Pittsburghpedia: How the ‘bikelash’ gave us ‘Bike Lane Billy’

Know your weird and wonky Pittsburgh terms? This post is part of our Pittsburghpedia series, a handy glossary of words and phrases unique to our city that’ll help you #talklikeyoulivehere. Let’s fill you in. Today’s entry … Bike Lane Billy 

WHAT IS IT? A pejorative nickname referring to two-term Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto. 

WHAT STARTED IT? Alliteration, but mostly politics. 

Here’s the gist: The mayor has long been a booster of more bike lanes in Pittsburgh, citing economic impacts, public safety impacts, impacts on congestion and urban renewal, and more. 

But in this *political climate of ours (*read: raging culture war), the mayor’s support for bike lanes has also become emblematic of what some critics see as a larger — and equally threatening — progressive agenda. 

And that, kids, is how a “bikelash” is born. 

HAS THE ‘BIKE LANE BILLY’ NICKNAME STUCK? Yes. Its use has grown since Peduto first took office in 2014. And now “Bike Lane Billy” has its own Twitter account — at least two of them. (Don’t worry, guys, that first follower is always the hardest to get.) 

The mayor also seems to have embraced the term. (More on that in a second.)  

HOW BIKE LANE-Y IS BIKE LANE BILLY? The advocacy group BikePGH credits the mayor for his support of bike lanes and the city’s Complete Streets initiative, but also for creating a Department of Mobility and Infrastructure dedicated to making Pittsburgh streets safer for people who walk and bike, and for making bike infrastructure a bigger municipal priority overall. 

“The City has been consistently increasing the budget for bike infrastructure, resulting in its largest commitment ever in 2020,” BikePGH Executive Director Scott Bricker told The Incline by email.

Pittsburgh now has around 90 miles of bike infrastructure — that includes bike lanes, protected bike lanes, and on-street markings, a.k.a. sharrows. (Fun fact: Sharrow is a mashup of the words “share” and “arrow.”)

Seventeen new miles of bike lanes and “sharrows” were put in place in Pittsburgh between 2014, when Peduto took office, and 2017, when he won re-election. BikePGH says that amounts to a 28 percent increase over three years. (The city had next to no bike lanes just a few decades ago.)  

And while Pittsburgh is slightly behind similarly sized cities when it comes to the total number of bike lanes here, it’s worth noting the challenges — narrow streets, hills, etc. — that Pittsburgh planners must contend with.

Bricker says more needs to be done to connect the bike lanes we do have, describing it as more of a patchwork than a system. He hopes the city’s new 10-year bike plan will help move the needle. He also hopes it will “help people better understand why the City is trying to make it safer for Pittsburghers who use bicycles to get around.” 

Speaking of public sentiment …  

DO PITTSBURGHERS REALLY DISLIKE BIKES THIS MUCH? 

Bricker isn’t sure they do. He thinks the antipathy is overblown, pointing to studies that show Pittsburghers “are generally supportive of expanding bike infrastructure.” 

Bricker added: “… the truth is 25 percent of Pittsburgh households don’t have access to a car and are multimodal. We drive, we bike, we walk, we take the bus and appreciate the variety of options.”

So why does it seem like there’s such a rift here? 

It may be a case of loud anti-bike-lane voices being mistaken for more anti-bike-lane voices. It may also be that bike lanes don’t bother city dwellers as much as suburban commuters with social media accounts.

One could also argue, as CityLab did, that the bikelash might actually be good for cyclists in the long run. “Public hatred of biking culture is actually a natural part of its evolution into the mainstream,” CityLab noted.

AM I A JAGOFF FOR COMPLAINING ABOUT BIKE LANES? Yes, you are. Partly because you should be focusing your outrage elsewhere (like, here, here, and here, for starters). 

But also because bike lanes make the road safer for drivers and cyclists, they’re surprisingly cost-effective, and you can’t complain about potholes or congestion while also complaining about bike lanes that take more vehicles off the road. 

There was a piece in Gothamist last summer about the anti-cycling mindset. TL;DR: Decades of car-centric infrastructure, a willingness to paint all cyclists with the same brush, and the fact that cars are anger-stoking cocoons, were all factors. 

ARE THERE MORE MAYORAL NICKNAMES WHERE BIKE LANE BILLY CAME FROM? You bet. City Paper did an entire retrospective on the mayor’s many nicknames. They include, in no particular order: Mayor Poopduto, Pedumbo, Potatohead Peduto/Mayor Potato, and so on. 

WHAT DOES THE MAYOR THINK? We reached out to his office for comment but didn’t hear back. But based on this tweet and this tweet, we think he’s holding up okay. 

Anyway, insulting political nicknames are nothing new to Pittsburgh politics or national politics. Especially now

In fact, you could call this a golden age of political trash talk.

Meanwhile, Pittsburgh cyclists and the mayor hope a golden age of bike lanes is finally dawning — nicknames and bikelashes notwithstanding.