Despite 'bikelash,' Pittsburgh mayor stands behind bike lane vision
March 5, 2017 12:13 AM
Bicyclists head Downtown using a bike lane on the Roberto Clemente Bridge.
By Adam Smeltz / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
If Bill Peduto doesn’t win re-election this year, the one-liner goes, blame the bike lanes.
The Pittsburgh mayor himself delivers the satire, joking that “bikelash” paired with his support for refugees and self-driving cars will crater his political career.
Still, as Mr. Peduto runs for a second term, he’s sticking with his long-range goal for a citywide network of neighborhood bike lanes. The city can better involve residents in the planning process, but adding the lanes remains a key for safer transportation, economic development and urban growth, he told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
“It would be easier for me to budget a UFO landing site than to put in the budget a dedicated bike lane in an area that’s unsafe for both motorists and cyclists,” Mr. Peduto, 52, of Point Breeze said in a recent interview. He said people view the lanes “through a cultural lens of whether or not they use it,” seeing either a brilliant investment or a traffic nuisance that shreds street parking.
As campaign season accelerates, Mr. Peduto predicted the infrastructure will be a lightning rod that critics use “to claim where the administration’s priorities are.” Roughly 17 new miles of bike lanes and “sharrows,” or shared-lane markings, have appeared in the city since he took office in January 2014, bringing the total to 77 miles, according to Bike Pittsburgh.
That’s up by about 28 percent over three years, the nonprofit’s figures show, with more in the works. Mr. Peduto said the lanes fit into broader transportation planning that includes public transit, pedestrian corridors and driver safety.
“You can always find Pittsburghers who object to change. But a good mayor understands the long-term implications of doing these things,” said political consultant Don Friedman, 67, of Spring Hill.
Bike lanes should encourage redevelopment, much as former Mayor Tom Murphy’s controversial push to overhaul the North Shore promoted a renaissance there, said Mr. Friedman, a former Murphy campaign aide.
He said 15 to 20 percent of voters always oppose an incumbent mayor “because they weren’t for him to begin with.” In Mr. Peduto’s case, he said, opponents would have a tough time faulting the incumbent over public services, property values or the local job market.
“If you can’t complain about that, you might as well complain about bike lanes,” Mr. Friedman said. Although Pittsburghers haven’t booted an incumbent mayor “in any of our lifetimes,” he said, bike lane opponents will likely back City Councilwoman Darlene Harris.
Mrs. Harris is seeking the Democratic endorsement to challenge Mr. Peduto in the May 16 primary election but has not formally declared herself a candidate. The Rev. John C. Welch announced his candidacy in January.
“There really hasn’t been much community input or input from businesses” on bike lanes, Mrs. Harris, a longtime Peduto adversary, said last week. If elected mayor, she would request traffic studies for the existing bike lanes, she said. (Mr. Peduto said the city already conducts such reviews before installation.)
And any future lanes “wouldn’t be up to me,” added Mrs. Harris, who lives in Spring Hill. “It would be up to the community.”
Rev. Welch, a Homewood resident and dean at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, said the city could have communicated better about its bike lane approach.
“I would make sure we would articulate a strategy,” he said.
Similar refrains led Councilwoman Theresa Kail-Smith to propose an advisory board on bike infrastructure. Council approved the 13-member panel last month with Mr. Peduto’s support, designating the group to handle neighborhood communication about bike lane proposals.
Mrs. Kail-Smith has said the city should engage the public more thoroughly. Attorney Fred Goldsmith said he learned only through news coverage that the city is weighing alternate routes for bike lanes planned outside his office building on Fort Pitt Boulevard.
“I have to content myself with an article in the Post-Gazette and hope that we’ve dodged the bullet,” said Mr. Goldsmith, of Squirrel Hill, who fears diminished access to his Downtown property. “Am I happy with the way the administration has handled this issue? Do I feel like I was heard? Do I feel like I was taken seriously? No.”
Mr. Peduto said the city invites public input at various points, including through meetings and mailers. But he said the city could distribute information more directly, announce meetings more publicly and better alert people that “there’s a place where their voice can be heard.”
To complaints that Pittsburgh should reallocate bike lane expenditures, the mayor said the projects account for a minute portion of city expenses — a fraction of a percentage point — as federal grants and other outside sources cover most costs. Four bike infrastructure projects funded by the city in 2017 amount to slightly more than $400,000, according to the administration.
“We hear it again and again from tech companies: They don’t ask for tax breaks. They don’t ask for free parking,” Mr. Peduto said. “They ask for safe streets and to be able to ride a bike to work. Twenty-first-century cities are being designed so that people don’t have to own a car to be able to live and work in a city.”
Along those lines, more Pittsburghers are cycling to work, federal data show. The American Community Survey in 2015 found 1.7 percent of the city’s residents commuted by bike — more than double the percentage in 2006, shortly before a burst of new bike lanes.
Supporters expect the figure to climb when more lanes take shape. At Bike Pittsburgh, executive director Scott Bricker credited the mayor for pushing bike lanes that are more logistically complex than the “low-hanging fruit” developed earlier.
“I know there are a number of individuals using bikeways and safe bike infrastructure as a political wedge. Yet we have nearly 3,000 donor-members who support our efforts, who are civically engaged, who vote,” Mr. Bricker said.
Bike Pittsburgh, which advocates safety and access for bicyclists and pedestrians, also counts some 45,000 followers on social media and nearly 20,000 recipients on an email list. Mr. Bricker said it’s too soon to know how the Peduto administration has influenced bicycling rates, but could not fathom the cause is “a net negative politically.”
“It’s not as if Pittsburgh is doing this in a vacuum. This is happening in every city in America and cities throughout the world,” Mr. Peduto said. “To be the one city that didn’t get it would leave us behind.”
Adam Smeltz: 412-263-2625, firstname.lastname@example.org, @asmeltz.
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