South Pittsburgh districts left out in bike share project

Councilwomen say exclusion from venture exemplifies neglect for their districts


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If you want to know about bike infrastructure in the southern parts of Pittsburgh, ask Michael Munz.

When the weather's right, the 35-year-old will ride his bike from his home in Beechview to his office Downtown, taking the congested West Liberty Avenue for a stretch of the ride. It's a journey that he acknowledges can be harrowing, particularly on the way home.

"It's dangerous," he said. "There are cars that think that West Liberty Avenue is the Autobahn. ... People are flying through there."

The neighborhoods in the southern and southwestern parts of the city -- Mount Washington, the West End and the South Hills -- still lack the kind of cycling infrastructure that has sprouted up in other parts of the city. Although the city touts miles of bike lanes, none exist south of the Monongahela River, according to a map assembled by the advocacy group Bike Pittsburgh. That, combined with some very steep topography, has given people the perception that much of the area is unfriendly to cyclists outside of the bike trails that line the Monongahela River.

Councilwomen Natalia Rudiak and Theresa Kail-Smith, who together represent the South Hills, Mount Washington and the West End, view it as another example of their wedge of the city getting left out of developments that benefit East End and Downtown residents. And they worry the trend will continue with the Pittsburgh Bike Share Project, a plan to bring a bike-sharing program to the Steel City.

On Wednesday, as council prepared to vote on a bill that would advance the bike-sharing project, officials unveiled proposed locations for stations for the project, slated to roll out its first bicycles at the end of the summer in 2014. Modeled after projects in New York City, Washington, D.C., and London, it would install bicycle stations around the city that would allow users to check out bikes for short periods of time using their credit cards and check them back in at other stations.

Ms. Rudiak was disappointed to find that none of the proposed 50 stations was located in her district. The bulk of the stations were located in Oakland, Downtown, Lawrenceville and the East End, although the station farthest east is proposed to be installed at Bakery Square.

"It gets frustrating when your district is not even on the map," she said. She pointed out the map that represented the location of the bike stations did not even include a representation of her district.

"We deserve a lot more than we're getting," said Ms. Kail-Smith, who represents Mount Washington, the West End and several other communities southwest of Downtown. "I think our area has been neglected and it's been allowed to be neglected."

The bill, which would have amended a public works ordinance to define a bike station and would have allowed the city to enter a maintenance and operations agreement with the nonprofit Pittsburgh Bike Share Project, was held for a week while council members have an opportunity to meet with the project's organizers. The legislation, which will allow the city to solicit bids for companies to construct the station, is essential for the project to move forward.

Many of the areas that lost out on bike stations suffer from a chicken-and-egg dilemma. Besides the city's southwestern neighborhoods, Homewood, much of the North Side, Hazelwood and Squirrel Hill also will not be included in the initial rollout.

Phil Goff, a consultant with Alta Planning and Design who helped determine the proposed locations for stations, said his company did an analysis to predict how much demand there would be for bike share across the city. The firm looked at factors like job density, residential density, existing bikeways and topography. Steep hills and a lack of bikeways, for example, would lower the expected demand, meaning many communities south of the Monongahela River were forecast to have lower demand for bike share.

Using this information, the company then worked to create a network of stations within the city, meaning several stations are proposed for Oakland, the East End and along various corridors from those neighborhoods to Downtown.

But that means that areas without bike infrastructure lost out on a chance to get a piece of the bike share, which, in and of itself, could stoke interest in cycling in those neighborhoods. Compounding matters, project organizers had to scale back their plans from 100 stations to 50 when the project only received half of the federal Department of Transportation grant they had applied for -- around $1.6 million.

City officials and Scott Bricker of Bike Pittsburgh explained that the system was designed to give it the best opportunity to survive. While the project is relying on foundation money, the federal grant and corporate sponsorship for initial construction, it plans to be financially self-sustaining, using revenues from subscription fees to support maintenance and expansion.

To do that, they have to focus on areas that are most likely to draw high numbers of cyclists, Mr. Bricker explained. After that, it can expand into areas that are less likely to draw riders.

"I think it's really encouraging that it seems every council person wants bike share in their district," Mr. Bricker said. "What we're trying to do is launch the best system within the financial constraints that we find ourselves."

Stephen Patchan, the city's bicycle-pedestrian coordinator, said Alta cautioned about putting stations too far outside of the established network.

"The system is designed so it has the best chance of being financially self-sustaining," he said.

Keith Knecht, a 51-year-old Brookline resident and avid cyclist, said he understands why southern Pittsburgh neighborhoods got cut out of the project. But he also believes that his corner of the city stands to benefit immensely from improved bike infrastructure, which could persuade those who are fearful of the congested roadways into Downtown to get on a bike.

"We have to start somewhere," he said.

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Moriah Balingit: mbalingit@post-gazette.com, 412-263-2533 or on Twitter @MoriahBee. First Published October 7, 2013 4:00 AM


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