Pittsburgh’s bike advocates needed data to make their case. Now they have it.

Bike Pittsburgh analyzed years of crash data to better understand safety in the city.

Rich McPeek / Flickr
Sarah Anne Hughes

Bike Pittsburgh has been advocating on behalf of the city’s cyclists and pedestrians for more than a decade. But until this month, the nonprofit’s staff didn’t have the data they needed to make their case.

“We weren’t able to have intelligent conversations about what’s going on on the streets,” said Advocacy Director Eric Boerer. “We were never able to have any hard facts about what was actually happening.”

Now they have it.

Last week, Bike Pittsburgh released a report that uses crash data from PennDOT and other statistics to contextualize how safe the city is for cyclists and pedestrians. This is what the group found.

Pedestrians make up a quarter of traffic fatalities

About 15,600 people in Pittsburgh walked to work in 2014 while 2,500 people commuted by bike, according to a Census estimate. That’s in the top five for the 60 largest cities in the U.S., according to Bike Pittsburgh’s analysis.

Pedestrian- and cyclist-involved crashes make up a low percentage of overall incidents in Pittsburgh. Of the 4,418 reported incidents in 2015, for example, 225 involved pedestrians and 71 involved cyclists.

But that percentage is much higher when looking at fatal crashes. “While only 6 percent of all traffic crashes involved pedestrians, they accounted for a stunning 26 percent of Pittsburgh’s traffic fatalities from 2011 to 2015,” Bike Pittsburgh said in the report. The stat was one of the most shocking revelations from the report, Boerer said.

Bike PGH

Where (some) crashes happen

Bike Pittsburgh also mapped where reported crashes occurred between 2010 and 2014, according to PennDOT’s records. The report doesn’t go into detail about when these crashes occurred.

Boerer said Bike Pittsburgh didn’t “delve too deeply” into mapping. Because “the number of reported crashes is still so low,” it’s hard to discern any meaningful patterns.

Total cyclist crashes in Pittsburgh, 2010-2014

Total cyclist crashes in Pittsburgh, 2010-2014

Underreporting is a problem

In the report, Bike Pittsburgh defines a reportable crash (where there’s a police report) as “one in which the incident occurs on a highway or traffic way that is open to the public and an injury or a fatality occurs, or at least one of the vehicles involved requires towing from the scene.”

Bikes don’t get towed or don’t usually cause enough damage to a vehicle to require that the latter be hauled away. Many cyclists also don’t report a crash if they aren’t seriously injured. For those reasons, the picture painted by reported crashes is an incomplete one.

Boerer said Bike Pittsburgh is considering launching a near-miss map, where cyclists can report close calls. That way, advocates will have a better idea about which locations are potentially dangerous.

From data to action

Boerer said Bike Pittsburgh currently has a “close and very good” relationship with the city, which has taken steps in recent years to make streets safer for all users.

City Council last week approved a Complete Streets policy, and Pittsburgh is in the midst of hiring someone to lead the newly created Department of Mobility & Infrastructure.

Boerer described the city as “not the slowest” on adopting good bike infrastructure but “not the quickest either.” For example, Pittsburgh doesn’t have many protected bike lanes, which have been shown time and again to increase ridership and make cycling safer. But Boerer put that in perspective: It was only 10 years ago that Pittsburgh had to ask for federal permission to paint sharrows (markings that indicate to share the road) on streets.

Bike Pittsburgh plans to print the report and use it to “make the case for improvements across the board,” Boerer said. That includes possibly adopting parts of Vision Zero, a campaign to end traffic deaths by a certain deadline.

In Pittsburgh, where more than a dozen pedestrians and cyclists die each year, that “seems like an achievable goal.”