The Missing Link: Making the Connection via the Mon Wharf Switchback

Mon Wharf walkway in downtown Pittsburgh, PA

Mon Wharf Landing, looking east towards the Smithfield Street Bridge, downtown

One glorious day–and a Sunday at that! Deep blue skies, whispy cirrus clouds, bright sunshine, and seasonally optimistic temperatures requiring only a long-sleeve shirt. Those who failed to leave the indoors on this 24-hour reprieve between Thanksgiving’s elongated drizzly gloom and the following Monday’s snow-filled temperature plunge should feel all the guilt and remorse they deserve.

Just jaggin’–no judgment, here. This blogger, however, wasn’t going to miss the opportunity. The Orbitmobile was sprung from its hutch, tires inflated, and chain oiled. We were off to town on a mission to check out the brand new Mon Wharf Switchback.

Mon Wharf Switchback bicycle/pedestrian ramp in downtown Pittsburgh, PA

The new Mon Wharf Switchback Ramp, downtown

It’s been said that Pittsburgh is the only city with a front door. Indeed, the approach from the morass of Parkway West suburbia/airport/I-79 to the awestruck oohs and aahs emerging from the Fort Pitt Tunnel into a seeming city from nowhere is truly spectacular, unparalleled, and–I can attest, twenty-some years on–never gets old.

That said, one can only reach that front door with a motor vehicle. For those arriving in our fair city by bicycle–and yes, thanks to the Great Allegheny Passage trail, plenty of newcomers get here on two wheels–it’s a less dramatic entrance. That changed, at least a little bit, with the completion of this last connection point allowing car-free passage into town from the Smithfield Street Bridge.

bicycle/pedestrian ramp to Point State Park in downtown Pittsburgh, PA

ramp to Point State Park

As of now, the incoming cyclist may exit the Smithfield Bridge to be gently guided down to the previously-existing, but hard-to-get-to Mon Wharf Landing parklet hugging the riverbank. The method is a long, graceful switchback ramp connecting 40 or 50 vertical feet from bridge deck to walkway below.

The park a lovely open space with a wide walkway, stone resting spots–they’re not quite benches–and a thin strip of green grass. Native maple trees–presumably planted back at the park’s opening in 2009–have managed to cling to their deep red fall leaves long after wimpier peers dropped all outerwear weeks ago.

bicycle/pedestrian entrance to Point State Park via the Mon Wharf trail in downtown Pittsburgh, PA

gateway to Point State Park

The new ramp doesn’t just connect downtown with the South Side. One can now, in theory, ride continuously from Point State Park all the way to our nation’s capital without having to contest with any car traffic. Three hundred and thirty-five miles, in fact, as the crow dodges and weaves, crosses the Alleghenies, ducks through tunnels, and follows the curling banks of various old rivers.

That is one hell of an accomplishment for long-distance, intrastate bicycle recreation[1], but the new ramp that allows connection from the upriver side of the Smithfield Street Bridge through to Point State Park–is likely going to be much more useful to the city’s cyclists for their around-town commutes and pleasure cruises.

We’ll spare the particulars, but if you’re a city cyclist, you know getting from, say, Penn Avenue to the South Side was a pain in the ass. Thanks to this new infrastructure, one can make that ride safely and with a spectacular 360° tour of all three rivers.

traffic sign reading "Motor vehicles only: no pedestrians" on Mon Wharf bicycle/pedestrian path in downtown Pittsburgh, PA

The Mon Wharf bicycle/pedestrian route: “Motor vehicles only: no pedestrians”

Though the ramp has been publicly accessible for a week or two, the opening will be made official with an event this Tuesday. As of last weekend, there are still some final touches to the overall route we hope they’ll eventually get to.

Most notable is the lack of signage directing the connection-curious to and from Point State Park. From the latter, one must–on blind faith–go under the bridge ramp overpass, pass a maintenance vehicle parking lot, along the thin connection beside a highway ramp, and then down the fairly steep ramp to the Mon Wharf. This only-possible route takes the walker/bicycle rider directly under a (roadway) sign with the confusing message MOTOR VEHICLES ONLY: NO PEDESTRIANS (see photo, above). [This is a minor quibble that we assume city crews will get to–and may already have.]

Mon Wharf path in downtown Pittsburgh, PA

Mon Wharf Landing, looking west towards the Fort Pitt Bridge

The Mon Wharf Landing and switchback ramp are projects from Riverlife and the City of Pittsburgh. The commitment both have shown toward making the city bike- and pedestrian-safe, friendly, and accessible should absolutely be recognized and praised. From the (mostly) bicycle-based Orbit staff, a very big thank you–we’ll be putting the new route to use as often as we can.


[1] Between the GAP and C&O, the two trails run through Pennsylvania, Maryland, West Virginia, Virginia, and the District of Columbia.

Tales of the Trail: The Rutkowski Shoe Memorial

shoes attached to PVC pipe staked in the ground

The Rutkowski shoe memorial, Panhandle Trail, Collier Township

As memorials go, it’s a strange one. At a small clearing along a bicycle trail sits a rectangular raised plot, bordered by river stones, about the size of a modest backyard garden. The ground is staked with 18 short lengths of white PVC pipe. Each has an article of decommissioned footwear firmly attached, its sole turned toward the sky.

None of the shoes match and they appear to come from a variety of sources. There are women’s dress shoes with chunky heals, rubber-soled trainers, and comfortable sneakers. Though most are adult models, some of the shoes are sized for a small child, while others would fit a still-growing youth. All have been decorated with after-market paint jobs, now disintegrating after years (?) exposed to the elements.

The center of the memorial is a large, engraved stone with the text In Memory of Kim Rutkowski, 2005, “Always put your best foot forward.”

green ladies' shoe attached to PVC pipe

Kimberly Rutkowski’s obituary features just the bare minimum information. Her residence was listed as South Fayette, a large suburban township just west of where the memorial lives now. She was survived by a husband and two children. As the stone tells us, Ms. Rutkowski died in January, 2005. She was just 43.

As obituaries tend to do–or not do, as is the case–there is no real personal detail to go on. We don’t know what Ms. Rutkowski cared about or did for fun, what she dreamed of or was made crazy by. We don’t even know what she looked like. But for those of us who never got to meet Kimberly Rutkowski, we can at least share the abstract experience-by-association of putting our best foot forward through the loving, humorous, and thought-provoking memorial in Collier Township.

shoes attached to PVC pipe staked in the ground

The Panhandle Trail starts or ends (your pick) in Rennerdale, just a few miles past Carnegie. It runs 30 miles due west to the outskirts of Weirton, West Virginia. It’s a lovely, easy ride through gentle, rolling hills, lush full summer overgrowth, and comes replete with all manner of scurrying creatures, circling hawks, babbling brooks, and eye-popping wildflowers.

It also features a number of human-created attractions, including a bunch of small towns and country hamlets the former Pennsylvania Railroad used to serve before the tracks were replaced with trail. Along the way is a former quarry, a congenial bicycle shop, and enough little restaurants to sate trail-generated hunger almost anywhere along the line. Bike-to-beer fanciers will find the newish Helicon Brewery right along the route in Oakdale.

These are all wonderful accompaniments to a thoroughly-enjoyable bicycle trek, but it was the Rutkowski memorial that kept the Orbit office buzzing for days after we finished the ride.

engraved stone with the text "In Memory of Kim Rutkowski, 2005, 'Always put your best foot forward'"

“In Memory of Kim Rutkowski, 2005, ‘Always put your best foot forward'”

Like all great art, the shoe memorial asks more questions than it answers. Was “always put your best foot forward” such a repeated catch-phrase that Ms. Rutkowski’s friends and/or family needed to take it to the next level? Was the deceased herself in on the design? How and why did the creators select this plot of trailside ground? We just don’t know.

So we’re left to wonder and come up with our own personal interpretations.

shoes attached to PVC pipe staked in the ground

There was a time in this blogger’s early life when 43 would have seemed like a ripe old age. Those days–just like that particular birthday–have long since passed. Forty-three is young! Or, at least, it’s what we think of as middle-aged. We know we’re not owed anything in this life, but in one’s early forties we hope to still have nearly as many tomorrows as we had yesterdays.

So, the next time you find yourself on The Panhandle Trail [yes, make sure there is a next time] take the opportunity to pause for Kimberly Rutkowski and her tribute of second-hand pumps and discarded jogging shoes. We’ve only got so much time on this earth–make sure to not only put your best foot forward, but wear those shoes to the nub when you’re doing it.

memorial with shoes nailed to PVC pipe planted in the ground

The Rutkowski shoe memorial, Panhandle Trail, Collier Twp.

Getting there: The Panhandle Trail has its own web site with maps and all the relevant information on trailheads and route. The Rutkowski shoe memorial is on the eastern end of the path, between Rennerdale and Oakdale.

The Orbit’s Summer Vacation, Part 1: Considering Portland

yellow bungalow house in Portland, OR

Portland in the summertime: green trees, parched yellow grass, cute craftsman bungalows on large flat lots

Let’s get something straight: the stereotypes are all basically true. Young people–tattooed, time-warped, and tricked-out–cavort at each neighborhood’s stock of ethnic-inspired food trucks and to-the-point microbreweries. Seemingly every home comes equipped with a strand of Tibetan prayer flags or a Black Lives Matter window sign. [Whether or not you’ll actually encounter any black lives is another matter.] The “Rose City” is aglow with its totem flower–albeit often shriveled and water-starved in the sun-baked late summer drought. Everything is “locally sourced.”

Egg biscuit with Gouda cheese, bacon, arugula, jalapeño peppers, and marionberry jam

Egg biscuit with Gouda cheese, bacon, arugula, jalapeño peppers, and marionberry jam, The Egg Carton (food cart), SE Portland

Portland, Oregon. Like Austin and Seattle in the ’90s–or Brooklyn a decade later–it is the current generation of twenty-somethings’ hip organic indie destination-du-jour…and that makes a lot of sense. There are a ton of things to do, inside and out. Every flavor of culinary and sensory offering is available just a Square-swipe or Subaru sidle away. There’s just enough grit (if you look hard enough) to locate the handful of still-remaining rough edges from the city’s industrial past, but with the outsized young/white/educated/leftie population to feel more like a giant college town where everybody plays in a band, jams for the roller derby squad, and works part-time at the coffee shop while working on their novel.

We went to Portland to hang out with friends, ride a bicycle around the city, see the big rocks on the coast and the lovely waterfalls in the gorge. We did all that (thank you, again, most generous hosts and tour guides!) but also had the terrific experience that all travel should reward us with: the perspective on what is–and what could be–back home.

new condo under construction behind older used car lot, Portland, OR

Boomtown: condo rising, North Portland

This, of course, is the Pittsburgh Orbit. So we’re not so interested in creating a travel piece for a city 2500 miles away. Plenty of that hype has been generated already. So much so that Portland has some very opposite problems from Pittsburgh: skyrocketing housing prices, the “damn Californians” pouring into the city, and a not-too-successful campaign to Stop Demolishing Portland! (to construct hated condos).

There were a whole bunch of things we liked–the number of old junkers parked on the streets, all the great craftsman architecture, gardening nuts planting their front yards, “zombie RVs”, some great street art, and, yes, the food cart “pods” and ubiquitous microbreweries. That said, we’re more interested in just a few really basic city things that impressed us in the trip and how we’d like to see some of these emulated back here, in Pittsburgh.

small house with front yard planters made from a toilet, dresser drawers, wooden boxes, Portland, OR

Plant your front yard! North Portland

Bicycle Heaven

To call Portland Nirvana on two wheels is a stretch–it’s just too flat and too gridded for that. But, it’s absolutely heaven for the commuter or basic point-to-point traveler. There is an unbelievable amount of infrastructure in place nearly everywhere in the city–well-marked bicycle lanes, directional and distance signage every few blocks, dedicated street-crossing and curb cuts, and the concept of “neighborhood greenways”: dedicated streets that prioritize through-routes for cyclists and pedestrians. Further, motorists have a great deal of respect for bicycle-riders and the two seem to co-exist very comfortably.

street signage specifically for bicycle riders including directions, time, and distance to various locations, Portland, OR

Friendly bicycle signage: directions, distances, neighborhood greenway markers

North Williams Avenue–running from the central East Side up to North Portland–resembled a full-on cycling highway with non-stop two-wheel traffic every time we headed home. Plus, since the majority of the city is basically flat[1], you can ride all day and never get tired[2]. Throw in a climate that rarely gets hot enough for you to sweat and even less often do riders have to deal with snow and ice, and you’ve really got no excuse for not living on two wheels.

street crossings and integrated turn lanes for bicycle riders, Portland, OR

Bicycle infrastructure: street crossings, integrated turn lanes, NE Portland

We can’t do anything about our climate, but Pittsburgh has come a long way in its bicycle-friendliness in the last ten years. [Thank you, Mayor Peduto/Bike Pittsburgh!] We’re gaining new bicycle lanes all the time, have a terrific advocacy community, lots of hardcore riders, and are finally working out the nightmare of traveling through central Oakland on a bike. I think we (Pittsburgh) may actually have a better trail system than Portland within the city [it’s also entirely likely we just didn’t get to see Portland’s trails], but it’s limited to the riverfronts and a couple other through-passages.

All that said–as we’ve written in these virtual pages before–cyclists are still second-class citizens in Pittsburgh who all too often have a combative relationship with motorists and councilwoman Darlene Harris. It was remarkable to see how good it could be. We’ve got some major room to improve here.

exterior of indoor/outdoor bar called Tough Luck, Portland, OR

Adaptive reuse: Tough Luck, NE Portland

Adaptive Reuse

Tough Luck, a months-old bar and restaurant in NE Portland, is housed in a 1960s-era building that probably started life as a garage, or a laundromat, or maybe a dry cleaners–it really doesn’t matter. It was an underwhelming little big box design to begin with. But with some imagination, tasteful rehab, and the conversion of a half-dozen parking spots into relaxed outdoor seating, it’s aged gracefully as a terrific little addition to the Woodlawn neighborhood.

That story–the adaptive reuse of one aesthetically-challenged building or discarded vacant lot into something useful, vibrant, welcoming, and fun was something we saw all over the city in a ton of different impressive ways–a used car lot turned outdoor dining park, cinderblock workshop-to-brewery, old social hall to new performance space.

Former Pizza Hut building, now vacant, Pittsburgh, PA

Former Pizza Hut, East Liberty, Pittsburgh

There is a former Pizza Hut that’s been sitting vacant for years in Pittsburgh’s East Liberty neighborhood. This is nothing remarkable–we’ve got empty buildings all over the place. But the fact that it’s a hundred yards from Duolingo’s headquarters on Penn Ave. and maybe a half mile from Google’s big Pittsburgh office is. Right now–for good or bad–there is a lot of money flowing through this part of town. That this runty little shack sits idle is a shame. The building itself is nothing special, but its location and the vast city lot it sits on sure are.

In Pittsburgh, it can really feel like all the nice design and construction happened by the 1920s. We are fortunate to still have a lot of that stuff. But if there’s something of the vintage of Tough Luck or Pizza Hut–and there are plenty in and around–probably no one cares and it will sit there until the roof caves in or someone knocks it down for another parking lot. We’d love to see entrepreneurs take up the challenge of turning some of the city’s many architectural eyesores and discarded structures into welcoming, creative uses of fallow ground.

exterior of ornate Hollywood movie theater, Portland, OR

Hollywood Theater: one of many terrific neighborhood movie houses in Portland

Main Streets

Lastly, I’ll say that I was totally jealous of how every neighborhood seemed to have its own healthy business district, amazingly each supporting both a record store and still-operational movie house to go with the requisite cutsie retail, restaurants, bars, and coffee shops.

This is likely an effect of that thing most cities have where there are actually more people living there than there were sixty years ago[3]. Sometimes humanity can be a real pain the ass, but it certainly makes it easier to populate the storefronts of Main Street.

terra cotta building facade for former theater, Pittsburgh, PA

former Atlas Theatre, Perry Hilltop, Pittsburgh

To pass through [Pittsburgh city neighborhoods] Perry Hilltop, Spring Garden, Morningside, Uptown, parts of the Hill District, etc. and see the obvious former business districts that are currently somewhere between under-utilized and totally vacant is a real bummer. Oh! to bring back the New Grenada Theater or a real grocery in Homewood or anything on Observatory Hill. Sigh.

Next up: It was a nice place to visit–and under different circumstances, we could see the appeal of living there–but coming home pointed out so many things that we love about Pittsburgh. We’ll look at those comparisons next week.


[1] Portlanders: by contrast, a huge amount of Pittsburgh looks like the hilly area just above your downtown. Here, it’s nearly impossible to avoid hill climbs unless you stick entirely to the river trails–and even then you still have to get home.
[2] The positive spin on this is that every bicycle ride is both a commute and a trip to the gym.
[3] While the greater region has grown, the city of Pittsburgh has been losing population ever since 1950, when it was more than twice its current size. [Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pittsburgh#Demographics]

Day of the Dead: Susan Hicks, Uber Alles

bicycle painted completely white and decorated with flowers and lights, Pittsburgh, PA

Ghost bike memorial for Susan Hicks, Oakland

Last week marked the one year anniversary of Susan Michelle Hicks death. This blogger didn’t know her personally, but Ms. Hicks was “friends of friends” who commuted–and was killed–riding her bicycle on a stretch of Forbes Avenue in Oakland where I ride all the time. Quite literally, it could have been me.

Very near the tragic spot where Ms. Hicks died, just across the street from Dippy the Dinosaur and the Carnegie Music Hall, is a so-called “ghost bike” memorial. Chained to the pole of a stout street lamp, it’s a decommissioned older bicycle, painted completely white, draped in flowers, ribbons, personal messages, and a strand of solar-powered lights. A felt-tipped pen left on the seat invites visitors to ink inscriptions to the fallen–many have done so.

The effect of seeing the Hicks ghost bike–or any other–is incredibly moving. It’s both beautiful and haunting, arresting, sombre, and reverent. It’s also encouraging that this obviously-un-sanctioned memorial has been allowed to remain intact; city works crews choosing to leave it alone–now, for over a year–in this very public, well-travelled spot instead of treating it as an act of litter or vandalism.

detail of ghost bike for Susan Hicks, Pittsburgh, PA

Statistically, Pittsburgh is among the very safest U.S. cities to be a bicycle rider/pedestrian. This is, perhaps, surprising given our severe infrastructure challenges, but according to some numbers collected by Bike PGH, the city’s rate of 1.8 fatalities per 10,000 commuters is way down the list of American cities. As comparison, the bottom of the collection contains Ft. Worth, Detroit, and Jacksonville, all with an average of 40 to 50 fatalities on the same scale.

That said, it’s sadly no surprise this particular tragedy happened in the heart of Oakland. Any Pittsburgh cyclist will tell you what a nightmare it is to navigate the neighborhood on two wheels. It’s nearly impossible to feel safe riding from, say, Neville to Atwood, or CMU to Pitt without either breaking some kind of law or going way out of your way–and this is a part of town with 40-some thousand college students! I get mad at the kids riding on sidewalks, but what alternative do they have?

Handmade sign reading "Are we the last generation who learns to drive?", Pittsburgh, PA

Anti-Uber sign, Oakland

On a recent ride home from work, I came across a batch of wooden signs nailed to telephone poles. On each was a hand-scripted message: Are we the last generation who learns to drive? read one on Craig Street, and Humans crave community, not isolation another. The messages continued in Bloomfield:  Automation smothers natural beauty and awe and Deep in your humanness, your heart longs not to be mechanized.*

If you’ve spent any time in the East End over the last half year, you know where these are coming from. Uber self-driving cars are being tested all over the city–we see them every day**. It’s a technology that’s not without controversy, but surprisingly little considering the potential societal implications. Overall, opinion has felt more like a collective ho-hum.

collage of photos of Uber self-driving cars being tested on Pittsburgh city streets

Uber self-driving cars testing in Pittsburgh [photos, clockwise from top left: P. Worthington, M. Hertzman, A. Hoff, K. Barca]

The full point of these guerrilla signs is not entirely clear, but each contains Uber’s name in a crossed-out circle. We can assume the opposition to the ride-sharing company is the anonymous sign-poster’s major thesis, but there are also messages around community, beauty, and “humanness”.

Is Uber being accused of colossal corporate takeover? Or is the issue that they’re developing self-driving technology? Assuming the latter, how does changing the way a car navigates “smother natural beauty and awe”? [We did a pretty good job of this way before Uber came along.] Plenty of people drive alone every day–why do these vehicles create any more isolation than any other solo car trip?

If we’re worried about the number of Uber (and other) human drivers who may be put out of work by this technology, that’s legit. But let’s not assume that’s the only sociological possibility for self-driving vehicles. There is the very real likelihood that autonomous cars will be much safer on the road than humans. They certainly won’t drive drunk or fall asleep at the wheel. They won’t show off to impress the girls in the back seat and won’t take their eyes off the road when their phones light up. There are a whole lot of people with disabilities who can’t wait for an alternative to Access.

Handmade sign reading "Automation smothers natural beauty and awe", Pittsburgh, PA

Anti-Uber sign, Bloomfield

Bicycle riders are not saints. There are a lot of dangerous people out there, and we come across them every day–treating sidewalks as bicycle lanes, recklessly jack-rabbiting through traffic, ignoring traffic lights, signaling, and stop signs. Cyclists who take off without a helmet or foregoing lights in the dark are just plain foolish.

These are condemnable actions that frankly burn this biker’s breeches–you guys give us all a bad name! That said, it’s nothing compared to the regular behavior we see from drivers toward cyclists. I’ve never been hit by a vehicle driven by a computer; the same can’t be said for humans. In my years (ahem, decades) on two wheels, I’ve been spit on, had trash thrown at me, yelled-at, cat-called, and aggressively hip-greased more times than I can recall. Drivers routinely drift absent-mindedly, park in bicycle lanes, and wildly swing open their parked doors without first consulting their mirrors. While driving, they eat and drink, talk on the phone, apply lipstick in the rearview mirror, and, of course, are constantly texting.

Given all this, I’ll take my chances with the robots. If they’d been deployed to Oakland last year at this time, maybe Susan Hicks would still be with us and on the road today.

bicycle painted completely white and decorated with flowers and lights, Pittsburgh, PA

Ghost bike for Susan Hicks, Oakland


* If anyone has seen more of these, we’d love to know about them.
** So far, always with a human in the driver’s seat.

Christmas Under the Bridge

Allegheny River trail Christmas tree #2 (under 31st Street Bridge)

Allegheny River trail Christmas tree #2 (under 31st Street Bridge)

We are, if the clever Orbit reader has not already divined, kerchief deep into Christmas season. It’s the all-consuming megalopolis of a holiday whose red and green, pine cone-encrusted, jingle-bell-adorned, egg nog-slurping tentacles reach so deeply that even Casey Kasem is banished from the airwaves until after the new year rolls around. Sigh. What to do when a blogger can’t even get any Hot Chocolate with his hot chocolate?

We expect this–and certainly know it’s coming–but had no idea that Ol’ St. Nick’s lords-a-leaping, geese-a-laying influence would extend all the way down under the bridges of the North Side, and yet it does. But we’re here to say that, just like Scrooge, even this bah-humbugging blogger can turn around to The Christmas SpiritTM when and where he never expected he would.

Allegheny River trail Christmas tree #1 (under 33rd Street railroad bridge)

Allegheny River trail Christmas tree #1 (under 33rd Street railroad bridge)

Yet another lovely sun-drenched December weekend day and another healthy afternoon two-wheeled constitutional. [Weather gods: why hath thou forsaken this blogger? How long must he wait for 45 degrees and drizzling?] This time the ride took us across the 40th Street Bridge and down to the Allegheny River trail.

It was a most curious surprise to come across. Against the tremendous concrete support for the railroad bridge that spans the Allegheny near Millvale Riverfront Park, rests a spindly, homemade Christmas tree-like sculpture, made of thick wound black wire, a discarded metal stake, and plastic holly. The tree is sparsely decorated with a handful of traditional ornaments, something that looks like a space invader, and one full set of refrigerator poetry. The current offering reads cadaver angels put wealth in the river. We poked around, snapped a few pics, went right down to the water’s edge. It was a fun little surprise, but then we were back on our way.

Refrigerator poetry from trail Christmas tree #1 reading "Cadaver angels put wealth in the river."

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas. Refrigerator poetry, Allegheny River trail Christmas tree #1

So yet another trailside Christmas tree popping out at us just another minute or two further down the trail was starting to feel like a legitimate yuletide miracle. Here, under the 31st Street Bridge, is a medium-size Douglas fir, decked out in red, green, and silver garland, with giant candy cane ornaments, and one drug store Santa hat for a topper. A simple unfurled piece of cardboard includes the cursive Sharpie message Merry Christmas, Thank you.

Allegheny River trail Christmas tree #2 (under 31st Street Bridge)

Allegheny River trail Christmas tree #2, detail

Here I met M.J., one of a number of people who camp under the on-ramp to the 31st Street Bridge. We talked for a while and I got some of the story on the tree and the group that lives here. The tree was brought in, along with a full Thanksgiving dinner spread, the week prior.

I saw a bag of apples and was heading to The Strip anyway, so I asked if I could pick up some food for the group. Surprisingly, M.J. explained that they were actually doing O.K. with food thanks to regular deliveries from the same organization that provided the tree and turkey dinner. [M.J. didn’t have a name.] I asked what the group’s other greatest needs are and he told me that he wished he could get battery-operated lanterns for everyone. He also mentioned bedding and tarps. So far, this blogger has struck out locating the kind of lanterns M.J. described, [and believe you me, he has tried] but it isn’t Christmas yet!

Allegheny River trail Christmas tree #1 (under 33rd Street railroad bridge)

Allegheny River trail Christmas tree #1, detail


Related: Bridgette Wright’s blog post for Bike Pittsburgh details a couple of coordinated efforts to bring “care packs” to Pittsburgh’s homeless communities over the Christmas holiday. They’ll be using bicycles to deliver the packages to locations like this one under the 31st Street Bridge that are inaccessible by automobile.

Two Wheels Good: The Orbit Takes Healthy Ride For a Spin

Healthy Ride bicycle share station in the Bloomfield neighborhood, Pittsburgh, Pa.

Healthy Ride station in Bloomfield

Observant readers will no doubt have already absorbed Pittsburgh Orbit‘s favoritism toward all things bicycle. This blogger loves to ride a bike! He loves it so much that when it’s time for the inevitable maintenance on his own road-ravaged chopper, a dread creeps over. The depression of going even one non-pouring down day without some form of ride so dour that wheels wobble, brakes are worn to nubs, and gears slip on an over-stretched chain for months too long–all so we can defer the separation anxiety that comes from a few days in the shop.

So last year’s news that the city would be gaining a bicycle share program this Spring was triply terrific. First: we’re going to get excited about anything that puts more two-wheelers on the street and more keisters on bike seats. Second: I can take my bike to the shop any time I like and use the new temporary rentals in its stead. Third, of course, is that we can opportunistically turn the whole thing into a right proper blog post. Here, then, is The Orbit‘s early take on Pittsburgh’s brand new bike share program.

Map of Healthy Ride bicycle rental stations (Phase I)

Map of Healthy Ride bicycle rental stations (Phase I) [map: Bike Pittsburgh]

The System

The first phase of the Healthy Ride[1] deployment involves fifty self-serve rental stations and five hundred identical bicycles. All users must have an account and register with a credit card, but this can be done right there at any station. There are a variety of ways to check out a bike: using the station computer, using on-board systems on each bicycle, or with the mobile phone apps. The technology comes to us from a German company called NextBike, which has implemented bicycle sharing programs around the world. Pittsburgh is only NextBike’s second U.S. city, but they run a ton of programs throughout Europe.

Bicycles are rented in half-hour increments and the system is designed for A-to-B transit rides (and not all-day/long-term rentals). You can pay for individual rides ($2 per half-hour) or unlimited rides for month-long periods. With a “basic” rate of $12 / month (unlimited 30-minute rides) and a “deluxe” rate of $20 / month[2] (unlimited one-hour rides), the Pittsburgh system is among the cheapest in the country[3].

Phase I of the rollout is for a concentrated area focusing on downtown, The Hill District, The Strip District, Lawrenceville, Bloomfield, Shadyside, and small sections of the North and South Side. I’m sure if you’ve been waiting for this and live in, say, Squirrel Hill or The West End, you’re going to feel gypped, but the tight grouping of the first batch of stations makes a lot of sense as an alternate public transit system.

Healthy Ride bicycle with vinyl records spilling out of its small cargo basket.

Design flaw: Healthy Ride bicycles are totally unfit for traveling with records.

The Bicycles

All Healthy Ride bicycles are the exact same one-size-fits-all design. They feature heavy “step-through” frames, big tires, front and rear fenders, lights, adjustable seats, a bell, and a small (maybe too small) front basket. The bikes are all seven-speeds, meaning they’ve theoretically got enough gears to climb hills and run at a good clip when you build up speed. Riders must supply their own helmets.

I found a couple challenges with the design. Namely that for this six-foot-five biker, even with the seat raised to its maximum height, I couldn’t get full leg extension. This, along with the heavy weight of the bike, made going up hills a little rough. Also, the anatomically aware will know that men and women have different shaped pelvises (pelvi?), which is why bicycle seats come in two very different basic shapes. The Healthy Ride system opted for women’s seats across-the-board–which makes sense–but presents a certain discomfort to the dudes of the species.

All that said, the bikes were all in fine condition (with one exception), will likely work great for the average rider, and they’re fun. Take one out any time soon and you’ll also get a lot of attention: I was stopped by pedestrians, drivers, cyclists, one 8 a.m. drunk, and one in-transit PAT bus driver–everybody was curious and wanted to either ask about the program or tell me what was wrong with it.

NextBike employee restarting a Healthy Ride station, Pittsburgh, Pa.

NextBike employee Tom rebooting the Children’s Hospital station

The Technology

As a “technologist” by day[4], I am in awe of all the moving parts (literally!) involved in the system–50 stations, 500 bicycles, multiple payment options, onboard computers, the web site, iOS and Android apps, rental maintenance, etc. I experienced a couple of glitches along the way, but given this was only the system’s third week out of the gate, it performed admirably.

A couple times in my maiden voyage I found that bicycles parked at stations and flashing their “available” lights were, in fact, not rentable. No explanation on what was going on, but I can recommend the app feature where you look at an individual station and see which bikes it actually knows are parked there. After that first day, I didn’t see this problem again.

Another time, I arrived at the Children’s Hospital station to find NextBike employee Tom having to repeatedly reboot the system and test whether it was going to process check-outs.  This allowed me to ask a bunch of questions while we waited for the system to restart, eves-drop on his call back to Leipzig, and surreptitiously bag a photo for the blog. [Tom got me back: he filmed our band marching during the Open Streets event last Sunday.]

Another obvious issue they’ll have to work out is the distribution of bikes. I found that the station I was checking-out from (Penn & 42nd Street, by Children’s Hospital) had fewer and fewer bikes each day until on my final Friday there was only one rental and it turned out to be unridable (the rear fender was severely bent into the back wheel and I was unable to fix it; I ended up walking to Bloomfield and checked-out from the station by Crazy Mocha).

By contrast, the station I was usually returning to (Butler & 42nd Street, across from Hambone’s) was nearly always full. This is likely no accident–I have a feeling the system will regularly experience the higher-elevation bikes draining and welling up at the bottom of hills. Those seven gears are just not enough to get a lot of part-time riders up steep grades (especially after they’ve spent the evening at Hambone’s!). Stations in flatter areas (Bloomfield, Oakland) seemed to be more consistently medium-stocked.

rider posed on a Healthy Ride rental bicycle, Pittsburgh, Pa.

Not dorky at all. Some dude with a rented bike. [photo: Lee Floyd]

Final Thoughts

It’s very hard to tell, but anecdotal observation suggests that people are using the system and that its rollout has been smooth enough to claim some level of success. Pittsburgh presents a lot of challenges for experienced cyclists–steep hills, tight streets, rutty roads pockmarked with potholes, few designated bicycle lanes, much unfavorable weather–so loosing a bunch of non-riders on city streets with unfamiliar bicycles seems like it’s not going to end well for everybody. But then, neither does automotive travel.

If allowed to succeed, it seems like the program will inevitably grow interest in cycling and more awareness of bicycle needs in infrastructure planning and design, which are all good things in The Orbit‘s book.

I plan to maintain my “deluxe” subscription partially because I want to support the program (even though I own a bicycle) but also because I can imagine a ton of scenarios where I can legitimately put a short rental to use. Plus, it’s cheap. If you haven’t given it shot, we suggest you do. Happy (and healthy!) riding to you!

Footnotes

  1. “Healthy Ride” is a pretty square name, but I imagine the underwriting from Highmark and Allegheny Health Network played into the branding.
  2. Though monthly, the rates require a minimum three-month signup commitment.
  3. I started looking into comparison pricing against other bike share programs, but with each city having their own rental time windows, subscription terms, etc. this quickly became a fool’s errand. The claim that it’s “among the cheapest in the country” seems legit, though.
  4. Not a good one.

Get to the Point

Man pointing from Ohio River to Pittsburgh's highpoint

Ben points from The Point to Pittsburgh’s highpoint

Whether it’s a sport or a hobby or simply an absurd excuse for the journey is the destination, man, “highpointing” (its practitioners spell it as a single compound noun) is the pursuit of reaching the highest altitude spot in each of the U.S. states, amassing these achieved peaks like collector’s cards.  Ben Blanchard is a Pittsburgh highpointer.

Ben explains that he got into highpointing naively. Years ago, he stumbled across a road sign directing motorists to the highest point in Maine, Mount Katahdin (alt: 5,280 feet). After making his way up and down from the mountain, Ben decided it would be a fun way to let kismet be his travel agent and kept after further highpoints.

It turns out Ben is not alone and highpointing is a real thing.  Web sites like highpointers.org and peakbagger.com provide both statistics and community information. Ben has currently visited thirteen state and two city highpoints.  Next on the list is a New England swing to include New York, New Hampshire, Vermont, and a return trip to Maine.

ducks on a log in river

These ducks technically started lower than us, but we didn’t see them make it to the top.

As no two states are the same, no two highpoints are either.  Highest points are as diverse as a Philadelphia suburb (Ebright Azimuth, Delaware) or the upper edge of an inclined plane (“Mount” Sunflower, Kansas) to true mountain peaks like Mt. Whitney (California) or Mt. Elbert (Colorado).  Every American highpointer’s ultimate goal is Denali (Mt. McKinley) in Alaska.

For The Orbit, I proposed scaling the highpoint for the City of Pittsburgh.  Apparently highpointers look down on city/county highpoints in favor of states/countries, but it sounded interesting to me.  I laid out a goal that we would travel from low to high, and make the journey on bicycle.

Western State Penitentiary, Pittsburgh

Along the way: Western State Penitentiary, Woods Run

Historically, Pittsburgh’s low point was Donzi’s in the Strip. But with that floating meat-rounder barge sadly no longer operating, its bass cabinets and Jello shot molds long dormant, we had to settle for river level (alt. 719 feet) as the accepted lowest altitude.  And, just to get real symbolic, we met at “The Point,” the tip of Point State Park, where the three rivers meet.

Our destination was the top of Montana Street (alt. 1345 feet), KDKA’s giant broadcasting tower standing as a (literal) beacon for us head toward.  The route would take us down the Ohio River bicycle trail, past the old Western State Penitentiary, through the neighborhood of Wood’s Run, up along the northern edge of Riverview Park, and finally up to the peak in Perry North.

View of KDKA tower from Mairdale Ave., Observatory Hill

View of KDKA tower in the distance from the steep climb up Mairdale Ave., Observatory Hill

The one block assent of Montana Street proved the most difficult cycling of the trip, it being one of those Pittsburgh hills so steep the rider is forced to lean over the handlebars just to avoid the bike flipping backwards on itself, but we made it.

I had been on one previous (city) highpoint in Washington, D.C. (Ft. Reno Park) and similar to that one, the actual peak is off-limits to the public.  Ours has a high chain-link fence surrounding a large water reservoir and processing facility.

View from Pittsburgh's highpoint showing mainly trees

“View” from the highpoint: Mt. Washington it ain’t

We were able to walk the full circumference of the facility.  There’s no benchmark to get a photo by, nor is there much of a view–you’re surrounded by trees on all sides.  But in the early Spring, we still got some nice glimpses of the observatory in Riverview Park and the top of Downtown Pittsburgh’s skyline, looking like it grew naturally out of the woodlands.

Our stats: we climbed 626 vertical feet over around 6.5 miles, about half of that along the river to get from town to Wood’s Run.  It took us around 45 minutes going up on bicycles; the return trip is very short as it is literally all down hill.  A bar called Rumerz in Wood’s Run [Ben: Have you heard anything about it? Me: Don’t believe everything you hear. Ben: What are you talk…oh.] provided few beer options, but a nice outdoor deck, built Pittsburgh grotto-style, right up against a rock wall.

Man celebrating reaching Pittsburgh's highpoint

Victory: point high for a highpoint!

A note to would-be bike-pointers: this blogger made the trip up just fine, but the rest of our party (ahem) needed to get off and push a couple times.  It’s no big deal, though, if you’re in decent shape and have a full collection of low gears.  The bigger deal (for me) was actually coming down the hill where my (under-performing) brakes were pushed pretty hard and I reached a semi terror state.  If I’d had to actually come to a full stop anywhere, it would have been ugly.