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


  1. Part 1 of an unfinished piece describing our exploration of the southern part of Pittsburgh. More to follow, but I wanted to get this, mainly background material, out in the world while it's still Sunday evening.

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