For Lou Fineberg, author of local cycling guide Three Rivers on Two Wheels, riding from Downtown to the West End a few years ago was "one of my scariest moments on a bike."
It was a Friday afternoon, and he needed to do some fact-checking for the book. He started across the West End Bridge from the North Side and found himself in rush-hour traffic. Fineberg had every legal right to place his life in his hands. It is illegal to bicycle on the bridge's pedestrian walkways, though it often seems the only safe path. Unfortunately, the walkways were, and still are today, blocked to cyclists by concrete barriers.
Pedaling furiously, Fineberg crossed the bridge with all bones and fluids intact, but next came the Chutes 'n' Ladders juggernaut of the West End Circle. "You get there, and suddenly you're confronted with all these signs, and you make the turn, and it's more signs and you have to make quick decisions to make sure you're not going onto a four-lane highway," Fineberg says. "You almost feel like you're in a catapult and it tosses you and you just have to hope for the best."
This year, PennDOT had planned to do away with this centrifuge effect for both drivers and cyclists. Thanks to citizen activism in the project-planning stages three years ago, bicyclists and pedestrians were to get a new, separate blacktop path to safely carry them through the intersection.
Recently, the road project was pushed from 2005 into 2006 in order to shake out possible savings, says Greg Cerminara, an engineer with Michael Baker Corporation, a PennDOT consultant. Fortunately, Cerminara assures, the so-called "shared use" path isn't jeopardized by the delay or by budget cuts.
Like so many Pittsburgh problems, the West End Circle's wheel of misfortune can be blamed on geography. The Circle's an intersection of four roads: Saw Mill Run Boulevard (Route 51 and Route 19 at that point), Carson Street (Route 837), South Main Street (Route 60) and the local main drag, Steuben Street. The trick is getting these roads -- plus two railroad lines and the Saw Mill Run waterway -- squeezed through the narrow natural valley that connects Downtown with the West End neighborhoods, which are otherwise hidden behind a steep hillside.
PennDOT's fix, made possible by tunneling under a railroad embankment, will have Steuben Street converge with South Main before the intersection, not at the intersection as it does today. South Main will then travel under Route 51/19. Route 51/19 and South Main will each have its own intersection with Carson Street -- today, Main and Route 51/19 converge in the West End Circle, too. The bike-ped path, meanwhile, will loosely follow the new South Main route.
And the West End Bridge walkway will -- miraculously -- no longer be blocked by a concrete barrier.
Cycling advocates are celebrating a victory: For a highway agency to take some of their suggestions is rare enough; a bike-ped path will be an oasis amid the concrete of the West End interchanges.
You'll still need luck if you want to head east or west on Carson Street instead of trying the West End Bridge. Heading toward the South Side, you can either go down another flight of stairs into a sub-Carson netherworld that puts you on the wrong side of the street, or navigate a descending on-ramp that empties into the fast lane.
If you try turning left on Carson toward McKees Rocks, be prepared to deal with yet more narrow, busy lanes and pavement so deteriorated it might as well be gravel. At one point, a broken iron railing along the river is secured only by caution tape.
Maybe these hazards will entice people to stay in the West End. "The road there is one of the reasons the West End is cut off from the rest of the city," says Fineberg. "There's a natural barrier there that they could make a lot more welcoming. Most of us know the North Side, South Side, East End ... but not the West End. If I wasn't doing stuff for that book, I probably wouldn't have gone over there."