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Hazelwood Residents Use Monday Commute To Push For Mobility Options

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Irvine Street in Hazelwood lacks a consistent sidewalk, which makes walking along it difficult.

Residents and supporters marched out of Hazelwood on Irvine Street Monday morning in an attempt to force changes to the busy road. Because of the neighborhood’s geography — squeezed between a hillside and the Monongahela River — the state-owned street is a principal entry and exit point.

But while it’s marked at 25 mph, many drivers take Irvine much faster.

While it does have a sidewalk, many parts of it are overgrown or uneven. In Pennsylvania, sidewalk maintenance is the responsibility of property owners.

Drivers' speed and the lack of a consistent sidewalk make it hard for residents to commute on foot or by bike, said Connor Sites-Bowen, who lives in Hazelwood and organized the protest.

“It’s not just frustrating, it’s terrifying,” he said.

Sites-Bowen biked into Hazelwood on Irvine Street last week and recorded the trip in a Facebook Live video.  

Pennsylvania’s Motor Vehicle Code recommends cyclists assert their right to ride on multilane roadways by using “lane-control,” and taking the center of the right travel lane. Sites-Bowen did so and talked about what it felt like to be passed at high speed and be honked at.

“It makes me very nervous. And I’m a big guy,” he said on the video as he rode. “I can’t imagine being a little kid in Hazelwood wanting to walk over to the South Side, or grandma trying to get to Giant Eagle. It’s awful.”

Sites-Bowen owns a car, but said that as he recovers from open-heart surgery, he has prioritized exercise. He uses his bike commute to add even more activity to his day. But for many of his neighbors, using a car is not a choice they have the luxury of making.

“If they have no car, if they don’t have a bus pass, how can they leave their neighborhood?” he said, noting that many residents are low-income. “They can’t right now.”

Karina Ricks is director of Pittsburgh’s department of mobility and infrastructure. She said her first response to hearing people feeling isolated in Hazelwood was, “that is absolutely true," adding that Irvine Street is dominated by vehicle traffic and is not very accommodating to pedestrians or cyclists.

“Providing for accessibility for all people of all abilities of all modes is really at the core of what the department of mobility and infrastructure’s about,” said Ricks. “So we appreciate the concerns that they’re raising and we are obliged to meet them.”

Sites-Bowen thought he had a solution. He said he and other Hazelwood residents had been using a road in the Hazelwood Green site to move toward points east. Blair Street is a wide boulevard complete with a bike lane. But there are a couple wrinkles. First, the railroad.

A 150-foot unpaved, gravel section of Blair Street passes under a CSX Transportation railroad bridge. The Almono Partners, the entity that owns the site, and CSX had been in long-running negotiations to complete paving on the road, said Rebecca Flora, Hazelwood Green’s project director.

“CSX owns and has rights to what happens under their overpass,” she said. “We do not have the authority ourselves to open up that access.”

An agreement was just reached this month, said Flora.

The second wrinkle is that Blair Street remains a private road in an active construction site.

“Believe me, we’re as excited as anyone about the fact that we’re kind of in a position now to start moving down toward finishing," Flora said.

Once the road is completed, Flora said it will be dedicated to the city and opened to the public. That likely won’t happen until early 2019.

In the meantime, Sites-Bowen said he’s tired of waiting for the city and the state to figure out how to fix Irvine Street.

“I want to be able to leave my neighborhood because I am a human being with things to do,” he said. “I don’t want my commute to be something where I have to send a press release every time I do it. I just want to be able to do it in peace.”

Monday is the first day of school, and Sites-Bowen knows with the march that traffic is going to be a mess.

“I’m sorry that it’s affecting everybody else but this affects us every day.”