January’s big winter storm crushed cities like Baltimore, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. with substantial amounts of snow, but Pittsburgh didn’t receive nearly as much. After an extensive clean-up effort during the day on Sat., Jan. 23, most major roads were cleared by the evening. And by the time everyone went back to work on Monday morning, side streets, sidewalks and most all other paths were cleared for everyone.
Well, everyone except cyclists. Bike riders took to the streets on Jan. 25 to mostly clear roadways, except when they got to the well-known bike lanes — those were filled with snow. According to a BikePGH online forum and City Paper first-person accounts, at least eight stretches of lane were not cleared by the city’s Department of Public Works; these included major protected routes such as Penn Avenue in Downtown. (Interestingly, the roadway and the sidewalks on the Sixth Street Bridge were cleared by the morning of Jan. 25, but the protected bike lanes were not.) In fairness, some bike trails were cleared, including the Panther Hollow Trail, the Eliza Furnace Trail and the trail along the Allegheny from the Strip District to Downtown.
But why were some of the most-traveled bike lanes left untouched? Tim McNulty, spokesperson for Mayor Bill Peduto, says it was about prioritizing what gets plowed. “Outside of the city’s primary and secondary routes, DPW has to make a judgment call on deploying their resources after storms, balancing of needs of bike lanes with tertiary streets, alleys, sidewalks, city-owned bridges and steps,” wrote McNulty in an email to CP.
BikePGH director Scott Bricker believes, priorities or not, the city had the ability to clear snow from bike lanes and other routes, given the amount of time since the snow had stopped falling. “We believe it’s entirely reasonable to expect to have bike lanes plowed and city-owned sidewalks taken care of within 72 hours of a snowfall,” wrote Bricker in an email. “If not, Pittsburgh’s citizens should be offered an explanation of what is standing in the way of this happening.”
Garfield resident and cyclist Randy Nickerson says when he rode down Liberty Avenue on Jan. 26, the bike lane was somewhat passable because some snow had melted, but it was obvious it hadn’t been plowed.
“At this point, I come to except that it will not be cleared,” he says. “People always tell me to get in the bike lane, but I can’t if it’s filled with snow.”
Not surprisingly, leaving bike lanes and paths unplowed in the winter can have drastic effects on ridership numbers, according to Timo Perälä, president of the Winter Cycling Federation, an international advocacy group based in Finland. Perälä lives in Oulu, a Finnish city located just below the Arctic Circle, and he says when bike infrastructure isn’t cleared of snow, the city sees a 60 percent drop in ridership, according to automated bike counters.
“The biggest obstacle for year-round cycling is not the coldness,” wrote Perälä in an email, “but lack of bike infrastructure suitable for winter conditions and [an] insufficient level of winter maintenance.”
Pittsburgh has the equipment to remove snow from all bike lanes, even the protected ones. McNulty says the city uses small pickups and small tractors with plows to get inside the narrow protected bike lanes.
And while almost all of the snow has melted thanks to some warm temperatures, another storm is sure to hit Pittsburgh before the winter is out. The roads will most likely be cleared for the cars soon after, and if cyclists want their bike routes cleared too, they may just have to ask.
On the afternoon of Jan. 25, Twitter user “@FerranteJason” requested to Pittsburgh’s 311 Twitter account that the Schenley Drive bike lane be plowed. Two hours later, a formal assignment was given to the DPW, and according to BikePGH’s online forums, the Schenley Drive bike lane was later plowed.
Forum-user “jonawebb” summed up the current state of Pittsburgh’s winter biking pretty well: “We have to 311 them because they aren’t getting plowed, regularly, yet. ... Right now, bike-lane maintenance is not healthy. We have to keep reminding the city, over and over again, until it is.”