Thanks to the new Pittsburgh Bike Map, I tried a fresh commute. I live on the South Side and work Downtown, and my morning pedal consists of a fraught crossing of the teeming and shoulderless 10th Street Bridge, followed by a perilous dodge through Downtown traffic.
The map, from advocacy group BikePGH, indicates safe and less-safe routes through town, plus bike-trail access points and repair shops. BikePGH and collaborators deepLocal (an area geography-software firm) paint the 10th Street Bridge yellow -- "caution" for cyclists -- and mark most of the rest of my old route something besides green, for "go." A route along East Carson Street to the Smithfield Street Bridge, which I'd tried and also found hair-raising, wasn't green, either.
BikePGH chief Scott Bricker says the group gathered such intelligence largely over the past year, since securing about $50,000 in Heinz Endowments funds for the map project. It's the first citywide bike map since a City of Pittsburgh-issued model in 1992. A lot has changed, including the addition of miles of rails-to-trails pathways, and a rise in the number of bike commuters. A posse of two-wheeled BikePGH volunteers checked routes, evaluated hill gradients ("steep" and "very steep") and noted tricky intersections; Glen Johnson contributed "A Bicycle Commute," a charming instructional comic ("Make Eye-Contact with Drivers").
BikePGH printed 20,000 copies of the new map, with distribution via such grassroots outlets as repair shops and coffeehouses. (I found mine wedged under my brake cable by a volunteer during the recent Alternative Transportation Festival.) While an interactive online version is still a work in progress, the map is accessible by iPhone and as a downloadable file at www.BIKE-PGH.org. A map launch party is scheduled for Fri., Nov. 2, at EDGE Studio, in Garfield.
But how does it serve commuters? With its emphasis on back streets, the new map sent me down Bingham Street (parallel to Carson, one block toward the river). Compared to the 10th Street Bridge and Second Avenue across the river, traffic along Bingham was blessedly light, leaving time to take in Downtown's panorama. While a dogleg in the map's green stripe sent me left at South Fifth Street -- in order to then bear right onto McKean -- I found it simpler to make that turn at South Fourth; McKean ran tranquilly beneath the Liberty Bridge, past a print shop and a gravel plant.
But at the Exxon east of Station Square, confusion struck: The map indicated I should bear right on a trail to the Smithfield Bridge, but no such trail seemed to exist. Instead, I crossed the Exxon parking lot and took a Station Square access road to the bridge. From there, it's smooth sailing across the Mon, especially on the broad pedestrian walkway (which, like many non-business-district sidewalks, is legal riding). Downtown biking is much easier when you don't need to make lefts or rights, and Smithfield Street took me swiftly to City Paper world headquarters.
But where's the rest of that trail? And why would I take it anyway, seeing how it would have joined the South Side's paved riverfront trail ... which loops under the bridge I need to go over?
BikePGH membership and project coordinator Eric "Erok" Boerer acknowledged the glitch: That green stripe should have led from McKean directly to the access road, with a graphic "call-out" marking the curb-cut to the bridge, which I'd found on my own.
The Smithfield-Station Square nexus, says Boerer, is "one of those spots that's difficult to describe on a map."
But in a town not built for biking, I'll take it.
Pittsburgh Bike Map Launch Party 7-10 p.m. Fri., Nov. 2. EDGE Studio, 5411 Penn Ave., Garfield. Free. 412-353-0291