Letter: Oakland’s dangerous streets demand attention, a champion

This was written to be a letter-to-the-editor in early September, 2016, but for some reason was never sent.

I work for a small non-profit affiliated with Pitt–an international professional association for academics–which has been based in Bellefield Hall since 2010.  I’m also a 2007 Pitt graduate with a BA in Linguistics.  As a student and a staff member, I’ve spent nearly nine of the last thirteen years on campus in Oakland.  At various points, I’ve primarily driven, biked, or taken a bus to Oakland; in the last several years I’ve increased my riding and now bike to work nearly daily.  Public transit is my second choice, and through several moves since 2011 I have consciously chosen to live near a direct bus line to Oakland.

As a Pitt alum and staff member of an affiliated organization on campus, I have been and continued to be appalled at the University’s response–or lack thereof–to the death of one of its own last fall and the continuing terrorizing of its students, staff, and faculty on a daily if not hourly basis.  According to one Post-Gazette article last fall, after the death of Susan Hicks in the shadow of the Cathedral of Learning, the only comment from Pitt spokesman John Fedele was that ‘the university has bike racks throughout the campus, encourages car-pooling and stresses pedestrian safety to students beginning with their freshman orientation’.  None of which does a thing to protect their personnel from reckless, speeding drivers.  At least CMU’s students and staff are getting trees between them and Forbes’ flying vehicles…

Except during special events, Bellefield is usually two lanes, and with no speed or crosswalk enforcement, many drivers speed and few yield to the hundreds of students and staff that cross the road to and from Bellefield Hall each day.  I can’t so much as walk to lunch without nearly getting hit by a car directly in front of my office.  Every day, I watch people trot, jog, and outright run across the street because drivers refuse to yield despite the painted crosswalk and cross-here signs.

As this week’s crash indicates, speeds on the roads that ring the University of Pittsburgh are dangerously high–if anything, the constant congestion which slows drivers and reduces PennDOT’s holy Level of Service is a good thing; it’s awfully difficult to flip a sedan at twenty miles an hour, and any person hit by a car is orders of magnitude more likely to survive at low vehicle speeds.

As Linda Bailey, Executive Director of the National Association of City Transportation Officials (an organization of which Pittsburgh is a Member City), wrote this week,

“With 80% of the U.S. population living in urban areas, we should be building streets and designing cities that work for everyone, including those traveling on foot, on bike, or via transit.… In particular, arterial streets [such as Forbes Ave in Pittsburgh], which represent less than 10% of roadways but are the site of 49% of fatalities, should be prioritized as places where we can quickly make the biggest safety gains….All levels of government must do better. Elected officials should be champions for safe street designs.”

Where is our champion?

As Noel Mickelberry, Executive Director of Oregon Walks, wrote this week,

“None of these crashes look like one another. Yet each crash reminds us that a true change to the status quo on our streets is required to provide solutions. Each person injured or killed on our roadways demands attention and action from our city’s leadership and from everyone traveling through our streets.”

Where is the attention and action from our city’s leadership in Pittsburgh?  The mayor Friday urged us to wait for Port Authority to make a decision on BRT, but as even Port Authority’s own representative acknowledged at Wednesday’s meeting, that decision has been delayed repeatedly.

How much longer must we wait?  How many more students must be terrorized before Port Authority manages to get its act in gear?  How many more community members must die before we act?

We’ve spent sixty years tossing up our hands and ceding public space to public menaces. It’s time to take our roads back for all users.

Still seeking justice for Susan Hicks: Blaming victims will not create safer streets

Yesterday marked four months since Susan Hicks was killed riding home from work. Next month, friends and others will join to complete her commute.

I want to hope that by the end of March there will be some news of the investigation or efforts to make Oakland a less dangerous place to be, but it is difficult to be optimistic.  Our local leaders try to find ways to make it illegal to cross the street while ignoring rampant reckless speeding. Our safety studies give brownie points to transportation associations who tell students to “walk safe” and “don’t be a road zombie” but don’t even comment on the lack of safe-driving messaging—nor do they have any idea why large numbers of students would want to cross the road between classroom buildings.  The university itself responds to pleas for a safer campus with bike racks, carpool marketing, and walk-safe messaging. Our bus drivers and police accost cyclists for occupying lane space, and even drivers who kill while sober rarely get more than a $500 fine and a few points on their licence.

When will we act to protect our people from those who actually do them harm, instead of blaming victims for the positions we force them into?

Some streets just shouldn’t have bike lanes, maybe

A friend of a friend wrote:

The only safe way for cars and bikes to share Friendship Ave is ONE AT A TIME. The bike lanes there give cyclists two choices: Either you use them, and subject yourself to hooks, buzzes, and doorings, or don’t use them, and subject yourself to harassment and hostility by vigilantes. It’s a lousy choice.

Bike lanes have been repainted on Friendship Avenue along Friendship Park.  The road is quite simply too narrow for a bike lane—it is physically impossible for a vehicle to pass a bike in that bike lane safely or legally, especially on the south (eastbound) side of the park.  They should never have been laid down in the first place, and every time they fade away and people start calling for them to be redone, I hope they’ll be allowed to disappear for good.

What should be done instead, then?  As a friend-of-a-friend wrote on Facebook, “Buildings and sidewalks are fixed in.”  

Buildings may be fixed, but sidewalks aren’t. Neither is the parking lane–the sidewalk could (but shouldn’t) be narrowed, and/or the parking removed. Or maybe we just need to slow and calm the street sufficiently that it can be shared—it is, after all, alongside a park, in a residential area, with primary streets only one long block to either side. Cut the speed limit to something compatible, perhaps add speed humps or curb bump outs….there are many ways to skin this frog that don’t involve encouraging people to ride and drive in a manner dangerous to others.

I think bike lanes in the abstract are a good idea. I think Friendship Park is a bad place for them, and that just about everyone would be better off if they were removed and the entire right-of-way redone.

 

Bike lanes were also repainted on Millvale Avenue alongside West Penn Hospital last night.  There was, of course, already a (non-emergency) hospital vehicle parked in it this morning.  sigh.  While I thank Highmark and their hospital network for their support for Pittsburgh bikeshare and biking in general, West Penn must do better.

(Of course, this afternoon comes ample evidence via Angie Schmitt and Bike Cleveland that it could be worse…)