Since 2002, Bike Pittsburgh has fought what Scott Bricker calls a “cultural war,” struggling not only to establish cycling as a legitimate form of transportation in the city, but also to put in place the infrastructure necessary for riders to easily commute from neighborhood to neighborhood, and feel safe while doing so.
On a Thursday afternoon in early summer, light filters through the storefront windows of Bike Pittsburgh’s Penn Avenue office and onto a stack of papers, approximately 5 inches in height.
“We weighed it, and it’s something like 8 pounds,” Scott Bricker, the nonprofit’s executive director, tells me.
The stack contains 1,200 letters, hand-written by Pittsburgh cyclists, explaining what more bike lanes will do for them, and for the city. Phrases like “reduce traffic,” “increase sustainability,” and “keep us safe” are common.
The letters were collected over the course of several months, through the mail and at Bike Pittsburgh events, and will soon be given to Mayor Ravenstahl, thanking him for his support of bike issues in Pittsburgh and reminding him that there is still work to be done.
Bricker, one of the group’s founding members, is athletic, easy going, and articulate—he’s the kind of guy that casually cites Scientific American articles and bikes across the country, for fun. Bricker says he never realized how bad Pittsburgh’s cycling infrastructure was until, after graduating from Carnegie Mellon University, he lived in San Francisco for a few years and then moved back.
“Most of my friends and I felt threatened on the streets, or had gotten hit, and we were just sick of it,” he says. Several months later, in the winter of 2002, Bike Pittsburgh was formed.
“We wanted to hit the ground running with something iconic that filled a need for the city,” he says.
At the time, the city’s cycling needs were numerous, but Bricker’s primary goals were, and still are, very basic: More lanes for safe riding and more racks for easy parking.
In 2003, Bike Pittsburgh and The Sprout Fund teamed up for the first time. The Sprout Fund offered the group a $9,000 Seed Award to develop and produce what would become the Three Rivers bike rack, a rack Bricker is proud of for its functionality and hometown flair. The rack’s design mirrors the convergence of Pittsburgh’s three rivers enclosed in a circle and can support one bike on each of its two sides.
“The Monongahela bolts into the ground and the Allegheny comes down, forms the Ohio, and then the circle adds a little locking-friendly mechanism,” Bricker says.
During the first round of production, Bike Pittsburgh installed approximately 20 racks in what they felt were important community locales around the city, including the 61C Cafe in Squirrel Hill, the East Liberty Presbyterian Church on Penn Avenue, and Kiva Han Coffee in Oakland.
It wasn’t long afterward that Bricker learned the power of leveraging. When funding became available to install 100 new racks downtown, Bricker asked the Mayor to match him, one for one. Almost instantly 100 racks became 200.
There are now 400 Three Rivers bike racks throughout the city, and a new zoning ordinance requires all new commercial properties to provide parking for bikes, just as they would for cars. As a result, the Bike Pittsburgh staff no longer had to retrofit every location where they wanted bike racks. Now, Bricker says, new properties are designed with bike parking in mind.
Choose Your Own Ride
As the afternoon stretches later, the three members of Bike Pittsburgh’s staff work independently at their desks. Eric “Erok” Boerer, the advocacy director, sits just to the right of the stack of letters. Punk music filters through his laptop speakers as he leans back in his chair, typing. Today, he says, he’s sending out the call for submissions for the seventh annual BikeFest, a 10-day festival that celebrates cycling in Pittsburgh by empowering community members to independently organize rides, workshops, and other bike-related activities.
In 2005, Bike Pittsburgh received its second Seed Award, for $8,500, to get BikeFest up and running. Boerer, who was still primarily working at Free Ride, a bike education facility he founded several years prior, spearheaded the project.
“It was 2005, and there was a lot of energy from a lot of different people toward getting into bike advocacy and promoting biking as a fun, reasonable way to get yourself around town,” Boerer says. “Part of that was just having fun with bikes and creating events that would get people interested in riding.”
The inaugural festival, featured some 40 events, most of them free, including an urban- farming themed ride, a fix-a-flat workshop, a bike-themed movie night, and a car-free forum. Last year there were 60 events.
The staple event of the festival, though, has always been Bike Pittsburgh’s annual fundraiser, which last year featured music, dancing, and a silent auction of high-end bikes that raised nearly $24,000.
Since The Sprout Fund’s initial grant, the festival has become self-sustaining. The Seed Award, Boerer says, allowed the group to introduce BikeFest in a professional, creative way, with posters, that not only promoted its schedule of events, but also became collector’s items for local cyclists.
Today, as Boerer reaches out to community members, he is excited by several early responses he has received. One girl, he says, wants to do a murder mystery themed ride, where she’ll lead riders around to scenes of the alleged crime, providing one new clue at every stop she makes.
“We’ll just see what she comes up with,” Boerer says, leaning back in his chair.
The seventh annual BikeFest was held August 12-21, 2011.
Car Free, Bike Friendly
In 2008, Bike Pittsburgh received a $25,000 Root Award, the Seed Award’s most substantial endowment, to develop a Bike Friendly Employer program.
At this point, Bike Pittsburgh wanted to advocate for more than just recreational riding: It wanted to replace car trips, and to reduce pollution and congestion of city streets.
Lou Fineberg, author of Three Rivers on Two Wheels (also supported by a Seed Award in 2002), oversees the Bike Friendly Employer program today. He’s casual and confident, and this afternoon, seated at his desk in the rear of the office, he’s working on a bike action plan for Alcoa.
A Bike Friendly Employer must satisfy at least two main criteria: The availability of ample bike parking and the cultivation of an internal cycling culture.
In its first year, the program graduated 11 Bike Friendly Employers, including Chatham University, Urban Design Associates, Google, and The Sprout Fund, organizations that showed the strongest initial interest, the “low hanging fruit,” Bricker says.
This year Fineberg is working with a new set of employers, this time including larger companies such as Alcoa, Carnegie Mellon University, and Goodwill—to increase the program’s impact.
He’s also pushing the implementation of Car Free Fridays, weekly events employers can hold to generate enthusiasm. Urban Design Associates, for example, organizes a bike pool every Friday, Fineberg says, for which they bring in a special guest from the bike community to speak over breakfast.
“It would be a lot more difficult to have a Bike Friendly Employer program without Car Free Fridays. It’s a really wonderful way to start engaging employees and helping create that culture that’s so important. The Sprout Fund Root Award really enabled us to put some energy into the initiative,” he says.
Today, Fineberg pulls up the Car Free Fridays website and watches as the miles on its Car Free Calculator tick higher.
The Car Free Calculator measures the miles ridden, calories burned, money saved and carbon dioxide emissions reduced by local cyclists quantifying the benefits of biking. Its next version, Fineberg hopes, will allow individual employers to compete against each other and track miles traveled by location. Six months after tracking began, the car-free calculator will record 35,000 un-driven miles.
Shifting into High Gear
As Bike Pittsburgh approaches its 10-year anniversary, in winter 2012, the voice of Pittsburgh’s cycling community has never been stronger or more resolute. Bike Pittsburgh convenes with the Mayor on a regular basis, and the city has hired a full-time Bicycle/Pedestrian Coordinator to its staff.
“In many ways, we’ve won that cultural battle with people who develop our infrastructure, and we’re starting to gain incredible momentum with your everyday person on the street. I go months without having a single honk from a motorist, and I ride every day. Now, people are expecting to see us out there,” Bricker says.
This summer Bricker continues to focus on expanding the city’s bike infrastructure. Specifically, he hopes to establish seven miles of new bike lanes by August, including lanes around Friendship Park in Bloomfield and along Brighton Avenue in the North Side. He describes the city’s current infrastructure as a series of islands, where strong networks exist in various neighborhoods, but don’t yet connect. Bike lanes still end abruptly and trails fail to tie one neighborhood to the next. Now, he says, it’s bridging these islands together that’s important, and Pittsburgh, “The City of Bridges,” seems an ideal place for such things.
For more information on Bike Pittsburgh, visit www.bike-pgh.org.