Transportation reporter Melissa Daniels gains a new perspective on the conflicts among drivers and bicycle riders by taking to the streets.
Pavement looks different up close.
The painted lines pop on the corrugated surface of the asphalt. Intersections seem larger. The view of the street is different on a bike, which I learned recently while taking Bike Pittsburgh’s Confident City Cycling Class.
In six months as the Trib’s transportation reporter, no issue has merited more calls emails and tweets from readers than the implementation of bike lanes and the advent of cycling in the streets. Some say cyclists have no business being on the streets, while others report riders zooming through red lights. Mayor Bill Peduto’s administration plans to implement more bike lanes – starting in Oakland – with the idea of making city streets safer for all modes of transportation. The concept is divisive, especially when drivers heading down Penn Avenue see the former two-lane street halved by a bike lane with few bikes (despite an Envision Downtown census showing an average of 1,000 riders per day in July).
I’ve biked on trails since moving to Pittsburgh, and I’ve loved working it into my barely-there exercise routine. But I had never tried riding in a street before, so I signed up for Bike Pittsburgh’s class as an opportunity to learn the basics while riding in a group. The instructors, Karen and Dan, met with about 10 students in Lawrenceville on a sunny, warm Saturday. We went over the fundamentals, like how to ensure your bike and helmet are safe, and pedaled to a nearby parking lot to practice road skills.
I took the course on a Healthy Ride bike, which felt safe and secure with fat tires and brand new brakes. I tested one out this May, but I hadn’t taken one out for myself. The weight of the bike took me a little while to get used to, but once I found my center of gravity, I could navigate an obstacle course with tennis balls set up to mimic tight city turns.
Using a bike to commute through the city has appeared dangerous to me. More than once, I have slowly moved behind and around cyclists in the East End. They seem so close to the cars, so vulnerable and exposed next to the two-ton metal machines navigating around them.
Those machines can hurt.
Five years ago — Sept. 3, 2010, a little after 6 p.m. – I exited a nail salon on Main Street in the picturesque Finger Lakes town of Canandaigua, N.Y. I headed to City Hall to cover a council meeting. I paused at the mid-block crosswalk in front of two southbound lanes of traffic. The driver closest to me yielded, and waved me on. I stepped into the street. But the driver in the next lane didn’t see me.
The Jeep Cherokee hit my left hip, and sent me flying through the air. I still remember the resounding crack when my head hit the road. I still remember coming to, crouched like an animal, as the world slowly came back into focus.
The bruises and concussion eventually faded, but that sound of my skull hitting the pavement still hasn’t.
I tried not to think about that on Saturday when I cruised down Butler Street with Karen and two other classmates. Within the first five minutes, two drivers shouted obscenities at us. I felt like my presence offended them. But I remembered the rules of the road – that by law, cyclists are allowed to travel in the lanes, and drivers must obey the speed limit. I remembered the skills from the class – to signal before turns, to keep your feet on “level pedals” for quick stopping and starting, and to keep your eyes on the road ahead.
Later, when we pulled off to let traffic pass, a driver honked and gave a friendly wave.
Whether it’s a novice like me on a bike, the drivers in their cars, or the pedestrians on the sidewalk, we’re all just trying to get somewhere. I do not think the frustration of drivers in this city will vanish overnight, but I do think all of us in today’s society are equipped to deal with change – even when we don’t like it, or when it scares us. If we practice our technical skills – and the human ones, like patience and awareness – we can arrive safely.