what pittsburgh has that cleveland wants

The Scene: A maze of decaying streets intermingled with dirt-tinged smokestacks and neglected church steeples.

The Action: A small knot of cyclists set off en masse from a Carnegie-built library in a formerly robust steel town.

Background: Cycling is still a fringe activity in this Rust Belt metropolis, wedged as it is between the trendier East and West coasts. But a small yet committed group of riders shrug off the incredulous stares. Some even commute to work, though few of their employers provide showers and lockers, much less secure bike parking. At least the local transit authority finally has installed bike racks.

Welcome to Pittsburgh circa 2003, when the Post-Gazette published the story "Can Pittsburgh Learn to Love Bikes?"

The cycling community in the Steel City was just beginning to coalesce, a full 13 years after Bicycling Magazine named it one of the country's 10 worst cities for biking. That unappealing distinction inspired Pittsburgh leaders to reflect upon the few who traveled the burgh's famous hills and bridges through the sheer force of their own power, leveraged by a simple, classic machine.

"A critical mass of bicyclists -- activists or not -- is one ingredient that Pittsburgh needs to become the kind of hip place that attracts talented young workers now and in the future," the Post-Gazette posited almost prophetically in 2003, at a time when even many in the cycling community considered the city a dangerous place to ride.

Fast forward to present day and you'll find a vastly different bike culture has taken flight. Pittsburgh recently won the honor of being named a Bronze-level "Bicycle Friendly Community" by the League of American Bicyclists, putting them on par with regional leaders like Columbus and Indianapolis. With support of its mayor, Pittsburgh is aiming even higher, hoping to join cities like Denver, Austin and Minneapolis in the Silver class.

For all its efforts, Cleveland has been passed over for the more humble "Bronze" distinction. Our city's bike scene did receive an honorable mention a few years back for what that organization meekly described as "sort of the seeds of something great happening."

These days, it seems that everyone is singing Pittsburgh's praises. As much as you or I may loathe their sports teams, one's gotta' give credit where credit is due. Our Rust Belt neighbor to the east recently scored a Google corporate office. And last year, perennial Cleveland-basher Forbes Magazine named Pittsburgh the country's most livable city. Ouch.

Clearly Pittsburgh is doing something right, something that, at least thus far, has evaded Cleveland. Simply put: Pittsburgh is light years ahead of Cleveland when it comes to bike-friendliness. And bike-friendly cities are more attractive to young professionals, those creative-class folks who hold the keys to economic prosperity.

To Andy Clarke, president of the League of American Bicyclists, the biggest difference in our respective cities' cycling progress comes down to advocacy.

Like Pittsburgh, Cleveland employs a full-time bike planner. It also has a set of bike-focused county maps, developed by the regional planning agency NOACA. And like our divisional rival, Cleveland possesses a robust philanthropic base, a potential ally in the bicycle reform movement.

What Cleveland lacks, argues Clarke, is a strong, centralized advocacy arm for its cycling community.

Around the time that Post-Gazette article was published, Bike Pittsburgh was launched as a side project by a pair of local advocates, who chided the city to get serious about cycling. Since then, Pittsburgh's principal bike advocacy organization has grown to include four full-time staffers and 1,500 dues-paying members. The organization serves as a consultant to the city on all bike projects and has even begun providing funds for bike infrastructure projects.

For whatever reason, an equally weighty force has never materialized in Cleveland.

"Cleveland advocacy scene is a little more diffuse," says Clarke. "There's not really a group that's organized and effective and speaking up for cycling and making sure that those planners have the political space to suggest and recommend things on the ground."

Clarke acknowledged the good work of the Ohio City Bike Co-Op and Walk and Roll Cleveland. But neither group has emerged as a strong political force. Meanwhile, a few outspoken bike advocates in Cleveland have questioned the value of bike lanes, allowing city leaders to "kind of hide behind that," adds Clarke.

Pittsburgh also has some political advantages. Pennsylvania's Department of Transportation is a little more friendly to the cause of cycling than Ohio's, notes Clarke. Additionally, Pittsburgh has had the benefit of electing bike-supportive mayors, most notably Tom Murphy.

"The mayors of Cleveland haven't been real averse to it or opposed to it," Clarke says. "They just haven't been real champions of making it happen."

In many ways, Cleveland is just now approaching the level of organization that Pittsburgh had all those years ago, when the Post-Gazette swooped in and took a journalistic snapshot, says Jacob VanSickle, Active Living Coordinator with Slavic Village Development.

VanSickle is heading up a local effort to establish a centralized, cohesive bike advocacy group for the City of Cleveland. The as-yet-unnamed group recently received a $10,000 grant from the Gund Foundation for a planning initiative aimed at "normalizing" cycling in Cleveland. Over the next few months the group's leadership team, along with community input, will be outlining a number of objectives and a strategy for bringing cycling in Cleveland into the mainstream.

"Our main goal is to create a voice for cycling in Cleveland," explains VanSickle, "one that will unite the cyclists, one that will get people excited about cycling in Cleveland and by extension get leadership excited."

The disorganization of the local cycling community was demonstrated recently by the city's refusal to advance a "Complete Streets" ordinance, which would have required new road facilities to include accommodations for cyclists and pedestrians. The Columbus region passed a similar ordinance last year, as have 140 communities across the country. Dayton -- another Bronze-level community -- has a Complete Streets policy in place as well.

Demonstrating that there is a political constituency for those kinds of laws is important, bike activists agree.

"If there aren't people at these meetings showing interest, it's not going to happen," VanSickle argues.

With the support of the local foundations and the initiative to organize Cleveland's cyclists, VanSickle is optimistic that 10 years from now Cleveland will be as bike friendly as Pittsburgh. And lest you wrongly assume otherwise, far more than just the personal wishes of cyclists are at stake.

As the Post-Gazette recognized all those years ago, the most livable cities -- the ones that populate the League's honor roll -- are the very same ones that are attracting the much-coveted young entrepreneurs. Cities like Denver, Portland, Seattle, Columbus, and as much we may hate to admit it, Pittsburgh.

At present, Cleveland has a strong foundation on which to build -- and it's imperative that we do so now or there will be negative consequences, says Clarke.

"At some point the city of Cleveland is going to suffer because it doesn't have the same things that Pittsburgh and other cities do."

For a complete list of the League's Bike Friendly Communities, click here.

*Thanks to Pop City, our sister publication in Pittsburgh, for the inspiration of this feature and for being a strong advocate of pedal power.

- Photo 1: Courtesy of Ian Everhart
- Photo 2: Pittsburgh cyclists in Market Square courtesy of Bill Peduto
- Photos 3 & 4: Jacob VanSickle of Slavic Village Development on the Morgana Run bike trail
- Photos 5 - 7: Cleveland cyclists on the towpath trail
Photos 3-7 by Bob Perkoski

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