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!

1 comment:

  1. In four-tenths of a mile of narrow road, four drivers try to kill themselves, and us, passing unsafely. This is what cyclists are up against when there is no travel alternative.