Cyclists get a handle(bar) on biking in the ‘Burgh

By Emma Kilcup

With the price of gas hovering somewhere around $3.50 and a greater national emphasis on physical activity, biking is starting to look even more like a cost-effective and waist-whittling alternative. And it’s all the better because Pittsburgh has gotten more bike-friendly. With the price of gas hovering somewhere around $3.50 and a greater national emphasis on physical activity, biking is starting to look even more like a cost-effective and waist-whittling alternative. And it’s all the better because Pittsburgh has gotten more bike-friendly.

Both the city and Pitt have increased the accessibility of biking — whereas the University offers more bike racks in front of buildings, the city has built more bike lanes, including some that will soon span Bloomfield to Fifth Avenue. Bicycle Magazine listed Pittsburgh as No. 28 out of the 50 most bike-friendly cities. The magazine claims that to make the list, the city must “support a vibrant and diverse bike culture” and host “smart, savvy bike shops” along with “segregated bike lanes, municipal bike racks and bike boulevards.”

Pittsburgh boasts a growing bike community. Numerous organizations such as Bike Pittsburgh, the Bicycle Advisory Council and Flock of Cycles exist to offer information, and events like BikeFest, hosted by Bike Pittsburgh, celebrate the expanding number of cyclists. The current atmosphere is quite different from that of the cycling community of Pittsburgh’s past. At one time the biking community was small, and moving through the Steel City on two wheels could be hazardous.

In 1990 the League of American Bicyclists, a national group devoted to encouraging biking, rated Pittsburgh third out of the 10 worst cities for biking. In 2010, they granted Pittsburgh a bronze bike-friendly community award, citing one of the highlights as Mayor Luke Ravenstahl’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Initiatives intended to create a better transportation environment with measures such as more signs for trails.

“There used to be a point when you knew every person on a bike. A daily occurrence was getting in an argument or having something thrown at you if you were biking. People would harass you. But now drivers are more used to seeing bike riders and there are so many more,” Eric Boerer of Bike Pittsburgh, co-founder of BikeFest, said. The event just enjoyed its seventh anniversary.

Boerer moved to Pittsburgh in 1995. Back then, when he was earning a degree in ecology and evolution at Pitt, he realized biking was a better alternative to the congested traffic of driving and the time-consuming endeavor of finding parking. He said that, initially, he thought biking around the city was “nerve-wracking” since many cyclists rode on the sidewalks. Now having biked for years, he appreciates the addition of new bike lanes.

The Three Rivers Heritage Trail System — an expansive group of trails that connect most neighborhoods and areas — offers paths for commuters to make it to Oakland. But some of the busiest streets, like Forbes and Fifth around Pitt, lack bike lanes, prompting commuters to bike illegally in bus lanes and on sidewalks. Though the task can be daunting, students still choose to bike ride around campus.

“Once I got past the fear of riding on Fifth and Forbes, it got easier after gaining confidence,” Pitt sophomore DJ Dohar said.

It isn’t just motorists that cyclists have to worry about; pedestrians also present an issue as bikes don’t have the audible or visual presence of a motor vehicle.

“My problem is pedestrians. One time I was riding from downtown to Oakland and people decided to cross the street as I was coming up so I fell off my bike as I tried to brake,” said Pitt sophomore Katie Blackburn. “They’re not looking for bikers, they’re only looking out for cars.”

Still, biking is a convenient alternative to driving or walking for students.

“It is a 35-minute walk to my apartment in Shadyside, but I can ride from there to the Cathedral in five minutes,” said Dohar.

But Pitt has some catching up to do compared with univerities like Carnegie Mellon and Chatham. CMU has built bike lanes around campus to help students commute to and from class, and Chatham hosts many programs on campus that support biking and offers a more spacious environment that is more bike-friendly thanks to its low-traffic location. To help alleviate that problem, 2011 Pitt graduate Anthony Stewart established the Bicycle Advisory Council this past year at Pitt through an internship at Bike Pittsburgh, an organization that strives to make Pittsburgh a bike-friendly and safe city. Stewart acknowledges that the University area has some improvements to make before it is truly safe for bike riders.

“The biggest issue preventing inexperienced riders from trying biking is that there are no bike lanes or sharrows. But all improvements must be made in conjunction with the [Transportation Management Association],” Stewart said.

Through the Bicycle Advisory Council, Stewart tried to connect Pitt to other organizations to prompt future plans that will benefit the University’s cyclists. Now that Stewart has graduated, he expresses doubt as to what can happen with his council and who can take over. The council, which is a subcommittee of the Transportation Committee, will require student participation to remain in action. Stewart plans to rally interested students this fall.

But safety isn’t just the city’s responsbility. Cyclists must take their well-being into their own hands, and there are groups to help them learn how. Pitt senior Jane Kaminski is a board member for the group Flock of Cycles, which promotes public awareness and biking safety. Flock of Cycles was founded about a year ago but has already established a tri-monthly bike ride, or Flock Party — for inexperienced bikers and pros alike — to educate and encourage cyclists.

“Our goal is to help people feel comfortable biking. We want cyclists and motorists to respect each other and create peaceful streets,” said Kaminski. “We always encourage people to use turn signals and read over the Pennsylvania road laws, but most of all be aware of surroundings and be confident … Also, everyone is required to wear helmets during our rides.”

Pitt Medical Dr. Director Elizabeth Wettick, a bike commuter herself, said Flock of Cycles is on the right path in teaching bike safety. She said that cyclists should all sport helmets with a proper fit — snug enough to stay on in a crash.

“I have been known to send students from seeing me directly to the bike store to purchase a helmet,” said Wettick.

Wettick describes a patient she encountered as a medical student spending time with the trauma service. The patient was brought in after a bicycle accident with multiple fractures and a traumatic brain injury because she had not worn a helmet. Besides that, Wettick has seen only minor injuries, like road burn, from bicycle accidents and encourages people to reap the benefits of biking safely and defensively.

Especially considering the improvements that Pittsburgh has and will be making, the benefits of biking are numerous, and bike organizations hope to foster an even larger community of cyclists.

“I want people to have the choice to ride their bikes from point A to point B,” Boerer said.


The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation has laws in place to protect cyclists and regulate their interaction with pedestrians and cars. Here are some particularly important rules to follow. For a complete list, go to

1. Cycles are vehicles and are therefore subject to all rights and regulations that apply to vehicles.

2. Cyclists can ride on the road or the sidewalks — with the exception of sidewalks in business districts such as Downtown and Oakland — unless there are bike lanes or traffic guidelines specifying otherwise.

3. When cycling on the sidewalk, cyclists should give pedestrians the right of way and should make an audible signal before passing them.

4. When cycling on roads, cyclists, as the slower vehicles, should stay to the right, except when passing another vehicle, making a left turn or on a one-way street.

5. Cyclists riding at night should have a white light on the front of their cycle and a red reflector in the back, both visible from 500 feet away. They should also have yellow reflectors on the sides of the bicycle.

6. Cyclists should not ride more than two abreast on the road, unless they are riding in specified bike lanes.

7. There may not be more people on a cycle than the cycle is built for, except in the case of child seats or trailers.