As more pedal, bicyclists’ injuries on rise on Pittsburgh streets
Reported motor vehicle/bicycle crashes in Pittsburgh increased annually in the past five years, even as officials dedicated more public money to improve biking infrastructure.
The jump in the number of PennDOT-tracked crashes from 2011 to 2015 corresponds with more people using bikes for transportation and recreation, Bike Pittsburgh advocacy director Eric Boerer said. More bicyclists mean more potential accidents, as does an increase in overall driving nationwide as reported by the U.S. Department of Transportation.
“When people are driving more, you’re going to have more crashes,” he said. “When people are biking more, you’re going to have more crashes.”
PennDOT reported a total of 311 crashes involving bikes within city limits from 2011 to 2015, the most recent year with available statistics. The state agency tracks only crashes involving fatalities, injuries or damaged vehicles that required towing.
Statistics show 2015 was the worst year. The crash total reached 71 — up from the five-year-low of 52 recorded in 2014 — and included one crash resulting in a death, and another that resulted in a major injury that required emergency transportation for medical treatment.
In 2015, city spending on bike-related infrastructure, planning and education totaled more than $1.65 million, more than the past five years’ spending combined.
Projects undertaken last year included creating protected bike lanes Downtown and in the North Side, Greenfield and Homewood. Those changes fit within a larger, multi-year increase in biking infrastructure, but they cut lanes for vehicular traffic and cost parking spaces in some places.
In 1980, Pittsburgh had 3 miles of designated bike lanes. Today there are 73, with more than 62 miles added since 2007.
Tension between cyclists and motorists persists and occasionally boils over to violent confrontations, as in July 2015 when a driver on Butler Street got out of his car and pushed a cyclist to the ground while shouting obscenities. Cyclists don’t always obey traffic rules.
Bad crashes persist, too.
City police have responded to one crash involving a bicycle and a serious injury this year, Public Safety Department spokeswoman Sonya Toler said.
Three bicycle crash fatalities occurred in the city since 2012, with a fourth in Wilkinsburg near city limits that summer.
Boerer suspects bike infrastructure has improved safety, but so has a change in perception. More drivers are used to seeing cyclists and sharing the road with them.
“You’d be hard-pressed to find a cyclist who has been biking here for a decade or more that doesn’t feel it’s safer,” he said.
“Ten years ago, it kind of felt like you were getting in a war every time you went out to ride your bike to work, and it doesn’t feel like that anymore.”
Mayor Bill Peduto has prioritized a “complete streets” planning strategy that incorporates more bike lanes and ways for pedestrians to get around the city.
Peduto spokesman Tim McNulty said studies show that more bike lanes make biking safer, largely by encouraging more people to get out and bike.
“You get more bikes out on the streets, and there’s more awareness of bicyclists,” he said. “Basically, there’s safety in numbers.”
Bike Pittsburgh uses American Community Service data from the census as one way to track biking popularity, though the figure does not represent all citywide biking numbers. It tracks individuals who are 16 or older and report using bikes to commute, Boerer said.
The survey suggests biking commuters doubled in Pittsburgh between 2007 and 2014 to 2 percent of all commuters, or just shy of 3,000 people. A city bike count conducted last year during three 2-hour count periods at 38 locations noted 3,355 cyclists and about 20,026 pedestrians. Data from the city’s May 2016 bike count was not available.
Kristin Saunders, Pittsburgh’s bicycle and pedestrian coordinator, could not be reached for comment.
City officials expect to release a bike plan in the fall, the first such plan since 1999.
Boerer said most of the initiatives and goals laid out in the 1999 plan have been achieved, meaning it’s time for the city and its residents to set new priorities and initiatives.
City staffers are soliciting public input during four meetings this summer. The last meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. Monday at Pittsburgh Bike Share, 3328 Penn Ave.
Michael Walton is a Tribune-Review staff writer. He can be reached at 412-380-5627 or [email protected].