Safety Keeps Pittsburgh Cyclists from Becoming Bike Commuters

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(Larkin Page-Jacobs/Essential Public Radio)

(Larkin Page-Jacobs, Pittsburgh, Penn. -- Essential Public Radio) Bob Knoll and two of his friends decided to go on a bike ride back on Memorial Day. It didn't turn out well. As their small group reached the bottom of a hill behind the Pittsburgh zoo, they turned right and headed towards a busy intersection.

“There’s a traffic light at Allegheny River Boulevard and Washington…and it’s almost always red – it was green! I was delighted because it’s down hill,” Knoll said.

A vehicle approached on their left, and cut in front of the riders to make a right turn. “I never saw him, I never heard it coming. He just ran me over, or she,” Knoll recalls.

The driver fled the scene and hasn’t been found. Knoll, a professor of pediatrics, psychology, and psychiatry at University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, continues to recover and has yet to return to work. “All on the left side. I’m left handed too, it’s not fair!”

He has a sense of humor and acceptance about his brush with death – but the crash disrupted an important part his life. For decades Knoll has been racing, commuting and cross-country touring on his bike. He’s lived in cities around the country and finds that bicyclists are treated the same regardless of geography. “I think most of the drivers in Pittsburgh are just as careful as drivers in other places where I’ve lived. I think a lot of the animosity that you get from drivers, the bike riders sort of bring on themselves.”

Stories like Knoll's reinforce a perception that commuting by bike in the Pittsburgh area is dangerous and keeps bike riders from making the recreational activity into a regular ride-to-work habit.

Biking is safer than most people think. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, fatalities per 10,000 bike commuters in the U.S. fell from 21 in 1980 to nine in 2008, with an overall decrease of 57 percent since 1980.

John Pucher, professor of City Planning and Urban Transportation at Rutgers University, says there is safety in numbers: “As cycling levels increase, the fatality rates and injury rates of cyclists fall. And the reason is the more people that are on bikes, the more visible they become to motorists. And the more visible cyclists become, the easier it is, or the more likely it is that cars will avoid them.”

There is a bit of a catch 22 to increasing cyclist numbers though. Until cycling is widely considered safe, new cyclists won't start riding to work. The solution, Pucher argues, is infrastructure. Pucher says the absence of bike lanes means only a small segment of the population is willing to ride to work.

“Maybe 80, maybe 75 percent of all regular commuter cyclists are in fact white males. So unfortunately cycling in the United States is very dominated by white males roughly from 20-45. Something like that is just stunning,” he says. Left behind are women, youths, seniors and anyone who is risk averse - research shows women are more inclined to cycle with separated bike lanes, and as the general population of cyclists increase more women join, as has happened in New York and Washington, D.C.

Still, in the U.S. less than two percent of the population bikes to work. That’s in sharp contrast to a country like the Netherlands where around 30 percent of trips are made on bikes, and where women are roughly half the bike riders.

Pucher says bike lanes that either have a cement barrier or a buffering line of parked cars – make people feel safer. “There have been many surveys asking ‘What will it take to get you on a bike?’ and almost every single survey the number one thing people want is physically separated cycling facilities.”

In Pittsburgh, few streets have painted bike lanes and they don’t usually connect to each other, leaving islands of relative safety amidst a sea of traffic. Scott Bricker heads the advocacy organization Bike Pittsburgh. He says having more bike lanes would be in keeping with Pittsburgh’s “livable city” image – unlike McKnight Road, a notorious eight lane roadway known for strip malls and a lack of sidewalks.  “When it’s car centric that’s not where people want to live. Just drive along McKnight Road. Is that the vision of Pittsburgh that people think of when they think of a livable city with a high quality of life? No, absolutely not.”

On a warm Friday evening Jane Kaminski waited outside the Main branch of the Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh's Oakland neighborhood. She’s teh co-founder of ‘Flock of Cycles’, a group that leads family friendly, traffic-signal-abiding rides with a bumping boom box. Kaminski says not only is it scary when drivers menace her with close calls, but “it hurts my feelings. I’m doing something that’s wonderful, I’m enjoying myself. So it offends me a lot.” And while she feels comfortable riding her bike, she doesn’t feel safe.

“Comfortable means I have a confidence about biking – I know the streets, I know what it feels like to have a loud bus passing me. But I don’t feel safe because you never know what’s going to happen.”

Flock of Cycles co-founder Nick Drombosky has a unique method of feeling safe on Pittsburgh's narrow streets: an outlandish double-decker bike. “You cannot be mad at it,” he explains. But short of riding a tall bike, he wishes everyone would take a deep breath, and calm down. “Everyone has a destination – what makes your destination any more important or your life any more important than anyone else's?”

Bike Pittsburgh’s Scott Bricker says when the organization began nearly a decade ago, a week wouldn’t go by without a threat from a driver or someone yelling at them to get on the sidewalk. “And really the culture is changing in a huge way here. So is that saying we’re all done and we don’t have any more work to do? No, not at all, there’s still a long way to go here.”

To listen to a radio version of this story, go to Pennsylvania's Essential Public Radio.