Viewpoint: Boost biking with bilateral respect

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No doubt Pittsburgh, like any city, has its sprinkling of rude, aggressive cyclists who unnerve motorists with their unpredictable moves.

But when the Ravenstahl administration announced the creation and naming of a "bicycle czar" -- a visionary move -- some motorists' reactions were a little bizarre, their vehement complaints about cyclists' behavior far out of proportion to the threat those cyclists pose.

Although thousands of oblivious motorists barrel through our streets every day, I've never observed a "clueless" cyclist working his way around town. Occasionally risk-taking? Yes. Clueless? No.

People maneuvering spindly 20-pound bicycles past 2-ton piles of metal, vinyl and glass tend to be hyper-aware of their surroundings. They have to be. It's a matter of life and death.

Or near-death, in my family's case. Seven years ago, a careless motorist nearly killed my husband on the Boulevard of the Allies.

Andy has lived on the North Side for eight years and bikes to work Downtown nearly every day, rain or shine. He takes 450-mile bicycle treks through places like Oregon's Cascade Mountains. He's what you'd call an avid cyclist.

That summer day in 2001 he had been enjoying the "Jail Trail," which ends abruptly near the PNC building on First Avenue. (Every trail in Pittsburgh ends abruptly, frustratingly, at some ridiculous point.) Since the boulevard is a designated bike route, Andy continued heading west, staying to the right in the same-direction car lane, just like you're supposed to.

A split-second before Andy would have zoomed past, the driver of a parked van opened his door. Andy hit it at full speed, flew off the bike and across three lanes, landing headfirst in oncoming traffic. It is miraculous that he's alive.

Although the insurance company held the motorist responsible for causing the collision, to our knowledge he wasn't cited for any traffic violation. What would the ticket read? "Failure to yield right of way"? "Inattentive door-opening"? "Life-threatening stupidity"?

I'm sure that man has never again opened his car door without checking the side mirror first, but short of nearly taking someone's life, how does a driver become aware that he's supposed to share the road?

Creating a position for a "bicycle and pedestrian coordinator" is an important and praiseworthy step toward creating that awareness. Any such government action says, "Attention, folks, this is an important public issue."

And it is: The cyclists and pedestrians de-clog our streets and parking garages, increase our overall public health and reduce our aggregate consumption of oil.

The appointment of "czar" Stephen Patchan should send a loud signal to the region's drivers that those fellow-citizens who are not using motor vehicles have an equal claim to the region's roadways. And it should send an equally loud warning to cyclists and pedestrians that they aren't a law unto themselves.

One of the most important things a czar could do is spearhead an effort to expand the region's erratic network of marked bike lanes and trails. The safer these routes become, the more people will use them, and the more that people use them, the safer they'll be. It's a lot harder for motorists to overlook a steady stream of cyclists than to miss a lone wheelman.

Our topography is not exactly hospitable to this endeavor. We've had to carve out many hillsides just to squeeze in twisting two-lane roads. There is often neither the space nor the sight lines for safe cycling, so the effort to forge bike routes -- like spokes intersecting the region's color-coded "belts" -- will have to be cross-jurisdictional and stubborn.

Hilly cities like Pittsburgh aren't the only ones with these problems. As my husband and I drove to the airport last March in flat-as-a-pancake Orlando, Fla., we found ourselves waiting at a stoplight where the intersecting streets were both 10 lanes across. In this barren but frantic industrial landscape, we saw next to us a sign that said, "End Bike Route."

We laughed in disbelief: Who in his right mind would have dared wade into that maelstrom? And what bureaucrat would have led anyone to what could have been, literally, a dead end? The sign should have said, "Lotsa luck."

Pittsburgh can do better than that. We're now poised to do much better.


Ruth Ann Dailey can be reached at rdailey@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1733.


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