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Grata's Guide: When did we become bicycle-friendly?

Sunday, June 20, 1999

By Joe Grata, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Over the next three days, an estimated 1,000 participants in the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy's Second International Trails & Greenways Conference will be converging on Pittsburgh and the Westin William Penn.

All week long, you will run into devoted bicycle riders and fitness enthusiasts in the city and around the region. (Please don't really "run into" them. Be nice for a change. Share the road.)

Hey! You people lost? You crazy?

This is Pittsburgh, the region that Bicycling magazine took to task in 1990, naming it the third worst place in the United States for two-wheeling. The magazine berated us for a combination of inclement weather, tough terrain, government indifference and hostile motorists.

How times and trails have changed.

Here's what David Burwell, president of the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, says about us at, the Web site for the 13-year-old, nonprofit advocacy group:

"Pittsburgh is the perfect location for this gathering because it is literally transforming itself from 'Steel Town' to 'Trail Town' by developing a green infrastructure. From the riverfront trail system to the escarpment greenways, Pittsburgh is 'ground zero' in the trailways and greenways revolution."

Conference participants are coming from 17 different countries, as far away as Siberia and Australia, to hold formal meetings Wednesday through Saturday and ride our bike trails, from the Three Rivers Heritage Trail that ties together the waterfronts of the Monongahela, Allegheny and Ohio rivers along the old rail corridors of Pittsburgh, to the Yough River trails in Westmoreland, Fayette and Somerset counties.

Last year, the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy held its inaugural conference in San Diego, a fact that says a lot for its board and sponsors picking Pittsburgh when they could have picked such bicycle-friendly places as Toronto and Portland.

However, we do appreciate it when people like Burwell brag us up. He says our trail system "breathes life into the city, making Pittsburgh one of America's most livable communities," even though our bike/exercise trails have their share of missing links like our roads system.

Significantly, only a week ago Pennsylvania became the first state in the nation with 100 rail-trails (totaling 867 miles) by opening most of the 29-mile Panhandle Trail. This one links to the Montour Trail and is following former Conrail tracks through Washington County to Wheeling, W.Va.

It helps to have some pretty important politicians behind this modern lifestyle movement.

Mayor Murphy led an entourage from Pittsburgh to Washington, D.C., last month. Every now and then, Gov. Ridge hops on a bicycle, leading packs of panting media people on tours. State Rep. Rick Geist, R-Altoona, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, is getting ready for 'Toona Days' bike races in central Pennsylvania next month.

They are all to be at Mellon Square Park, Downtown, at 6 p.m. Wednesday for a welcoming reception for the Rails-to-Trails conference. First, they're supposed to rendezvous five miles out of town with about 20 people bicycling to the conference from Washington, D.C., then ride together to the party.

The 20 people, probably pedaling in Maryland along the scenic old B&O canal towpath as you read this, are truly exceptional: They are persons with disabilities who belong to World TEAM Sports.

The Rails-to-Trails Conservancy has been getting support from big-wheels from corporate Pittsburgh, too. Foundations and private companies including the Howard Heinz Endowment, US Airways and the Zambelli fireworks folks are underwriting some of the conference costs.

This should be an interesting visit for these conference participants, most of them bringing their bicycles and anxious to see if our potholes, lumps, bumps, traffic, hills, no-shoulder roads and courteous drivers measure up to their reputations.

I want to warn them that this is still "cicada season," and on some wooded trails south of Pittsburgh, these insects by the thousands are still buzzing around and flying in your face.

Wear eye protection, keep your mouth shut and don't be afraid, because these locusts do not bite or sting.

You never know where one of these pesky cicadas will show up.

Giving static: Pennsylvania Turnpike bigwigs don't like to get a lot of static, as in criticism. But for weeks now, they've been giving people traveling through their Route 51 improvement project in Jefferson Hills nothing but static.

Tune to the Highway Construction Advisory Radio Channel advertised on the signs (1610 AM) and you'll see what I mean. Hurry. Before they fix it.

Plate du jour: IZ GENE, a license plate spotted on a white Cadillac in Pittsburgh. Hello there! I'z Joe.

Factoid: One out of seven 16-year-old drivers will have a serious crash before his or her 17th birthday. -- Pennsylvania Department of Transportation

Send your transportation questions, complaints and suggestions to Joe Grata c/o The Post-Gazette or e-mail him at . Include address and phone number, please.

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