Biking in Pittsburgh, PA: A Resurgent Biking Destination

Biking Pittsburgh’s Transformed Riverfronts

By Sony Stark

The beautiful Pittsburgh skyline, where three rivers meet. photos by Sony Stark.
The beautiful Pittsburgh skyline, where three rivers meet. photos by Sony Stark.

“Cycle tracks abound in utopia,” said H.G. Wells.

If that’s true, then Pittsburgh, Pa., comes closer to utopia than any other metropolis in the country. The former “Steel City” has transformed itself into a rails-to-trails showpiece complete with 21 miles to bike, walk, board or blade.

The Forks

Start your journey like I did on the downtown Three Rivers Heritage Trail, an easy pedestrian/cyclist greenway system that runs along the Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio Rivers. Named after famous Indian tribes, the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers meet to form the Ohio River at the site of a famous battlefield called Point State Park.

I picked up my bike rental from the Golden Triangle Bike Rental Downtown (660 First Avenue) and owners Tom and Britt Demagall. Their shop is perfect because you don’t need to know arcane stuff about gear ratios or air pressure. Britt will help set you up for a day of self-propulsion on a hybrid, road or mountain bike.

They also rent tandems, children’s bikes and child trailers. Bike culture is growing fast thanks to the efforts of cyclists like Tom. He volunteers to keep the car-free paths clean of litter and debris by biking it every morning.

Heritage Trail

Along the Three Rivers Heritage Trail in Pittsburgh. photo Sony Stark.
Along the Three Rivers Heritage Trail in Pittsburgh. photo Sony Stark.

Millions of dollars of renovations and improvements have gone into the Heritage Trail, making Pittsburgh a first-class city for urban biking. It’s a bit confusing for first-time riders because the 21 miles of trails actually have nine differently-named sections. Locals refer to these portions by where they are in relationship to the rivers.

I started out going east on Eliza Furnace Trail, affectionately known as the Jail Trail, a paved, multipurpose pedestrian road that runs parallel with Second Avenue and the Monongahela River for about four miles.

It snakes past former brownfield industrial sites, around graffiti-laden highway girders and alongside active railroad lines. There are dozens of historical markers and salvaged steel mill memorabilia on display to enlighten readers about Pittsburgh’s rustbelt renaissance.

You can opt to loop around Schenely Park and Conservatory, where another restoration project continues on the Panther Hollow Watershed, or you can take the Hot Metal Bridge across the river to retail shops at SouthSide Works.

Coasting With a Credit Card

Golden Triangle Bike Rentals proprietors Britt and Tom.
Golden Triangle Bike Rentals proprietors Britt and Tom.

Do yourself a favor: don a backpack and grab your credit card for casual browsing at several lively entertainment complexes along the riverfronts. No car parking meters here, just hundreds of designated bike racks to lock up your rental so you can shop worry-free.

When I spot a REI store (412 S. 27th St.) I come to a screeching halt. There are only three of these top-name outdoor gear and clothing shops in the state and deals and discounts abound.

I took a brief respite to refuel at Pennsylvania‘s first authentic Bavarian Hofbräuhaus (2705 South Water St.). A pint on tap might not be recommended for a thirsty traveler but who can resist a fresh brew? A sweet Old-Style wheat beer and signature pretzel is just what I needed.

Continue on the riparian South Side trail to the bike-friendly Monongahela and Duquesne Inclines on Mount Washington. These clapboard funiculars are one of Pittsburgh’s most visited attractions and a convenient way to avoid the steep grade.

Bringing my bike aboard the turn-of-the-century cabin saved me hours of exhaustion.

During its heyday the city boasted at least 15 such cable-powered inclines operating 24 hours a day; today only two remain. The rides are breathtaking and the high perches offer the best views of the city.

Not only can you place your bike free aboard bus routes in Pittsburgh, but the light rail transit system (“the T”) and the inclines welcome you too!

Water Haven

North Shore fountains offer a place to cool off next to the trails.
North Shore fountains offer a place to cool off next to the trails.

Another attraction distinctive of Pittsburgh is the refreshing water fountains and bubbling basins for children to soak and splash in.

Still under renovation is one of the most symbolic, aptly called “The Fountain.” It stands anchored at the confluence of the three rivers at Point State Park and is an engineering marvel: it draws water from a 54-foot-deep well dug into an underground glacial stream sometimes called Pittsburgh’s “fourth river.”

In addition to a new raised fountain base, the 36-acre park will finish with a cascading waterfall, all-new stone paving surfaces and advanced plumbing and electrical systems.

The Mon Wharf Landing

South Side Works in downtown Pittsburgh.
South Side Works in downtown Pittsburgh.

Just south of Point State Park is a formerly deteriorated five-acre parking lot that’s been turned into redesigned green space called the Mon Wharf Landing. It features native plants, water steps for access to the river and improved infrastructure to handle flooding concerns

Mind the GAP: As of June 2011, a three-mile section of the Great Allegheny Passage (GAP) stretching from Grant Avenue in Duquesne to the Waterfront complex (the former Homestead steel mill), is now open for pedestrian and bike traffic.

This long-anticipated stretch is part of a large grant initiative linking Pittsburgh with Cumberland, MD., and Washington, D.C. — the equivalent of 325 miles. The continuous trail experience will be a boon for any bikers eager to ride just a little bit longer than a short city hop.

The North Shore Riverfront Park & Trail

Just when I thought the promenades couldn’t get any more beautiful I crossed Fort Duquesne Bridge and entered the North Shore Riverfront on the Allegheny River. This is arguably the most scenic urban vista in the country.

Two world-class sporting venues, the Heinz Field football stadium and PNC Park baseball stadium, are more popular than ever with sport and non-sport fans alike. Recreational boaters, rowing regattas and kayakers line the banks.(Too bad baseball’s Pittsburgh Pirates still are so bad few people ever buy tickets to see them!)

A biker's bar called the OTB Cafe, decorated with a cyclists motif.
A biker’s bar called the OTB Cafe, decorated with a cyclists motif.

The trail gently meanders from a wide berth to a narrow path heading west past the Carnegie Science Center and Rivers Casino. I turned around at the West End Bridge and looped to the other end past the Andy Warhol Museum and onto an island called Washington’s Landing.

I thought I’d save my appetite for later until the waitstaff at Redfin Blues (100 Waterfront Drive) convinced me that a beer-battered cod sandwich wouldn’t slow my ride down. They were right.

Rehydrating With Spoke Junkies

My journey ended at the Over The Bar Bicycle Café (2518 East Carson Street), where spoke junkies rehydrate with “Erie Railbenders” and fun burgers with names like “The Urban Velo” and the new “Pedal Pittsburgher.” This watering hole is decorated with antique bike parts hanging from the ceiling and posters from past bike festivals.

Green Gears Pedicabs offer rides throughout downtown Pittsburgh.
Green Gears Pedicabs offer rides throughout downtown Pittsburgh.

Owner Michael Kotyk noticed that I was carrying a colorful bike map that he just happened to design. Since early morning I relied on this map to help navigate the maze of bridges and parks. Now it was torn at the corners and smudged with fingerprints.

Kotyk gave me a tour of his busy establishment with pride and excitement. “This is a rare circa-1981 Ritchey, on loan from the editor of Dirt Rag magazine, and this one over here is a vintage 1982 Specialized Stump Jumper.”

Pollution-Free Cabs

Having already returned my rental, Kotyk was kind enough to summon Green Gears Pedicabs to pick me up and pedal me to the Sheraton. Within minutes a driver was at my beck and call. He had just escorted several customers across town on an especially sticky evening and needed a bottle of water before doing the same for me.

Pedicabs are an emissions-free form of transportation and reasonable for short trips — only $1 a block. The drivers are strong advocates of the pedal biking community and navigate safely in traffic.

Where to Stay in PGH

Conveniently located at the base of Mount Washington is Pittsburgh’s only waterfront hotel, the newly renovated Sheraton Station Square Hotel. The 399 guest rooms are spacious, there’s a pool and free wi-fi and the lobby features a six-story atrium. I fell blissfully asleep to the harmonic rumble of trains passing by.

Inside the Gandy Dancer restaurant, Pittsburgh.
Inside the Gandy Dancer restaurant, Pittsburgh.

Local Links

Travel and Tourism Pittsburgh
Great Allegheny Passage —
Friends of the Riverfront
Pittsburgh Trails Advocacy Group
Walls Are Bad —
Golden Triangle Rental —
Urban Velo Magazine

Restaurants and Accommodations

Hofbräuhaus (2705 South Water St.) —
OTB Bicycle Café (2518 E.Carson Street) —
Fatheads Restaurant (1805 E Carson St)—
Gandy Dancer Restaurant (100 W Station Square Dr )
Sheraton Hotel at Station Square

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