And so, it dawned on me – Pittsburgh is a city of very hard stops.
By Robert Isenberg
Nine years, I think, pedaling a borrowed bicycle down Braddock Avenue, and so much is the same.
I coast past familiar storefronts—a cafe, an indie cinema, a mural of birds in flight. Traffic flows around me, leaving a narrow space between moving cars and parked ones. The lawns and trees are exactly as I remember them. My heart throbs, not with exertion, but with love.
“Feel free to take it all day,” said my friend Bill, who’s hosting me in his spare room and loaned me this bike. He said this during our long night of Yuenglings and pool at the local bar. “I’ll text you after work and see where you are.”
Even the generosity is the same.
Really, it’s only been three years since I last visited Pittsburgh, and I would’ve been here sooner, if not for COVID-19. But scattered drop-ins are nothing like living here. A decade ago, my wife and I owned a condo in Point Breeze, and that was a good time in our life. I miss so many things, but this in particular: cruising around on a wonky bicycle. Soon, I’m flying down my old street, between rows of suburban lots, past the iron gates of my old complex, which looks exactly as I left it.
Today I will ride 27 miles around the city, from the eastern edge of Regent Square to a warehouse district beyond the West End Bridge—basically, across city limits and back. My reunion must be thorough, physical, full-contact. I will explore this city the way I did when I lived here—on two wheels, propelled by my own two legs. My tire will skirt all Three Rivers. I’ll cut through about 16 distinct neighborhoods, which I could once fluently navigate. I’ll climb nearly 1,000 feet, much of it potholed or paved with cobblestone. The weather is spring-cool. The sky is a merciful blend of clouds and sun. I will treasure every block, because it really has been too long.
But when I arrive in the busy hub of South Oakland, something will happen. Sweat-soaked and achy, I will heave my bike up a long, concrete staircase and emerge from the woods behind the Frick Fine Arts Center. I’ll pedal into traffic, making a slow circle around the greensward of Schenley Plaza. And there, beneath the 36-story gothic stonework of the Cathedral of Learning, I’ll see it – the Ghost Bike.
The bike, painted white and locked to a steel post, will stand silently on the sidewalk, a memorial to the woman who lost her life here.
And in that moment, I’ll take stock of everything that’s different. Because it’s not the same Pittsburgh I remember—and I don’t mean new high-rises, shuttered businesses, or graying friends. For a cyclist who’s been away for a while, the city exhibits radical transformation. Spotting that Ghost Bike will fill me with anger and heartache. I will wish, for the thousandth time, that this memorial didn’t have to exist. But I will also marvel at all the change that began with a single accident. And I will wonder what Susan would think of it all.
I can’t exaggerate – Susan Hicks really was one of the kindest and most genuine people I ever met. She really did love to smile, and to laugh, and did both all the time. But the way I remember her is consistently chill. Everything she did looked effortless and easygoing, as if she’d just woken up from an afternoon nap. She had straight blond hair and sleepy eyes; her cadence reminded me of snowboarders. Everyone loved her.
Susan and I weren’t bosom buddies; there were legions of people who knew her better. But we ran into each other again and again, usually at house parties, for years. My memories are hazy, but some stand out: Talking together about theater for a solid hour on the fire escape of somebody’s apartment. Rolling sushi on a butcher block in somebody’s kitchen. And yes, once riding bikes around Schenley Park with a posse of friends. Throughout our twenties, Pittsburgh was busy with rooftop shindigs, ersatz music events, and gallery openings. Susan and I were always bumping into each other, and I was always pleased as punch to see her.
Like so many of those friends, Susan was dynamic and whip smart. A Virginia native, Susan had lived in Russia, Serbia, and Puerto Rico. She earned a PhD in anthropology from the University of British Columbia. By her mid-thirties, Susan was assistant director of academic affairs at the Center for Russian and East European Studies, a showcase program at the University of Pittsburgh. She joined a rowing team. She was fluent in the Russian language. She organized regular get-togethers with friends, where they would divvy up roles and read Shakespeare aloud. If anyone deserved to live a long and happy life, it was Susan.
I learned about the accident on my 26th birthday. My Facebook account was littered with posts—alerts, exclamations, updates, and so many woeful comments, a new one every few minutes. If social media could wail in anguish, it wailed that day.
The facts emerged: Susan was riding her bike down Forbes Avenue, a major artery in Pittsburgh. She routinely commuted to work, and Forbes was one of her regular routes. Out of nowhere, a car collided with her bike; she was “pinned,” according to reports, an image I refuse to let myself imagine. Susan was critically injured. She was rushed to a hospital, but it was too late to save her.
The driver, it turned out, was high on synthetic marijuana. He didn’t have a license. When police arrived, he allegedly “faked a seizure.” In press photos, the man is unkempt, his expression inscrutably grim. His face contrasted sharply with Susan’s beaming portrait. But there they were, paired together on the evening news, killer and victim, forever bound in each other’s tragic story. That face would reappear six months later, when the driver was arrested, and again in 2017, when he was sentenced to five-and-a-half to nine years in prison for involuntary manslaughter.
“Death of cyclist, Pitt educator leaves hole in community,” read a headline in the Pittsburgh Tribune Review.
A hole, yes. There was no better word for it.
The accident proved something that everyone knew, but no City Council had ever really addressed: Pittsburgh was a deadly place for cyclists.
When I returned from my freshman year of college, in the summer of 1998, I asked my Dad to look at the bicycle I’d ridden around Pitt’s campus. The hybrid was only a year old, but now that it stood upside down in my parents’ garage in rural Vermont, it looked scratched and weatherbeaten.
“I can’t believe it,” said my Dad, “but I think we have to replace these brake pads.”
I nodded, not understanding.
“I don’t think I’ve replaced my brake pads once in ten years,” Dad elaborated. He spun the front rim and squeezed a brake lever, but all I heard was a wheezing sound; the wheel continued to whirl. “You must use these a lot.”
And so, it dawned on me – Pittsburgh is a city of very hard stops.
I lived in Pittsburgh for fifteen more years, and for most of them, I didn’t drive at all. I rode the bus and bummed a lot of rides; but I also pumped my trusty hybrid all over town. And at every blind corner; rolling down every treacherous slope; through every blinking yellow light, I took my life into my own hands.
Because Pittsburgh was one of the worst-rated cities for cyclists, and many of its challenges persist. The streets are a maze. The hills are punishing. The pavement itself is cracked and pockmarked. Intersections are Kafka-esque. Even major roads are narrow and crowded with parked cars. Meanwhile, storms can pour for days, and freezing rain falls all winter. Gutters clog with jetsam; frost heaves rip open the pavement. Even the sidewalks are comically uneven.
In my memory, only true zealots commuted by bike, and they always seemed to dress the part: tattooed hipsters, flying around corners on customized fixies, flipping off drivers as horns honked all around them. We were odd ducks, pedaling over bridges and cutting through alleyways, narrowly missing side mirrors in our quest to get somewhere on time. I was no tattooed hipster, but the chaotic vibe matched the defiant headspace of my youth. I liked the danger. Riding untamed streets thrilled me to the marrow. Sure, I would’ve loved bike lanes and special signals, dedicated bridges and convenient racks; but these things were never going to exist, so I might as well accept the blow-by-blow threats of coma and paralysis. Go ahead, Steel City. Bring it.
Susan’s accident changed all that, for me and for everyone. Fighting traffic wasn’t a game, or a badge of courage, or even a statement. People could die. Someone had died. And not just someone, but an exceptional someone, a person so cool and beloved that her passing couldn’t be ignored. The streets themselves were unsafe at any speed.
And for the first time, the landscape truly began to change.
Morning becomes noon. I ride a rail-trail along the Allegheny River, passing woods and gray water. In the North Side, I find a network of bike lanes painted on the street. I pass a special parking platform for bikes, where attractive new racks stand in ranks. Some of these I remember, but so much is new. In the crisp air, I can almost smell the paint.
Noon becomes afternoon. I ascend a concrete ramp onto the Fort Pitt Bridge and coast into Point State Park. Cyclists are everywhere, zipping up and down the braid of paths. Then I glide into Downtown, where I find bike lane after bike lane, the white lines crisply printed on the asphalt.
Like most urban networks, this route isn’t a straight line; it’s more like a high-speed scavenger hunt. I lose my way several times, making awkward U-turns over sidewalks and parking lots. I slip between skyscrapers, zigzagging my way toward the next rail-trail. I spot a pair of signs bolted to a post: “Do Not Enter,” followed by “Except [Picture of a Bicycle].” And I laugh aloud.
Don’t get me wrong – activists have been fighting for bicycle safety in Pittsburgh for decades. In 2002, a rider named David Hoffman was deliberately sideswiped by a passing car. His story earned widespread media attention and support from fellow cyclists. Within a year, Hoffman had cofounded BikePGH, a cycling advocacy group, with Scott Bricker and Lou Fineberg. For the past 20 years, BikePGH has been a vocal champion of urban mobility. BikePGH created Free Ride, a bike-recycling program; printed the Pittsburgh Bike Map; and commissioned the installation of bike racks all over town, including on every Port Authority bus. Like so many American cities, Pittsburgh was already taking steps in the right direction, thanks to a feisty activist community.
But it’s fair to say that Susan’s accident radically accelerated the process. The Pennsylvania House Transportation Committee unanimously passed House Bill 140 in 2021, but anyone familiar with the bill knows it as “Susan and Emily’s Law.” The bill is also named after Emily Fredericks, a Philadelphia resident killed in a similar collision. In short, the law makes it easier to install bike lanes on urban streets. The implication, of course, is that Susan and Emily would still be alive if they could have ridden on this kind of protected pavement. What a difference a few feet might have made.
Not everyone likes the new infrastructure. Parking has always been awful, they carp, and the bike lanes make it worse. The streets are a convoluted mess of one-way streets and last-second lane changes, and all that white-and-green paint makes it even more confusing. Among politicians, bike safety is a favorite political shuttlecock. When a friend of mine recently posted a picture of himself riding his bike down the street, someone commented: “BIKE LANES ARE THE DEVIL.”
I get it—they see another roadblock in a city full of roadblocks. I see a city that is finally taking its quality of life seriously, at least in a way that I value. But one thing can’t be argued – Susan should be alive, and isn’t.
In Oakland, not far from Susan’s ghost bike, I find that long, concrete staircase behind the Frick Fine Arts Center. I heave the bike onto my shoulder, so I can carry it up the fifty-or-so steps. I did this hundreds of times, back when I lived in Pittsburgh; bikeable roadways would end, and I’d have to lug my frame up and down this kind of stairway. It ain’t easy, but it’s comforting. The 800-or-so outdoor stairways are iconic landmarks, a century-old accommodation for workers commuting on foot.
But then I notice something: a little picture of a bicycle, embedded in the cement.
This staircase has a ramp. I fit my tires on the little shelf; soon, the bike is rolling upward. To push a bicycle is so much easier than lifting it, and I marvel at this clever little channel. I stomp my way up, breathing hard. These are the little additions that make a big difference.
Understand, I would trade all these things to bring Susan back to life. Without question. The lanes, the paths, the racks cleverly shaped like the Golden Triangle—none of it will ever be worth losing her.
But I think Susan would have liked what Pittsburghers have done. The strides they’ve taken. She would be amazed what this city has achieved since her passing. Lives have been saved, more lives than we’ll ever know.
I reach the top of the hill, set the bike down, and ride. And keep riding, as long as I can.
Robert Isenberg is a freelance writer, playwright, photographer, stage performer, and documentary filmmaker. He is a past recipient of the Brickenridge Fellowship, McDowell Scholarship, Trespass Residency, and two Golden Quill Awards. He earned his MFA in Creative Writing from Chatham University, where he served as Whitford Fellow, the program’s highest honor. Originally from Vermont, he lived in Pittsburgh for 16 years. For two years he lived in Costa Rica, where he served as a staff writer for The Tico Times. He freelances widely and teaches for numerous institutions, including Arizona State University. Robert was recently named the newest contributing editor for Providence Monthly. He is now based in his native New England.