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Bill Peduto: If Pittsburgh Can Make Streets Bikeable, You Can Do It Anywhere

Mayor Bill Peduto invited Bike Summit advocates to sample Pittsburgh bicycling in September. Photo: Brian Palmer
Mayor Bill Peduto invited Bike Summit advocates to sample Pittsburgh bicycling in September. Photo: Brian Palmer

Bike advocates from places like Portland, New York, and Boulder got a little Rust Belt envy this week when Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto spoke to the National Bike Summit Tuesday morning.

Peduto took office in January with big plans for bike lanes, express bus service, and eventually an expanded light rail network. (He got sworn in during the “polar vortex,” which was symbolic, he said, because “a lot of people said it would be a cold day in hell before I was ever elected.”)

Before launching into his perspective on cycling, Peduto regaled the audience with a history of Pittsburgh’s rise as an industrial giant and its 30-year decline, during which unemployment hit 18 percent and the city lost more population than New Orleans after Katrina. At about the same time that Pittsburgh's economy hit bottom, it was ranked one of the worst five cities in the country for bicycling.

That was the nineties. Now Bicycling Magazine rates Pittsburgh the 35th most bicycle-friendly city in America, and Peduto wants to see it shoot into the top ten. Thirty percent of Pittsburghers walk, bike, or take transit to work -- only seven other American cities have a higher share. But “we can do better,” Peduto said.

In the past few years, Pittsburgh has built 30 miles of on-street bike infrastructure and 500 bike racks, and it has started to install bike corrals.

Don’t forget, Peduto said, what an unlikely place Pittsburgh is for these kinds of improvements:

Remember, we’re a city that went through 40 years of population decline. So we’re not one of those cities that is booming and this is a necessity. We’re doing it in order to encourage bike-sharing as a program, in order to encourage less need of the use of a car, in order to encourage developers to not have to put in surface parking lots or dig down several feet and then ask for a TIF because they can’t afford the parking infrastructure they’re putting in.

All these things make common sense. But usually they only happen in places that are “boom.” In areas that are starting to take off and grow, we can do the same things. And we should be leading that effort.

When he became a council member in 2002, the “heated debate” was about putting bike racks on sidewalks. “That was literally two days worth of debate,” he said. Now they’re about to launch a citywide bike-share program, sometime in the next year.

Peduto said he’s especially excited to build high-quality bike facilities in a city with “crooked weird streets,” where “all the old infrastructure says it’s impossible”:

Because we have this crazy little downtown area that was basically designed as a two-grid system that doesn’t mesh at all, we have this opportunity to take a large swath of land in a densely urban area and create a complete streets model that could become a model for anywhere -- again, because of the challenges that we have, both in the infrastructure and in the basic history of our town. We can help to show that if you can do it in Pittsburgh, you can basically do it anywhere.

Peduto agreed with Douglas Meyer’s findings that mayors are beginning to understand the importance of active transportation to quality of life, and that mayors are the ones with the ability to make it happen. He also had some advice for advocates:

    1. In old cities like Pittsburgh, there’s a lot of old rail infrastructure. It doesn’t cost a lot of money to turn old tracks into high-quality rail-trails.
    2. Public economic development and planning money “flows like a river: once it hits a rock, it goes around it; it doesn’t go through it.” It’s the advocates’ job to “take the rocks out of the river.” Work with the community to build popular support and address opposition before it becomes an obstacle.
    3. Look at areas in the city that are ripe for redevelopment and put your plan together now for bicycle access. When a developer starts making plans for the area, you should have a bicycle plan ready-made for them.
    4. Help others. “When you see a similar cause, work around whatever 501-c-whatever you are to partner with them” on their issue, so that when you need their support, they’re there for you.
    5. Build your base. “We could barely get bike stands on curbs before Pittsburgh had a bike advocacy group,” he said. Bicycling had become a political tug-of-war between the old Pittsburgh and the new Pittsburgh, and the old kept winning. But now with Bike Pittsburgh going strong -- boasting a bigger membership than the city’s Democratic Committee -- they’re making great strides. “That type of organization is needed in every city,” Peduto said. “They make it easy for elected officials to join on.”

In fact, Peduto capped his talk by putting his money where his mouth is, announcing there and then that he would nominate Scott Bricker, the head of Bike Pittsburgh, as one of his three appointments to the 10-county regional planning agency. According to Peduto, Bricker will be the first bike advocate ever to serve on the board.

Peduto’s entire talk was also a promotion for Pro Walk/Pro Bike/Pro Place, the active transportation conference happening this September in Pittsburgh.

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