British cyclists size up bike-friendly America

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People don't often draw parallels between Pittsburgh and London, two cities that sit an ocean and 3,000 miles apart.

But when Peter Murray, the chairman of New London Architecture, saw the Steel City from his bicycle, its narrow streets -- built for a pre-automobile era -- instantly brought him back to London.

"There's quite a lot of similarities to London," he said. "We think there are quite a lot of similar problems."

Mr. Murray, 69, is the organizer of the Portland Oregon to Portland Place, London, Bike Ride, an endeavor that's part endurance challenge, part urban planning research project and part charitable fundraiser. A team of British cyclists -- many of whom are urban planners and architects interested in learning about bike infrastructure -- began their journey in Portland, Ore., in April. Averaging around 71 miles a day, they've made their way across the United States, stopping in cities to learn about their bike infrastructure.

With the assistance of air travel and a boat, they'll eventually make their way to Ireland, Wales and finally down to London, where they plan to end their journey on Portland Place, home to the Royal Institute of British Architects, in August.

Along the way, they've met with the government officials and bicycle advocates in Portland, Ore., Minneapolis and several other cities to learn about the "cylicization of cities," absorbing ideas that they'll compile in a report. Their project has drawn the attention of London Mayor Boris Johnson, who earlier this year pledged to spend 1 billion pounds ($1.54 billion) on cycling infrastructure over the next 13 years. He's so synonymous with London's efforts to be more cyclist-friendly that the signature blue bikes in the city's bike-sharing system are colloquially known as "Boris Bikes."

The cyclists gathered Saturday at Bike Pittsburgh, whose Lawrenceville office is on one of those very streets -- a narrow passageway flanked by parked cars -- that may have reminded Mr. Murray of London. There, they talked shop with city officials -- including bicycle/pedestrian coordinator Stephen Patchan and Councilman Bill Peduto's policy director -- and Bike Pittsburgh co-founders Scott Bricker and Louis Fineberg.

In a roundtable discussion, they touched on a variety of topics related to challenges of making cities more bike-friendly. Both Pittsburgh and London deal with a similar problem with infrastructure: how do you adapt roads that were built for horses and carts to accommodate cars, parking and cyclists?

Patrick Roberts, the principal transportation planner for the city of Pittsburgh, said it's going to require a paradigm shift, getting transportation engineers to build roads to include cyclists. As it stands, roads are constructed with the idea that there will be a growth in the number of cars, which becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy when roads aren't built with cyclists in mind.

Roger Hawkins, a 53-year-old rider and architect, said reducing speed limits had a dramatic effect in bringing out cyclists. Of the 100 employees in his office -- based in the London borough of Islington -- none drives to work and about half ride their bikes. He attributes the proliferation of cyclists to Islington's maximum speed of 20 mph. He called it "simple physics" that fast-moving traffic would scare cyclists off their bikes.

"I think speed is the biggest killer of cyclists," he said.

"Traffic calming" -- mechanisms like speed humps and roundabouts that force motorists to slow down -- is another tool that has proved successful across the pond.

"I'm hoping we take a page out of that book and do that really for the first time in Pittsburgh," Mr. Bricker said.

But along with challenges, they also talked about successes. In Pittsburgh, Mr. Bricker spoke about the decade-long successful effort to get bike racks on all Port Authority transit buses. And Mr. Murray said he believes the visibility of "Boris Bikes" (officially, Barclays Cycle Hire, launched in 2010 with the Barclays financial firm as sponsor) have done more to change culture than any law could have. Having people with varying levels of experience out on the roads has forced motorists to rapidly adjust to having more bikes in traffic, changing the way they drive. It also changed perceptions about who rides bikes, that it's not just hardcore athletes clad in Lycra with messenger bags slung over their backs.

"The bike share system changes the culture really quickly," he said. "It makes motorists much more aware."

That may be a harbinger for Pittsburgh, which announced its own bike-sharing program this spring. Mr. Bricker hopes it will do the same thing for Pittsburgh, broadening the concept of the cyclist. With more people on bikes in traffic, he hopes they'll "start to see the world through our eyes a little bit."

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Moriah Balingit:, 412-263-2533 or on Twitter @MoriahBee. First Published June 23, 2013 4:00 AM


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