At the time when many of Pittsburgh’s streets were built, top travel speed was dictated by horses, and later, a trolley car at full tilt.
Now, drivers attempt to maneuver those same narrow, complicated streets at 40 or 50 miles per hour, said Karina Ricks, director of the city’s Department of Mobility and Infrastructure.
“That really is a wildly dangerous situation. When we have very soft human bodies mixing in with these 3-ton metal objects,” she said. “We share these streets … we’re part of a larger community, and [one of the] cardinal duties of being in a community is to protect and preserve other community members.”
The city’s 2020 capital budget allocates $17.7 million to make streets safe for all users, nearly triple the available funds of previous years. Contained within the “Complete Streets,” program, listed projects include installing pedestrian signals, traffic calming, bike infrastructure, and general streetscape improvements. The intent is to “rationalize” the roadway, Ricks said.
“Our streets are very chaotic,” she said. “So the drivers are stressed, and the travelers are stressed, and we’re not really giving people good ways to get to the many job opportunities and amenities that we have.”
The city’s long-awaited bike plan will be central to resolving that chaos, said Ricks. The new 10-year plan, due to be released by the end of January for public comment, will cover both how to close gaps in the existing network and how to expand it. The plan calls for adding more than 100 miles of bike facilities over 10 years, but “we’re not trying to wait 10 years,” she said.
Over the next two years, Pittsburgh officials will partner with local nonprofits Bike Pittsburgh and Healthy Ride, who will be supported by Colorado-based nonprofit advocacy group People For Bikes, to design and build 60 miles of new and updated bike infrastructure.
A connected system will be safer and allow more people to choose cycling as a viable means of transit, said Eric Boerer, advocacy director for Bike Pittsburgh. But perhaps most importantly, it will add predictability to the road network.
“Bike infrastructure isn’t just for bicyclists, it’s also for drivers,” he said. “When you create a space for everybody it just makes the whole street less chaotic and makes it a lot more peaceful.”
Pittsburgh is part of a larger national shift in how cities approach bike infrastructure. The last two or three decades saw cities make piecemeal additions of a bike lane here or a trail segment there, said Kyle Wagenschutz, director of local innovation with People For Bikes.
“But building one mile of a bike lane that doesn’t connect to anything on either side doesn’t really work for [most] people,” he said. “It doesn’t give them the same kind of confidence the roadway network provides to people driving cars.” Cities that succeed in increasing ridership do so by investing time and money in building out connected networks, he said.
The Complete Streets investments support other city initiatives. Both Ricks and Boerer noted that traveling by bike will help Pittsburgh achieve its climate goals, one of which is to increase the bike commuter rate from two percent of residents to 10 percent. In addition, many neighborhoods are underserved by transit, bicycle, and pedestrian infrastructure, said Ricks.
“With housing costs rising, with property costs rising in this city, if we’re going to keep this city affordable, we’ve got to make some of these [travel] alternatives available to people.”
While the 2020 allocation looks significant, exactly how much money the city will have to invest in implementing the Complete Streets policy, passed in 2016, remains to be seen. As it does throughout the budget, the project page notes “Deliverables are tentative and subject to change.” Many of the deliverables listed note a funding source of “other,” usually competitive state and federal grants, said Ricks.
Money to install pedestrian signals throughout downtown is already in hand, it comes from a state grant; funds for a conversion of Allegheny Circle on the North Side to a two-way street are also mostly in hand, as are funds for work on Grandview Avenue. Bike infrastructure can count of the $3.4 million listed in the budget, but the rest of the list depend on different grant cycles.