I was surprised to learn that BikePGH’s office on 43rd Street was previously a local bank. I have zero recollection of it, despite having walked that block a hundred times over the past decade. Now, with bike racks beneath a corrugated roof, a cycling-inspired sculpture adorning the planter along the sidewalk, and a formidable tire pump bolted to the ground, the building’s distinct identity can’t be mistaken for anything other than the offices of BikePGH.
Physical development – of real estate and infrastructure – will be the primary path for implementing the broader goals articulated in p4 Pittsburgh. But transportation is the connective tissue between where we live and work, between family and friends. It’s also a common thread between most of the p4 Performance Measures, ranging from housing to energy consumption to air quality. Broadly, this includes bus transit, car sharing, biking and walking, and is most directly addressed through the Performance Measure called “Connect.”
p4 Pittsburgh, a joint-effort between the City of Pittsburgh and the Heinz Endowments, provides a framework to guide citywide development in ways that are inclusive, sustainable and innovative. p4 is organized around four themes: People, Planet, Place and Performance. The initiative includes annual conferences along with projects geared towards implementing p4’s vision for Pittsburgh’s future. One such project referred to in this interview – the p4 Performance Measures – is a scorecard for how well prospective development projects align with p4 goals.
While there are many people who can speak to the significance of transit, I sought out BikePGH’s Executive Director, Scott Bricker, for many reasons, including the prominence of bicycle infrastructure in the Connect Measure. Secondly, BikePGH took the lead in bringing the national Complete Streets program to Pittsburgh, which ties together all forms of transit. Lastly, having written extensively about affordable housing, I was curious about the organization’s data on the combined costs of housing and transportation throughout the region.
The following interview doesn’t convey the scrambling I did the moment Scott told me that he was not included in the p4 team that crafted of the Connect Measure. He addressed the issue gracefully, while I abruptly cast aside my first page of questions. Perhaps it was for the best, as the remaining conversation turned out to be both expansive and detailed. It’s for that reason that I also omitted how we came to discuss Miles Davis, Albert Speer, the Sandinistas, and David Mitchell’s novel, Cloud Atlas.
Downstream: What were your takeaways from this year’s p4 Conference?
Bricker: It was very different from last year. This conference was firmly anchored in the discussion about equity, inclusion and diversity. I thought that was great. We need to be having these conversations. We came out of it knowing just how important that is to the future of the city.
Downstream: The “Connect” metric in the p4 Performance Measures speaks to mobility options, the health benefits of biking, and reduced greenhouse emissions. Were you involved in creating those guidelines?
Bricker: No, I wasn’t.
Downstream: Why not?
Bricker: Good question. I wasn’t invited. Maybe early on they didn’t anticipate how much the development issues would intersect with our issues.
Downstream: The Connect metric awards points for real estate developments that reduce parking demand by encouraging alternative transportation options. In what ways does this intersect with BikePGH’s work?
Bricker: Let’s first take a step back. When we opened up the zoning code a few years ago, we found that there was a placeholder for bike parking with a blank page underneath it. We saw that as an opportunity to incentivize developers to put in bike parking, by including an economic incentive while mandating that a certain amount be provided. The first part, the carrot, is really important, and we’ve been seeing developers taking advantage of that. A single surface parking space typically costs about $10,000 to build, and a single structured [parking garage – ed.] space can cost upwards of $60,000, based on the value of the land, materials, height, and so on.
Through our advocacy, the City’s zoning code allows for a developer to swap out 30% of the required car spaces for bike parking – spaces that are covered, close to an entrance, or attractive for a person using a bike. That can save hundreds of thousands of dollars in a single development. Maybe we can increase the percentage of that swap?
That’s how BikePGH has been working on this issue of reducing parking demand that is now part of the p4 Performance Measures. As for p4 specifically, the Connect metrics only apply to developers who want public subsidy or to take over land currently owned by the City or URA. We don’t have something that says all developments must provide the things in the p4 Measures, like for example, a modicum of affordable housing. But the bike parking swap is now in the zoning code and applies to all new development, regardless of whether or not there is subsidy. I should note that we haven’t yet approached the zoning code about mandatory minimum car parking spaces.
Downstream: What is “mandatory minimum car parking?”
Bricker: Currently our zoning code requires that a minimum number of parking spaces are provided, based on the type of development. An apartment building, for example, requires one space per unit. Other cities have done maximum car parking as a way to limit the amount of parking a development can have, as a way of encouraging the use of other forms of transportation. In other words, instead of saying you have to provide this minimum number of spaces, it says you can build no more than this many spaces. In Pittsburgh, could we offer greater incentives for bike parking, instead of imposing maximum car parking as these other cities have done?
Downstream: When are these car and bike parking requirements triggered?
Bricker: For new construction or when there is a change in use. A new building has to provide bike parking. The same is true for a building that changes from, say, light industrial to residential. We’re finding that developers are really excited about this because it has the potential to increase their profit margins, but there’s a knowledge gap between developers and financiers. A lot of banks think that car parking equates to successful development, so there needs to be some education there.
There are some creative things out there. Uber was behind an idea where they worked with a developer to provide one-hundred dollar transportation vouchers to their residents each month, in lieu of providing car parking. In that example, half of the voucher had to be used on Uber, but the rest could be spent on public transit, bike share or car share. It would be cool to have the government do that instead of Uber. A developer could forego building enormously expensive parking if you provide transportation dollars to their residents.
Downstream: How do anticipate BikePGH being included into future development projects? Does the City direct developers to you?
Bricker: Developers come to us all the time but not by way of the City. I don’t think the City says, Go talk to BikePGH. We raise revenue through the sale of bike racks, so the City can’t single us out and direct developers to us. Regardless, developers have to deal with the zoning code for bike and car parking, and often come to us to talk to us about solutions for their specific development.
Downstream: Two years after BikePGH launched its Complete Streets campaign, City Council will vote on a Complete Streets Policy later this month. What are “Complete Streets?”
Bricker: Complete Streets are streets designed with everybody in mind, regardless of age, ability, or choice of mode of transportation. The Complete Streets policy codifies into law what was previously an executive order from Mayor Peduto.
Downstream: Is Butler Street though Lawrenceville an example of a Complete Street?
Bricker: The policy primarily applies to city-owned streets, but also privately-owned roads that are open to the public, like in the future Almono development in Hazelwood, or the Buncher development in the Strip District. Butler Street is a state road owned by PennDot, so that’s not the best example. However, there’s a clause in the Complete Streets bill which states: While the city cannot force other entities that own transportation infrastructure within the City of Pittsburgh to abide by Complete Streets, the City will work closely with them, and try their best to make a non-city-owned street to be complete. That’s a tough problem to figure out in some ways because Penn Dot owns a fair number of important streets within the city: both West and East Carson Streets, parts of Penn Avenue in the East End, Butler Street, and a lot of the boulevards.
Downstream: Maybe Liberty Avenue through the Strip District would be a better example?
Bricker: I would argue vehemently that Liberty Avenue is not a complete street in that area.
Downstream: What would make it so?
Bricker: Some of the issues there have to do with the built infrastructure. There are massive retaining walls with surface parking lots on the other side, and very narrow sidewalks for pedestrians and for people waiting at bus stops. There are very fast speeds and substandard lane widths for cars – there are four lanes but they’re all nine feet wide. Anything under nine and a half feet is considered substandard.
I’ve seen unofficial conceptual designs that could take Liberty down to three lanes, with one in each direction, and a turning lane. I think that’s something worth pursuing. We could use overhead directional markers that can change the directions of lanes depending on time of day, as we do on the bridges – the 40th Street, West End and Liberty Bridges.
What would make Liberty complete is wider and more comfortable sidewalks, with better provisions like transit shelters. I don’t think you’d be able to fit bike lanes on that street, but in some places in Pittsburgh we look for “complete systems.” The Strip District is one of the few places that has a grid, so let’s take advantage of that. Which of the four east-west streets would be optimal for bicycles and pedestrians? I would argue that Liberty can be improved for transit and cars with a lane diet and widening the remaining lanes. We would move the same number of cars, but at a slower, safer speed, where vehicles aren’t in such close proximity to each other. Penn Avenue or Smallman Street provide great examples of more pedestrian-oriented streets. If you look at Railroad street, starting at 21st Street, or the new streets that aren’t open yet in the Buncher development along the river, those can be good streets for bikes and pedestrians. You might not be able to have it all on any one street, but you may be able to have it all in one system.
Downstream: At the intersection of Penn and Centre Avenues in East Liberty is a new Target store, a 360-unit apartment building called Eastside Bond, and a newly reconstructed transit station. The entire intersection has been reconstructed with new lights, signals, and crosswalks, paid for with public dollars. Why is it still difficult to cross any of the streets in that area?
Bricker: I don’t want to diminish how difficult it is to cross there currently, but I will have you know that, as of a year and half ago, it was even more difficult. Because of the advocacy efforts of BikePGH and the residents in East Liberty, we were able to lengthen the time of the crosswalk signals, and bring the crosswalks closer to the intersections. Before, they were tucked back, and drivers would be well into their turn before they were presented with pedestrians. The crosswalks are now closer to the intersection so that a motorist sees the crosswalk earlier and at a slower speed.
We were dismayed by the first designs for that intersection in 2007-08, which predated the time when BikePGH started thinking about how critical walking is to livable communities, and decided to include pedestrian advocacy into our mission. Putting people first is the most important thing to concentrate on. Pittsburgh has one of the highest rates of people walking to work of any of the sixty most populated cities. We weren’t thinking about that then – we were trying to shoehorn bike infrastructure into that intersection. We were told at the time there was no way to make that happen, with 18-wheeler trucks having to make those turns, and various other excuses. I think everyone now looks at it and thinks we could have designed something better.
What Complete Streets can do is this: when the time comes to repave that street, we can look at the configuration of where the lines are and hopefully carve out more space for pedestrians, or create curb bump-outs to shorten the crossing distance even more.
Downstream: Is Pittsburgh’s Complete Streets policy complete?
Bricker: The policy is fully crafted and passed the Planning Commission unanimously. The final vote is next week. [City Council unanimously passed the Complete Streets Ordinance on November 21, 2016 – ed.]
Downstream: Returning to the p4 conversation, the Connect Measure doesn’t speak directly to the Complete Streets policy. Should it be revised accordingly?
Bricker: I don’t know, I wasn’t at the table. Hopefully we’ll be invited in to discuss this. Had I been aware of what was being created with p4, I would have fought hard to be a part of it.
Downstream: Many people might be surprised to know the BikePGH is advocating for affordable housing. What is the connection between the two?
Bricker: What we’re fighting for is an affordable Pittsburgh. Affordable housing is one really important part of that; affordable transportation is another. The two largest expenditures for most families is housing and transportation. You can’t have affordable housing in a place that is not served by biking, transit or walking. If you have to own a vehicle, that tips the scale into making a place unaffordable, so we see ourselves as part of an overall fight for an affordable Pittsburgh.
Downstream: How much do average Pittsburghers spend on housing and transportation combined?
Bricker: One in four Pittsburgh households don’t have access to a vehicle. In terms of equity, we should be designing our communities so that you don’t have to own a vehicle. Housing and transportation combined is an enormous expense. It accounts for more than half of an average household income.
Downstream: Where in the city are transportation costs the highest and lowest?
Bricker: Generally, neighborhoods that are more auto-dependent have higher transportation costs. For some people this is a choice, but many people live in car-dependent communities because they don’t have other options. “Housing + Transportation” maps show the combined cost burden for communities throughout the region.
Downstream: Zoning requirements require certain amounts of off-street parking for various projects, and those requirements are especially high for residential developments. Communities across the economic spectrum typically support this approach to minimize street parking congestion. What impact does this parking requirement have on the cost of housing?
Bricker: It should be noted that those requirements are different for different parts of the city. For example, a residential building downtown is not required to provide any off-street parking. Generally speaking, the costs of creating parking for a residential project gets passed on to the tenants of that building. Without that expense, developers don’t have to try to recoup those costs. Is it that simple? Not always. Not providing parking doesn’t guarantee that a developer will charge less for rent. All we know is that without having to build parking, the development costs are less, therefore there is more room to potentially make housing more affordable.
Oakland, California recently reduced parking requirements for development, in large part to reduce housing costs. Through both incentives and mandates, Oakland has capped the number of parking spaces developers can provide, and in most cases, developers have to separate the costs for parking and rent for their tenants. By limiting parking, it encourages the use of car sharing, biking and pubic transit. By separating parking fees from rents, it can lower rents for tenants that don’t have cars. Just having that information available is powerful for the consumer.
Downstream: This year’s p4 Conference featured discussions that were largely about race, as it pertains to our segregated neighborhoods, housing practices, employment, etc. How has race played a role in bike advocacy?
Bricker: Let me start with BikePGH’s values: We want the Pittsburgh biking and walking community to look like Pittsburgh. We have equity, diversity and inclusion wrapped up in the heart of what we do. Yet from the census information we have, sixty-five percent of people who bike to work in the city are white males. That says to me that we have a lot of work to do. We have a women’s program that meets throughout the year, and many of the students we reach through our Positive Spin program are African-American.
One affordable housing advocate was recently quoted as saying something like, If you want to see where the money is going for affordable housing, stop building bike lanes. We have a lot of outreach and education to do around what the costs are for bike lanes and who they’re for. This is an ongoing thing, but I want people to understand that we’re doing this for everyone, because this creates a better place to live, and creates a true connection between work and life for those who can’t afford vehicles. I wouldn’t do this is if it was for upwardly mobile white people. I’m not working for a charitable non-profit to help people who don’t need our help.
Downstream: Is there a general misunderstanding about the amounts and sources of funding, and the restrictions on them?
Bricker: You can’t compare the two. First of all, funds for bicycle infrastructure and affordable housing are not coming from the same pot. Second, the budget for bike infrastructure in 2017 is more than in years past, but up until now, it’s been about $200,000 per year. The City knows how to leverage those funds with state and federal dollars, and has grown it to over $1 million. But the $200,000 from taxpayers is not comparable to the funding that goes to the City’s Housing Authority, for example, and is not the reason why not enough affordable housing is being built.
Downstream: Low-income households, which are predominantly people of color, are being forced to relocate farther from Pittsburgh’s employment centers and other services because of rising housing costs. What will BikePGH’s relationship with communities like McKeesport, Penn Hills or Clairton be like in the near future?
Bricker: If you look at a place like McKeesport, it has a somewhat walkable downtown area. It has sidewalks some bike lanes, because it’s part of the Great Allegheny Passage. Penn Hills, on the other hand, does not have sidewalks and there have been instances of people getting hit by cars walking to and from bus stops. So this is a huge concern.
The “Connect Communities” that border the City of Pittsburgh passed a non-binding Complete Streets resolution, stating that its values are aligned with Complete Streets. We’re seeing more streets in those areas getting bike lanes, trail connections, and bike racks in business districts. We’ve done our Positive Spin in Clairton, but we have to mindful of being overextended, so we’re concentrating on the urban core of Allegheny County – the Connect Communities. The County has 130 municipalities and BikePGH has a nine person staff. It’s hard to spread out and get any traction. Most of our time is spent in the city, and what we’ve seen is that it inspires change elsewhere.
Downstream: Staying within the city, which the p4 Measures are limited to, many of the neighborhoods where low-income people are relocating have limited transit options. p4 speaks directly to the “Last mile” – explain what that is, and how BikePGH can facilitate it.
Bricker: It’s first and last mile. It’s about how people get to and from existing transit, grocery stores, friends and family. We know a fair bit about transit, but our focus is walking and biking. One concrete thing neighborhoods can do is a “walking audit” of their streets, or at least concentrate on a set of intersections that are known to be dangerous. To identify solutions, we have a toolkit that we can take to their community leaders. With that they can advocate for a pedestrian or bike plan, which unlocks other resources for bike-ped improvements.
We have been successful in providing technical resources to about a dozen bicycle-pedestrian advisory committees at the neighborhood level. We’ve helped start a couple, but it’s mostly people in these communities who want to start one of their own. There’s one in the Northside, and there’s “Better Streets Lawrenceville”, “Bloomfield Livable Streets”, and the “Oakland Green Team”. Sometimes these groups work out of larger established organizations like the Northside Leadership Conference or Oakland Planning and Development Corporation. We can work with organizations like that so that they can do this themselves, and they can work with their elected officials to make first and last mile safer.
Photo courtesy of Brian Cohen
Photo courtesy of evolveEA