Sunday, September 7, 2014

Critical Mass Pittsburgh, August 2014: East Street

[still technically an unfinished draft; I haven't written the part from Perrysville and East to back into the city, and out Penn Ave to 16th Street]

My plan was to tackle riding a couple of difficult streets in a law-abiding manner. CM in other cities is an in-your-face taking over of the streets by as many bicycles as can be assembled in one spot. We don't do that here, at least not on this ride. (The closest to that is the Pittsburgh Underwear Ride, which I regularly ride, and recommend heartily.) CM here is about cyclists re-claiming the streets, which is the point of CM, but by assertively taking the lane and adhering to traffic laws, we intend to gain the respect of motorists. Other locations' CM rides which do not do this do the cause of cyclist rights as much harm as good.

Our turnout was tiny, only five at the start, though we picked up two more on the North Side. This is OK by me. I'm for quality, not quantity. Our plan was to ride up East Street, a 35 mph street which few cyclists tackle. Why so few? I wanted to find out. The whole point of our CM is to figure out what makes certain streets undesirable, and so to devise any recommendations.

From our start at Dippy (the dinosaur statue next to the Carnegie Museums and Library in Oakland), we headed first out Forbes and left onto Craig Street. It's a narrow street, so there is no question that we would fill the lane. Since there were only five of us, there is also no concern about corking, as we can stay together and pass as one through any change of a traffic signal. For all that, we have decided we will not cork, should we ever get large enough, but split into groups so as to pass through each corner legally.

After we got past the Baum Blvd corner, the lane widens a bit, so we took the full lane. Why? Because there are two lanes. The law requires us to use the right-most lane or as far to the right as practicable. On a multi-lane street, the first half of that "or" clause applies, so we used the whole lane, without apology. It's also safer that way.

We continued doing that after the merge with Bigelow Blvd, but upon taking the split to get on the Bloomfield Bridge, we fully occupied the single lane prior to the merge point for traffic from outbound Bigelow. There, we are using the other half of that "or", but in doing that, "as far to the right as practicable" means, literally, for us to take the lane, forcing any cars that come up behind us to stay behind us. It is not safe for anyone to pass us here. We take the lane, we get into the merged lane as one, and any cars that were there, just had to follow us. This is both legal and desirable, because to do anything else would be unsafe.

Once on the bridge, the lane we were in was the left of the two forward lanes. We maintained course in the left lane, which would seem to defy the law, but what we are doing is also preparing to make a left turn, and the law does allow that pedalcycles may use the left lane when preparing to make a left turn. It would also be unsafe to try to get over to the right, as we would only have to get back over to the left in 300 yards. While the bridge is posted 25 mph, ambient motor traffic speeds are more like 45 mph on a routine basis. Maintaining course in that left lane is the only safe way to travel. Once again, CM is claiming our rightful use of the streets.

A left onto Liberty Avenue, and we had what would seem to be a good thing, but is not. Liberty has a "door zone bike lane" from here down to Herron Avenue. Bike lanes might seem like a good thing, but when they are plastered right up against a line of parked cars, as is the case here, the bike lane is precisely where NOT to ride. The traffic lane itself is also not wide enough for bikes and cars to ride side-by-side within the lane. But the two together do provide enough horizontal space to keep a safe distance from the cars while at the same time allow unfettered passing by motorists, them giving us the requisite four feet of horizontal space. To do this, I got right on top of the white line marking the left edge of the bike lane. Really, that lane should be moved left a couple of feet, and a buffer placed between the parking lane and the bike lane.

At the corner of 40th Street, the parking lane is replaced by a right-turn-only lane for cars turning onto 40th. Bikes and buses can continue straight from this lane. This is a tad confusing for people, motorists and cyclists alike. Cyclists have to make sure that cars are not going to cut them off while trying to make a right turn. What motorists making a right are supposed to do is merge into any bike traffic in the bike lane, giving any cyclists the right of way if the cyclist is there first. OTOH, cyclists should yield right of way to any motorist who is there first. Cyclists actually have to get slightly left as they go through the intersection, as the parking lane resumes immediately after the corner, and the DZBL appears to be a bit left of where they typically end up when approaching that corner. Even for side by side cyclists and motorists, it's still a bit sticky as the cyclist has to travel those few horizontal feet closer to that car.

Past 40th, the downhill on Liberty gets scary. Cyclists should actually abandon the bike lane and just get in the traffic lane here. There is no room for error in the bike lane; if a motorist opened a door into a cyclist going down the hill at 25 mph or better, the resulting collision would send the cyclist airborne for several yards, and the result would be major injuries, or worse. Motorists, too, should be cognizant of this possibility, and understand and accept that the safest place for a cyclist to be is fully in the driving lane. If that means they must operate their cars below the posted limit of 35, then so be it.

After Herron, Liberty becomes one wide inbound lane but without a marked bike lane, so it becomes easier for cyclists to co-exist with same-direction motorists for the couple hundred yards down to where we turned at 32nd Street. We could have turned at 33rd, but it comes up quick and is banked slightly the wrong way. 31st is very busy because of the bridge over the river. But 32nd is one way from Liberty to Penn, so that's the cross street we took. It was easy to get in the left lane of 32nd, to make the left onto Penn.

Penn is two-way at 32nd (one wide lane each direction) but becomes one-way at 31st, so we got into and stayed in the right lane. Somewhere between 31st and 25th, two cyclists unaffiliated with the ride passed us, the first on the left, the second on the right. The guy passing us on the left had no problem at all -- he just got in the left lane, gunned it, and got right past us without any problem. The guy passing us on the right had to call out several times to let us know he was there, and even then, it wasn't obvious who was saying what, or why. Only after he got in among us did I realize he was unaffiliated. Frankly, I preferred the passer on the left. He did not need anyone's OK or attention. Just like a motorist should, he changed lanes, passed us, and got back in the lane in front of us.

A brief regroup at the red light for 16th Street, then we turned as one and started across the bridge. This seemed a little uncomfortable. If there is supposed to be a lane separation there, I couldn't detect it, not until 150 yards later when the stripes for the lane separations became somewhat apparent. I say somewhat because they were easier to see from behind than when directly upon them. We took the lane, but having said that, there was no clear delineation of which lane we were taking, starting across. Once firmly established on the bridge, it was clearer, and as usual, cars went flying past us at well over the speed limit. Or were they? What is the speed limit on the 16th St Bridge, anyway? There is no sign! Is it 25, the speed limit on outbound Penn? Or 35, the speed limit on Liberty? Or, since there is no sign, so by default, 55? Whatever the number, motorists scream across the bridge. But hey, they scream across every bridge. To make up for crawling through every tunnel, I guess.
Hey city (or whoever owns this bridge): Howsbout making it clearer that 25 is the preferred speed limit, and then enforce that?

16th becomes Chestnut St on the north end of the bridge. A second meetup location was planned for the corner of Chestnut and Progress, but there was nobody there. I'd figured on getting there about 6:35; it was actually about 6:45 when we went past. I doubt anyone would have given up that quickly. (We did pick up two more later, on East St.)

From there, we crossed East Ohio Street, continuing on Chestnut Street, with its bricks and trolley tracks. This is close to dangerous, as it is slightly downhill and so quite easy to move with some velocity. The brick surface is enough to jiggle loose various body parts, and while the rails look nice and smooth, they will surely dump you if you get in them. Edge riding is out of the question, as you are right up against that right rail. There is no question that cyclists have to take the lane and ride between the rails. There is no other way to do it. And motorists damn well better give them some space here! We had no trouble, but others might not be so lucky. I know that when I drive along here, I try to get the car up on the steel rails to smooth out the ride. Cyclists can't do that. But this underscores my belief that rail tracks and cyclists are not a good mix, and uneven bricks make it a most unpleasant and unforgiving a piece of road.

Shortly we came to the corners of first Spring Garden Avenue, then Concord St, where we had to make a left. These are nasty corners. The first is very wide, with a lot of traffic on the cross street. At the second, also very wide, oncoming traffic is coming down a steep hill. Executing a left requires a cyclist to get fully into the middle of the street, which can be unsettling if you're not accustomed to doing that, and it has to be done on a moderate uphill, besides. The group actually came to a standstill in the middle of the corner to get our bearings, rather not on purpose. It might actually be easier to seek out a quasi-legal alternative to getting through here, because the legal way just isn't safe. Adding darkness or any weather condition to the mix would only make it worse. If I had to do this every day, I would try to figure out some of the back streets through this neighborhood.

Concord St itself, once we got onto it, was not difficult, a typical narrow, one-way street, with house fronts that come almost up to the curb. These would be ideal for cycling, if it weren't for all the damned cars.

With a quick right, we were onto what became, one short block later, East Street. At this very spot is also the on-ramp to I-279 north, so traffic speeds approaching from the left were insanely high for a 25 mph street, though most were well to the left, headed for the ramp. The problem isn't the traffic itself headed up East, a steady trickle, but the perception of speed. Once we were around the corner, cars could easily get past us for the one brief block where it is two lanes, but then had to get behind us for about 50 yards (that left lane becomes a left turn over the highway), and that was a little unsettling. Once past that, East is one lane for another tenth of a mile or so before the stripes separate it into two northbound lanes, the right of which we took. As with any other two-lane street, there really is no space for cyclists and motorists to both be in the same lane at the same time, so they had to get behind us. In addition, there is a barely perceptible right bend in the road here, making it difficult to see oncoming traffic too far ahead, though that traffic is posted 15 mph in preparation for a right-turn-only over the aforementioned bridge. Motorists really do have to cross the double yellow to pass us here. But this is also where the speed limit changes to 35, which really means ambient speeds of 45 or more, so drivers are impatient.

East Street was last worked on when it was built -- rebuilt, actually -- as part of the I-279 construction in the 1980s. It is made up of badly eroded concrete slabs. Every piece has the edges ground off, rubber dividers stick up everywhere, and longitudinal slots separate the lanes more than the white stripes do. This street is supposed to be repaved in 2014, but at ride time, this had not happened.

Once East opened up to two outbound lanes, we had little trouble. Cars went flying past us in the left lane continuously, but not a single horn, and no shouts out the window. It is a long but mild climb, not particularly difficult, just a couple of miles of steady 2 or 3% grade, a climb of 380 feet over 2.7 miles. The last little bit, after East splits to go up to its terminus at Perrysville Avenue, is a little steeper, 130 feet over a half mile, for about 5%. We took a breather at the top. Even this last little bit wasn't too bad. While we did not hug the parked cars, we did keep as far right as practicable, single file. Cars coming up behind us did have to cross the double yellow; the lanes are still not wide enough to accommodate both us and them without that being necessary. Even on a wide street, that is still necessary. Sometimes there were a few parking spaces open, allowing us to veer into them briefly, but that is not a sustainable practice, as we do move along continuously, though slowly uphill, and with several of us at once, at least one of us is not going to be in the parking lane.

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