Sunday, June 29, 2014

Critical Mass Pittsburgh, June 2014 ride: Brownsville Road

[unfinished, 8:30 p.m EDT., Sunday]

June 27, 2014, the largest CM ride in Pittsburgh in four years -- nine riders! We tackled riding through a difficult part of the city -- Brownsville Road through Mount Oliver, Carrick, and into Brentwood, returning via Streets Run Road, site of a cyclist fatality in 2013. We wanted to see why so few people commute by bicycle around here, and make recommendations as to how to improve cycling mode percentage.

CM has been almost non-existent in Pittsburgh since the law-abiding Flock of Cycles rides started in May 2010. Prior to that, CM rides had an air of anarchy common to many such rides around the world. No leaders, no plan, no guidance, no police help of any kind, and a general sense of lawlessness. The rides were successful in raising awareness, empowering people to get out on bikes, building alliances and friendships, and sharing information. All good, but the anarchy became more liability than asset, so when Flock rides began, almost immediately the momentum moved there, and worked for a common good. More recently, that sense of anarchy reinstated itself in the entirely separate Pittsburgh Underwear Ride, which now gathers four times as many as Flock, and double the largest CM ride I know to have existed.

The situation at present
All of this has led to a strong cycling culture, even in a town with monster hills and a brutal, four-season climate. Our local advocacy organization, Bike-Pgh, works with governments, businesses, engineers, and civil planners to make it easier to get around by bike, leading to a Bronze designation from the League of American Bicyclists. Clearly, we have a lot of good stuff happening here. Yet there is so much work to be done, because while cycling in some areas is easy, even preferable (the East End, Oakland, Lawrenceville), bikes are still a rare occurrence in others, and this is where a revived CM comes into play. As in the "old days" of CM (think 2007), we wanted to assert our right to use the public streets as if we belonged there, as indeed we do. So why is it so hard to bike south of Mount Washington? We set out to find out, and sure enough, we found out why.

The terrain
We wanted to explore the southern part of the city, but not the well-biked South Side Flats. We needed to get south of Arlington Avenue, which runs along the high ridge that runs parallel to "The Mon" (the Monongahela River). The best way there is South 18th Street, which snakes its way up the 460-foot hillside. It takes a cyclist 15-25 minutes to make that climb, 1.7 miles of continuous 7+% grade. That might be reason enough to dissuade any but the most hardy cyclists from heading south, but it gets worse. After Arlington, where 18th becomes Brownsville Road, the way south contains 283 more feet of vertical climb in only four more miles, at least to Wainwright Street in Brentwood, just short of the PA51 corner, where we turned off for the return trip to town.

That's not all. At present, pavement conditions along here are horrible, with potholes, patches, gravel from rain wash, and sunken longitudinal ruts that can knock a cyclist over into parked cars one way or traffic the other. Some of this road is to be re-paved in 2014, though we do not know when. This should help, as it has on other city streets with a high cyclist mode share, but right now it takes some guts to ride this regularly.

Beyond this, the traffic along here is not used to seeing bikes on a regular basis, as they do in the East End. Brownsville is one lane each way, with on-street parking on both sides, and with hills and curves everywhere, there is no spot along this road with anything but a double yellow line down the middle. While the state law requiring four feet of space to pass a bicycle is increasingly known, fewer know that a motorist may legally cross the double yellow to pass a bicycle, if it is otherwise safe to do so. Cyclists often ride in the parking lane, which is fine if empty, but often is not. Thus, this practice is not sustainable, forcing cyclists to merge back into moving traffic.

The route 
Part 1 - Oakland to South Side. The group started in Oakland, next to the huge dinosaur statue adjacent to the Carnegie Museum, then rolled through Panther Hollow between the museum and Carnegie-Mellon University to the South Side, where a second meeting point brought our contingent up to nine riders.
Part 2 - Climbing. We set out climbing South 18th Street, as described above. As we had riders of widely varying ability and equipment, from women in their 50s to a guy on a fixed gear, to men who spend their weekends climbing hills around Pittsburgh, we got fairly stretched out on the hill. We regrouped in the parking lot of a gas station at Arlington Ave to catch our breath.
Part 3 - Brownsville Road. The 4.25 miles south of Arlington consists of lots of ups and downs through Mount Oliver Boro (a suburb surrounded on all sides by the City of Pittsburgh), Carrick (a city neighborhood), and on into Brentwood, an adjacent suburb. We turned onto Wainwright Avenue, one block before a major intersection, Clairton Road. We had neither need nor desire to fight with that corner.
Part 4 - Downhill. We threaded our way through a residential neighborhood to a long downhill stretch consisting mainly of Doyle and Streets Run Roads. The 2013 fatality occurred on the latter, so we were curious to inspect that bit of road to try to reconstruct, first hand, what might have happened.
Part 5 - Back to the trail and the city. We were able to make a simple, seamless connection to the GAP (Great Allegheny Passage) trail, past the Hays eagle nest, and in a few short minutes, were back at the Hot Metal Bridge, where we thanked one another for a good ride, and parted ways.
Statistics. About 20 miles from Dippy the Dinosaur to Hot Metal. From MapMyRide: "This is a 19.3-mile route in Pittsburgh, PA. The route has a total ascent of 1,065 feet and a maximum elevation of 1,282 feet."

Some quick observations
* Motorists who rarely encounter bicycles do not know what to do when they do encounter one (or nine). Most simply slow down and/or give us the space we need. A few know about the passing rules, but fewer know about the crossing-the-double-yellow part.
* Few drivers understand what life is like on a bike, so do not appreciate that the safest spot on the road for a cyclist to be is fully in the lane. Hugging cars can get you doored. The side of the road is usually full of loose gravel that can cause us to fall, broken glass that can blow a tire and cause us to fall, carrion that can be big enough to dump us, as well as other hazards such as downed branches, and drain grates with slots in line with the path of travel. "As far to the right as is practicable," the wording of the law, means "as far to the right as can be safely put into practice", and that DOES NOT mean "as far right as possible at all times". It means we may legally "take the lane" and keep it until such time as we may safely pull to the right to release that lane to you so you can get by us easier. If this means you drive 14 mph behind us for a while, then so you do. Treat us like you'd treat a backhoe traveling down the street. They would be taking the lane, same as us, and going the same speed. We are not holding up traffic, it is that traffic is going 14 mph right there. We are traffic. Understand that, accept that, and life gets easier for everyone.
* On-street parking is a pain. We had the least trouble when we could use the curb lane for travel.
* Sidewalk parking is a pain. I can't imagine trying to walk along parts of this road on the sidewalk. Both on South 18th and Brownsville, there were parked cars either half on or fully on the sidewalk. In some cases, the sidewalk was being used as a storage area for wrecked cars at an auto body shop. Granted that bikes should not use the sidewalk (even if it is not a business district), but the presence of the cars would put people out in the street, too. This limits the usability of public transit.
* Speaking of which, there is an amazing amount of transit service along 18th and Brownsville. The 51 Carrick runs every 10 minutes until well into the evening, and the 54C runs along much of this, too. One has to ask, why do you even need a car if you live anywhere along here? This service level is almost as good as on the East Busway, and the Downtown-Oakland corridor.
* Taking a step back and considering the above, not using a car should be a goal to strive for in these neighborhoods, and identifying why people choose to, anyway, would be a worthy project. Plus follow-up.

Some specific issues
Many thanks to Colleen Spiegler, who recorded some of the ride with a fender-mounted, rear-facing camera. I wish I had been similarly prepared with a front-mounted camera.
* Video 1, South 18th from Mary Street to Quarry Street
* Video 2, South 18th at Quarry to Brownsville Road [somewhere in Carrick]
* Video 5, downhill on Doyle Road then Streets Run Road

Monday, June 2, 2014

Critical Mass Pittsburgh, May 2014 ride: East Carson out to Becks Run Rd

Our two-person Critical Mass ride tonight tackled East Carson Street between the Sarah Street merge point and Becks Run Rd, a most bike-unfriendly bit of road. Four cars passed us unsafely. Thanks to Dino Angelici, who knows this area better than I do.

I had long wanted to try a nasty piece of road like this. First, a brief description. East Carson through the South Side is a narrow, two-lane city street, where it's generally not possible ever to exceed the posted 25 mph limit. It widens a bit through the recent development known locally as South Side Works, on the site of a former steel plant. There, with turn lanes and much wider single lanes, 35 mph is not all that untypical. A bike lane exists for a short while. It is not particularly horrible.

Things get interesting the farther out you go. Sarah Street, which parallels Carson through most of the South Side, merges into Carson just as the road, also known as PA Route 885, develops into a moderate speed connector to the South Hills. The two outbound lanes are squeezed into a single lane, with 
neither shoulder nor sidewalk, but equipped with an eight-inch curb and various storm water drain grates. Here is a screen grab from Google StreetView:

Clearly a no-passing zone, and nowhere for anyone to go if there is any sort of slowdown, other than to get in line behind what's in front of you.

This was our challenge.

Fortunately, this mean piece of road is less than a half mile in length. The next traffic light is at Becks Run Road, which would be a pleasant destination, as there is an ice cream shop on the corner. Becks Run Road itself is a fairly pleasant climb into Carrick and Baldwin. But there is no real way to get there.

The only alternative means of getting to this point is to ride the Baldwin Boro Trail out to a gate in a fence, and scramble across a pair of live, high-speed railroad tracks. Trains are frequent, as this is the main line between Pittsburgh and the Baltimore/D.C. area, and far enough out of the city that trains are up to full traveling speed of 40+ mph. Crossing tracks is technically illegal, but that aside, if they're that frequent and that fast, it's not safe.

Now, as to the ride. Dino and I met at Dippy, the Carnegie Museum's full-size diplodocus carnegii statue, and rode out on Forbes, left on South Craig, left onto Fifth Avenue inbound, to ride side-by-side in one of the four lanes on Fifth, as allowed by law. This is not particularly difficult, not all that challenging, though being passed on both sides by traffic can be a bit unsettling to some people. It's posted 25, though, and the lights are timed to that, so traffic is not that difficult. It gets a bit more interesting after the curve at Robinson Street, where inbound traffic arbitrarily splits. I usually take the right split, as most of the cars slow to make a left onto the I-376 on-ramp, then the remaining traffic speeds up a lot. The only safe thing to do here is to take the right split and take the lane, where the downhill easily allows you to get to the posted 25 and then some.

We signaled a left, got in the left lane, and made a left onto the Birmingham Bridge. Again, for cyclists who feel confident taking the lane, there is no problem with this at all. If you hug the right side of the road, you will find it intimidating and difficult to make this turn. Once on the bridge, though, a buffered bike lane appears on the right, separating you from bridge traffic. Highly welcome bike infrastructure, even if it is only paint. However, there is an on-ramp from Forbes that comes up from the right, and cars have right-of-way over cyclists, so cyclists need to be prepared to stop, and rightly so. Sight lines are decent, though, so by checking at the right point, it is possible to safely fly through the yield sign at the crossing if no cars are approaching. On the far end of the bridge, similar to getting on the bridge, it is necessary to signal left and get over into the center lane. The right lane turns right onto inbound East Carson; we were going outbound. Really we should have gotten over two lanes,as the center lane becomes a right-turn-only lane a block later on Carson.

As stated above, Carson for the next 10 blocks is not too bad. Even at the Sarah Street merge point, it's still two lanes, outbound. It becomes miserable 100 or so yards later where that squeezes to one and the shoulder disappears. For the next half mile, you get what you see in the StreetView image above, and everyone is trying to go 50 mph.

We took the lane, two abreast. Almost immediately, we got a horn. Shortly thereafter, someone passed us. Note, this is on a gentle bend to the right. There is no way anyone can pass safely here. But a second did it. And a third. And a fourth. Dino and I were riding full-out, probably 25 to 30 mph. It's posted 35 (modified to say 85 on one sign). The fourth passing car came dangerously close to a head-on with a northbound car. I waved back a fifth when I wondered if the fourth might not make it. Wrecks aside, the last thing I needed was to get shoved into the hillside by someone who wouldn't make it.

Four-tenths of a mile later, we were at the ice cream shop. One of the cars that passed us also pulled in, not to argue, but to get ice cream. Really. They risked their lives to pass us to get to the ice cream shop maybe 10 seconds sooner.

That was with two of us. What if there had been four, or six, or 20? Or just one?

We are entitled to ride on the road. The trail to here is not an option. It matters not that we were getting ice cream. We may well have been wanting to head up Becks Run Road.

How do backhoes and other slow-moving vehicles manage along here? I don't drive out this way that often, but the next time I do, I might try driving at 30 mph and see what happens. The road configuration continues in this fashion for most of another mile to the Glenwood Bridge. We did not investigate further.

After our ice cream cones, Dino showed me the path across from the end of Becks Run Rd that leads to the tracks. We had to wait for a train. One had passed in the same direction while we were eating our ice cream, and another had passed while we were rolling through South Side Works. Busy tracks! Once across, we rolled our bikes along about 100 yards of track, downstream, until we found the break in the fence. Sometimes it's locked; this time it was not.

After a bit of pulling knotweed, Dino and I went our separate ways, happy that we'd tried this, with plans to try another one sometime soon.

I'd done zero planning for this, no Event in Facebook, no message board thread, no posters or anything. Next time, we'll have at least one of those three. In fact, it's up already!

Sunday, June 1, 2014

What an honest attempt at bicycle commuting looks like

Final numbers for May: 336 miles, including a couple of Saturday trips to the pharmacy on unicycle. Second best personal month ever!

This is what an honest attempt at bicycle commuting looks like. Each trip in or out of the city is 10 miles. Add in a few group rides of 10 to 15 miles. A few bus trips, a couple motorcycle trips, and one, ONE, car ride.

I tend to stay home on weekend days. The 11th, 18th, 25th and 26th -- Sundays and a long-weekend Monday -- I do not remember leaving the property. FWIW, June is off to a similar start. Another Sunday come and gone and I didn't leave the house.