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A New Street Design Meant To Slow Cars Worries Some Pittsburgh Residents

Lucy Perkins
90.5 WESA
One of the new traffic circles on N. Euclid Avenue at Hampton Street.

A series of mini traffic circles on some residential streets in Pittsburgh’s East End are the first new pieces of the city’s new bike plan. They are meant to slow traffic in order to make it safer to walk and bike, as well as to discourage drivers from using smaller streets as cut-throughs. But some neighbors say the streets are too narrow to accommodate the new circles.“We would be either hit or sideswiped,” said Highland Park resident Mia Boccella. “There just was not enough room for a bus and for us to be standing there.”

When a pilot of the mini traffic circles went in last summer, Boccella, who is visually impaired, had to move a few steps back from where her dog is trained to stand on the sidewalk. She also wonders if the traffic circles will truly slow drivers down over the length of the street, or if they’ll simply speed from circle to circle.

“I have been so concerned that children are going to get hurt,” said fellow resident Janet Jai. “Drivers, by the way, are probably going to be blamed,” she said.

But officials say neighborhood traffic circles effectively change driver behavior, lower speeds and reduce crashes.

“Residentials streets are not designed for higher speed motor vehicle traffic,” said Karina Ricks, who leads the Department of Mobility and Infrastructure, or DOMI. She noted they have a large dataset to turn to: for instance, the city of Seattle has installed more than 1,200 mini traffic circles over the last several years.

In July 2020 the city conducted a month-long review of the circles along N. Euclid Avenue to study how Port Authority’s and Pittsburgh Public School’s largest buses navigated the circle, as well as fire trucks, snow plows and street sweepers. The city has since reduced the size of the circles, and instead of posting yield signs at the intersections, the city’s Department of Mobility and Infrastructure, or DOMI, will maintain the four-way stop sign pattern.

“They have made adjustments,” said Harold Love, who also lives in Highland Park and bikes recreationally. He said the city had painted curbs to prevent people parking too close to the intersection, that way motorists have a clear line of sight. “But that takes away a commodity, too, and impacts people’s enjoyment of their homes.”

The city’s municipal code disallows parking within 20 feet of an intersection, so officials said the newly painted curbs are DOMI simply enforcing an existing regulation.

Paul O’Hanlon co-chairs the City-County Task Force on Disabilities, and said the retention of stop signs doesn’t resolve his concerns. While DOMI met with O’Hanlon during its month-long study, he cited two studies that show elevated risks for people with visual impairments or those who use mobility devices, and noted that many end up avoiding such circles because of the perception of inaccessibility.

“The needs of people with disabilities are being made secondary in this process,” he wrote in an email. “I’m frustrated that DOMI didn’t first come to the Task Force … before piloting these traffic circles, and that they continue to move forward with this project.”

There have also been concerns about the speed limit along the street. In the city’s bike plan, the residential streets targeted for traffic calming measures — such as the mini traffic circles on N. Euclid Avenue or the speed humps on Muriel Street on the South Side — are called neighborways. On a neighborway the speed limit is dropped to 20 m.p.h., which conforms to guidelines set by the National Association of City Transportation Officials for “bicycle boulevards,” according to Ricks.

Scott Bricker leads advocacy group Bike Pittsburgh, which has partnered with the city on communication about the Bike(+) Master Plan. He said there’s going to be an adjustment period, but, “I really do anticipate our streets being calmer places and safer for more people using them as a result of these neighborway interventions.”

After some initial concerns about communication with DOMI, mini traffic circles along Coral Street and Comrie Way in Friendship have won approval from a number of residents there, including Tom Hritz, who said slower cars means kids can more safely play on the street.

“Ever since it was designated a bike friendly route through Bloomfield and Friendship that connects to East Liberty, Coral St. has become much more popular with bicyclists and pedestrians,” he wrote in an email. “We love it!”

Margaret J. Krauss:

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