Pittsburgh behind handlebars

Students, officers of the LAPD, fast-food delivery boys in New York City, and Lance Armstrong — what do all these people have in common? Well, probably a lot of things; but for now, they ride bicycles. In a time where carbon dioxide emissions are mounting, gas prices are high, and obesity is about to pass smoking as the country’s leading cause of preventable death, people are taking a stand by utilizing alternative modes of transportation, such as biking. Biking presents a sort of middle ground with many of the health benefits of walking, but many of the efficiencies and expedients of driving. With Pittsburgh’s growing bike-enthusiast population, though, comes a series of thoughts, ideas, and questions on biking in Pittsburgh.

Gathered in front of the Carnegie Library in Oakland, the riders of Critical Mass patiently anticipated the start of their monthly event. Critical Mass is a group comprising riders from all over the area gather together to ride through the streets of Pittsburgh on the last Friday of every month. The riders arrived this past Friday ready to brave 50-degree temperatures, biting winds, and the onset of rain. Despite the unfavorable weather, numerous people showed up ready to ride. Parents, children, college students, particularly able-bodied senior citizens, anyone and everyone can participate in Critical Mass. Much debate exists about Critical Mass and its effect on not just the Pittsburgh community, but communities in towns and cities around the world. Hundreds of bikers get together and ride in a pack, Tour de France-style, through major city streets, gaining supporters but often enraging drivers, too.

Critical Mass is often interpreted as a stunt in which bikers cause major traffic jams and illegally shut down streets with the sheer mass of cyclists in the pack. Some Critical Mass riders disagree with the idea that Critical Mass causes traffic problems, though. “[Critical Mass] behaves like a funeral procession and causes far less of a delay for any given driver than a Steelers game would,” said Daniel Papasian, a 2006 Carnegie Mellon alumnus who used to participate in Critical Mass. “Two hundred people on bikes pass through a given point far more quickly than 200 single-occupant vehicles.”

Michael Cruz, president of Carnegie Mellon’s Cycling Club, does not agree with Critical Mass, and points to a practice known as “corking” as one of the reasons. Corking is an act of questionable legality by which riders block side streets to allow fellow riders to pass down a main street without having to worry about cars in the midst of the group of riders. This often causes major traffic in already congested areas.
Cruz, a senior decision science and cello performance major, also spoke of his love for bikes and riding. “I got a job at a bike shop as soon as I came to college. Since then, I’ve met so many different kinds of bike riders — from other racers to commuters, people who tour across entire countries, messengers, and people that just want to ride with their family to stay in shape,” he said. “It just amazed me how there are so many different types of people that love to ride for such vastly different reasons.” Many share Cruz’s passion for riding, but have mixed feelings when it comes to issues on Critical Mass.

Papasian has participated in Critical Mass in Washington, D.C., and Pittsburgh. “There’s really no comparison — Pittsburgh Mass is far larger, and it’s much more serious of a bike ride,” he said. “In D.C., far fewer people ride Mass — and perhaps because of a desire to make up for the size, the bicyclists end up being much more defensive, and many would say aggressive. Riding Mass in Pittsburgh is a great way to relax on a Friday. Riding mass in D.C. requires you to get the adrenaline pumping.”

According to most participants, Critical Mass has no official mission; it does not seek to cause traffic problems; it is just plain old fun. “I think one of the most important functions of Critical Mass is that it helps to build the sense of community between cyclists with different interests and backgrounds. Everyone celebrates it in their own way,” said Stuart Anderson, a Ph.D. student at the Robotics Institute.

The perils of biking in a city, of course, still remain. Pittsburgh does not make as many special allocations for riders as a few other cities. Bike lanes are not common, and with traffic already difficult to navigate, cyclists have to worry not only about what they are doing, but also what drivers, pedestrians, and other cyclists are doing. Many feel that educating drivers and cyclists on bike safety would be a great way to diminish any hostility.
Bike Pittsburgh is the biggest bicycle organization in the Pittsburgh area. Bike Pittsburgh provides information for cyclists and non-cyclists; articles, legislation concerning bicycles, links to various other bike organizations, bike safety tips, and bike trail planners are just a few of the things this organization has to offer. Members receive invitations to special events, benefits from related organizations (such as Free Ride and various bike shops around Pittsburgh), and a weekly newsletter. Bike Pittsburgh also works with other groups on projects that are simply focused on creating a cleaner, healthier Pittsburgh.

These organizations all see the benefits of alternative modes of transportation. “More bike commuting also means lower demand for gas, so prices go down. And it reduces our dependence on oil from the Axis of Evil, among others. So riding a bike is really a patriotic act,” said Gabriel Silverman, a Carnegie Mellon graduate student and frequent Critical Mass participant. Silverman also cited points on which Pittsburgh could improve public biking, such as incentive programs and bike storage facilities that could possibly be subsidized by the government.

The non-profit organization Free Ride, which works in conjunction with Bike Pittsburgh, is an interesting substitute to the traditional bicycle repair shop, and makes a great effort in improving and promoting public biking. At Free Ride, anyone can bring in an old bike that has fallen into disrepair and learn how to fix it. Customers can fix their own bikes and be educated in the ways of bicycle care and diagnostics.

Free Ride runs off donations and the time of numerous volunteer workers. Bicycle parts, tools, and other materials are all free. In exchange for these services, one simply has to put in volunteer hours at the shop. Free Ride also provides a six-week bike mechanics course where students can learn all the fundamentals of bicycles, from tires, tubes, and flats, to cranks and bottom brackets. Free Ride is especially popular among college students because it provides a cheap way to create a personal means of transportation.

Some students, like Christina Milo, a junior electrical and computer engineering major, use less physically taxing means of transportation. Milo rides a Vespa from her off-campus apartment to classes as long as the weather is suitable. Vespa is a line of motor scooters, started in Italy in 1946, that recently re-entered the American market. But how practical is a Vespa, especially for the average college student? Vespas are indeed a little costly; the prices range from a manufacturer’s suggested retail price of about $3199 for an LX 50 to $5799 for the newest model, the GTS 250. Many would argue that a decent used car could be bought for that price. However, Vespas are cleaner, involve less maintenance, and are more fuel efficient.

“The gas mileage is amazing. I’ve been riding my Vespa almost every day since school started, and I haven’t had to get gas yet at all,” Milo said. “I make short trips, but it’s still impressive to get gas once every two months. Also, my gas tank is, I think, about one or two gallons. So, when I get gas it costs five bucks. It’s hilarious.”

In addition, parking a car is much more difficult than parking a bicycle or a Vespa, as cyclists enjoy the benefits of having bike racks outside just about every building on campus.

Finding ways to get around any city will always be a challenge, but some people believe the overall pros of biking outweigh the cons. “Biking in Pittsburgh is pretty easy,” said Silverman. “Most of the city is within 15 minutes of my door by bike.... It’s generally faster to bike anywhere in Pittsburgh than it is to drive, especially during the day, and you don’t have to worry about parking. It’s also just fun — you hardly notice that you’re getting in some exercise.”