aren't you guys cold?" "No, not really, we're dressed for it." And so it went. Downtown, too, was busy but not jammed. Fifth through the Golden Triangle is two lanes across but narrows to one after Smithfield because of building construction. We were stopped more often than moving, mainly due to lights and other traffic. We fit in well. A left onto Liberty Avenue, two lanes westbound, also trouble-free, though it was useful to the group that I could predict where individual buses were headed and whether we would have to deal with them passing us, stopping, or turning. "That 61C will be making a left, so shouldn't be a problem, but that G3 over there is going the same way we are, so watch that one." Forewarned is forearmed. We had to wait at the light at Commonwealth, so entered the park as a tight group. This was and would be the breather, if we do this ride again, as planned. In warmer months, there would be porta-potties available, but not so yet, and the permanent facilities by the fountain at the point were not yet open. It was a gorgeous night, though, now just after sunset, so we took a few minutes down by the Point to warm our fingers, take a couple pictures, and collect our thoughts. For the ride back, we took Commonwealth, left on Liberty (again, me noting where individual buses were headed), then right onto Stanwix, which can be a bit tricky. It's a signaled turn lane, no right on red, with a lot of pedestrian traffic, so adherence to law would be a good idea. Then Stanwix, which we are on for only a single block followed by a left turn without a light. Some buses coming at us turn on Stanwix, some don't, and many have a stop there. As a seasoned rider, I never have a problem here, but getting a group through there might be tricky. It might really help to cork southbound Stanwix, just to make it easier if we had a sizable group. It might help to cork northbound Stanwix if we had a sizable group, just to get everyone across. Not a problem with six; just thinking ahead. Fourth Ave is a quiet street most of the time and has a signaled pedestrian crossing which slows traffic. That notwithstanding, it didn't take long before someone had to go screaming up Fourth at 40 mph. No harm done, but still, we shouldn't have to deal with that sort of thing. Otherwise, an uneventful trip up Fourth, which has a noticeable grade between Smithfield and Grant. No problems making the left onto Grant and right onto Forbes, though we did say goodbye to one rider here. OK, down to five for the tougher second half of the ride. Forbes out to Duquesne U is not too challenging, lots of traffic lights and bus stops to calm traffic. After Duquesne U, with south- and northbound traffic now split off (at the Armstrong Tunnel and Washington Plaza, respectively), traffic assumes a more determined feeling, now a headlong dash east to Oakland. Here, just taking the right lane works quite well. I did this same trip an hour earlier and also had little trouble. The five of us got separated in the one spot where we should have stayed close together, just after the downhill to the Birmingham Bridge. Forbes narrows to a single outbound lane on an uphill. It's a wide lane, but still substandard width. Riders who allow drivers to pass are asking for close passes and getting shoved into the curb. It would really have helped if we had stuck together as a tight group through here. This chunk of road needs some help. There is a small divider blocking access to a dead lane which would be super helpful for cyclists to use, but getting into it is tricky, and certainly would be difficult for inexperienced cyclists in low-light and low-traction situations. If cuts could be made, and cyclists directed to that, that would help cycling immensely. But even spread out, we didn't have any trouble claiming the lane. It might have been a different story if traffic had been heavier. The next difficulty is the dangerous situation of 50 mph traffic approaching off the bridge from the right. Whether cyclists are in the main lane on Forbes or the dead lane, they have to deal with high speed cars, and do it on an uphill. As an experienced, assertive cyclist, I know how to force my way into traffic, but this is a learned art, and not what anyone else does naturally. This is the crux of the ride. It's a spot where cyclists need to learn how to do this. It's a spot where individual motorists need to learn to slow down from 50 to sub-25 and expect to see cyclists. It's a major issue for traffic engineers to figure out how to redesign this merge point so that cyclists have a way to do this safely. That said, this is the weakest point of the current street system infrastructure. If this is not fixed, there will be no cycling traffic. The simplest thing would be a stop sign at the end of the ramp. The next simplest thing would be to enforce speed limits on the bridge so they aren't doing 50 to slow down *from*. We managed to regroup by the light at Craft Ave, a significant uphill, the closest thing to a tough climb on this ride, though short. It's also where Forbes becomes three lanes outbound, and traffic is always difficult. Lots of cars in the right lane are making a right onto Craft, and lots of buses going straight are pulling to the curb at the stop for Magee Hospital just after the light. As experienced road cyclists, we five had no problems here, but this would be a challenge for many others. Again, some road re-design would help here, and the bicycle contingent needs to be part of the discussion. Once past Magee Hospital, holding to the right lane is fairly easy, as bus traffic and cars stacking for turns onto residential side streets reduces right-lane traffic speed markedly as compared to the other two lanes. A mile and six lights later, we were back at the dinosaur. A quick debriefing, thank yous and good-byes, and we were on our way. A successful first ride accomplished! Some post-scripts: * On Sunday, in a snowstorm, I found myself again biking on Forbes through Oakland. Still not difficult in terms of traffic, though I did not have to deal with the piece from the Birmingham Bridge to Craft. * Also Sunday, having lunch with several other cyclists, I learned that many had not heard about it. Apparently Facebook, Twitter, and the Bike-Pgh message board is not sufficient to get such word out. * The Sunday ride featured an alternative to outbound Forbes, the use of the Fifth Avenue sidewalk from the Birmingham Bridge to Craft. Despite two inches of fresh snow, this worked pretty well. Getting to that from outbound Forbes would be troublesome, though.