Imagine the city street as a sandwich. For simplicity’s sake, let’s go with a PB&J. The cross-section—two bread curbs bounding lanes of jam and peanut butter—is our street, distinct delineations of what goes where. But anyone who’s ever eaten a PB&J knows that spreads don’t stay separate for long; they ooze about, mixing indiscriminately and jumping bread boundaries with nary a care for the consequences.

City streets are like that, too. They start out nice and neat, but when spread with people and vehicles, a gooey morass results. Buses, parked cars, moving cars, pedestrians, bicyclists and the odd skateboarder, they all share space on Pittsburgh streets. And the resulting chaos is uncomfortable for many people.

That’s where protected bikeways come in. Unlike bike lanes, protected bikeways are physically delineated from the street not just by a painted line but also a barrier of “bollards,” or traffic delineators: short white reflector posts bolted into the ground. For a taste of what it feels like to ride along a bikeway, please see video above.

Bike Pittsburgh Executive Director Scott Bricker says carving out separate infrastructure for bikes is the closest a cyclist can come to the feeling of biking on a trail while remaining connected to the street grid.

“[A protected bikeway] is for people who want to ride a bike but maybe don’t feel comfortable or confident enough to ride with traffic. It helps put some space between the bike rider and moving traffic.”

The Penn Avenue bikeway will run from Sixth to 16th Streets downtown, and extend to Stanwix Street by October. It is the third bikeway the city has installed. The first runs along Saline Street in Panther Hollow between Greenfield Avenue and Swinburne Street. The second stretches from Schenley Plaza to Anderson Playground in Schenley Park.

Assistant Director of Public Works Patrick Hassett says bikeways are a high-return investment.

“For the scarce amount of monies we have to spend on infrastructure, I’m looking for an immediate payoff,” he says. “There’s a pent-up demand for more cycling on the streets. The bikeways will immediately and safely accommodate that demand.”

Although there are many reasons to invest in bike infrastructure says Bricker, it’s really about attracting people to live in the city.

“It’s about public health and economics: it’s good for business and it’s good for bike riders’ wallets,” he says. “A lot of cities are competing against each other, and they’re finding that workers between the ages of 20 and 45 are selecting cities in which to live and work based on amenities like this.”

According to PeopleForBikes, a national bike advocacy organization, bike commuting in the United States has increased by 53% since 2005. Some of that growth can be directly attributed to city bikeways: in New York bikeways increased ridership by 29%; in DC that number was 40% and in Chicago 55%.

But Bricker stresses that Pittsburgh’s three protected bikeways are just the beginning.

“These lanes can’t exist as islands to themselves. They have to connect to a larger network of bikeways, and we’re very excited that city has started to invest in these, and shares our vision of linking them up to a larger network.”

Hassett says the bikeways will address cyclists’ chief concern of safety.

“What we’re doing is based on best practices we’ve seen in other cities and throughout the industry and will go a long way to maximizing the amount of cyclists we can get out on our streets.”

Construction will begin this Wednesday and, weather permitting, be completed in two and a half days. A grant from PeopleForBikes Green Lane Project 2.0 allowed Bike Pittsburgh to purchase the bikeway’s bollards. Bike Pittsburgh’s Better Bikeways Vision is a plan for interconnected bike infrastructure throughout Pittsburgh.

Margaret J Krauss

Margaret J. Krauss is a writer, radio producer, and researcher. If not biking Pittsburgh's streets or swimming its rivers, she is likely geeking out about a really good story.