Steel City Reimagines Itself as Bike-Friendly Commuter Town

Share By Darrell A. Hughes

Anyone who has gotten lost trying to navigate the many hills, tunnels and bridges surrounding Pittsburgh probably wouldn’t consider the city as an easy place to get around — or bike around, for that matter.

Yet the city that emerged from the ashes of the early ‘80s steel implosion as a lean tech and medical research hub is once again getting a makeover, as a bike-friendly commuter town.

Pittsburgh has already established itself as one of the country’s most livable cities, offering a low cost of living, family-friendly attractions and an increasingly diversified local economy. Transportation has traditionally been more of a challenge for the triangular town set off by three rivers and even more hills. The street grid — war correspondent Ernie Pyle once wrote — “must have been laid out by a mountain goat.”

With a record 400-plus bridges stretching out to the suburbs, Pittsburgh will probably never make an easy commute by car. But the renaissance of the downtown — where Fortune 500 companies such as PNC Bank, U.S. Steel and Heinz Company call home along with a growing number of urban dwellers — has helped spur the development of alternative transportation.

The two inclines hugging Mount Washington may be the most famous set of rails, but the city’s light rail system has also expanded in recent years to connect the North Shore stadiums — where the Steelers and Pirates play — to the southern suburbs. The public transit system’s reach relative to Pittsburgh’s modest size has earned the city recognition as a top commuter city from U.S. News & World Report.

City leaders view the mixed-transit options as competitive amenities that help attract tourism and business development opportunities. They say the next frontier for creating new — and healthier — ways of getting to work is cycling.

“Pittsburgh nurtures start-ups, small businesses and larges businesses,” said Stephen Patchan, the city’s bicycle/pedestrian coordinator. “Google has a pretty substantial office here and one of the amenities that their employees prioritize is having good transit, bicycle infrastructure and walkable communities.”

In response, Pittsburgh has launched a series of initiatives to support biking. Patchan oversees a program that works with businesses to install bike racks near their storefronts or offices.

Pittsburgh’s robust biking culture has also led to coordinated programs between community advocates and city government. Their goal is to deliver amenities that further ingrain cycling as a commuting option, such as bike lanes and storage options on the street or in offices.

Lou Fineberg, co-founder and business program director of advocacy group BikePGH, says being bike-friendly requires more than installing a bike rack for employees. He provides resources to local businesses about issues such as using a commuter tax benefit to encourage bike commuting, and offering bike valet service at events.

“I’ve seen some companies offer points. So every time you bike commute, take the bus, or use some form of alternative transportation, you earn points — and as you earn points there are prizes,” Fineberg said, noting such efforts to engage employees nets the best results.

 ”I’ve seen some companies offer points. So every time you bike commute, take the bus, or use some form of alternative transportation, you earn points — and as you earn points there are prizes”

Google’s Pittsburgh office, Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield, Whole Foods Market and Zipcar are local businesses BikePGH has designated as bike-friendly employers. “We encourage bicycling as an easy option for transportation and provide amenities such as bike racks at our office buildings throughout Pennsylvania and West Virginia,” said Phyllis Barber, Highmark’s sustainability coordinator, when the company earned similar recognition from the League of American Bicyclists.

Fineberg acknowledges that other cities, such as Portland, San Francisco and New York City, have taken the lead on implementing bike infrastructure. And so far the latest local efforts haven’t translated into a big increase in bike-commuter rates, though they are about three times what they were in 2000. But the city remains focused on Pittsburgh’s biking future, with plans to launch Bike share next year. The launch will be timely, as Pittsburgh will host the 2014 Pro Walk/Pro Bike Conference next September.

For bike enthusiasts, or anyone just tired of sitting in traffic, anything that makes the trip home from work easier and more enjoyable is a welcome development.

To find out how to make your company more bike-friendly, contact BikePGH or the League of American Bicyclists. Or make your company one of the Best Workplaces for Commuters.


Photo Credit: David Politzer-Ahles

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