Pittsburgh’s time to shine has come. The city has been thrust into the national spotlight, viewed by many transportation leaders as one of the nation’s promising blueprints for how cities can finally do transportation well.
But while visiting Pittsburgh last week, I had the chance to put Pittsburgh in context with what people outside of town think.
Mayor Bill Peduto is a real mover-and-shaker, something any city that wants to retrofit its car culture must have.
Pittsburgh made it into the final seven for the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Smart City Challenge (which was awarded to Columbus, Ohio).
Pittsburgh has become a testing ground for Uber’s autonomous vehicles. It’s unclear so far how much the citizenry actually embraces this, but you have to hand it to Peduto and city leaders for trying something – anything – that’s an improvement over our current car culture.
That car culture is certainly alive and kicking in Pittsburgh. Anecdotally, at least compared to the rapidly improving Washington, D.C., region, there seems to be considerable amounts of honking, unsafe maneuvers in crowded areas, and a general animosity towards people on foot and bicycles.
Several times, I walked along Forbes Avenue – a major one-way thoroughfare that runs east from downtown to the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University. Walking along on the sidewalks or waiting at bus stations feels terrifying, with fast-moving buses and cars passing dangerously close by. This is a street loaded with college students, who are the keys to our future and arguably one of the city’s greatest calling cards. Wouldn’t Forbes Avenue be better served as a red carpet of sorts for tourists and students to see what a great city it is they are entering? Traffic-calming measures, better and more creative sidewalks and bus stops, and protected bike lanes are all desperately needed. (The same holds true for the parallel, westbound and equally as dangerous Fifth Avenue.)
I loved the 28X bus that takes visitors straight from the airport to downtown. But apparently not many other people love it, which is a shame. It only runs every 30 minutes and the buses I rode had passengers, but they were not so full that anyone had to stand. More frequent buses and some sustained marketing could help make it more popular, because once you arrive in downtown or Oakland, it can be really beneficial not to have a car.
Healthy Ride launched as Pittsburgh’s bikeshare system just over a year ago and has been successful enough to see pretty phenomenal expansion, from 12 stations to 50 and growing still. As a tourist, I enjoyed the system and was able to quickly register and take $2, 30-minute rides throughout my stay. The challenge for Pittsburgh is its hilly topography. The city could install inexpensive wayfinding signage for the hills, similar to San Francisco’s The Wiggle, which directs riders to the easiest route around several hills.
I have a lot of hope that these challenges will be met. Pittsburgh is a hotbed of talented minds thinking about the city’s transportation issues.
In my time there, I was lucky enough to represent Mobility Lab and Arlington, Va., in presenting to two groups about how to identify and influence the decision-makers who can get things accomplished, and initiating little things, like pilot projects, that can add up to successfully changing resident’s perceptions.
First, I spoke to students and faculty at Carnegie Mellon University as part of a speaker series hosted by Traffic21, a group focused on transit technologies that is probably as close as Pittsburgh gets to having its own “Mobility Lab.”
Then, I spoke at the 4th Annual Oakland Transportation Fair to transportation experts from throughout southwestern Pennsylvania. The fair, at the University of Pittsburgh, had exhibits featuring fascinating tools and products, free rides in an autonomous vehicle, and was organized by the Oakland Transportation Management Association, which is itself directed by one of the city’s transportation leaders, Mavis Rainey.
Forbes Avenue doesn’t seem to be as dangerous through the Carnegie Mellon campus as it is around the University of Pittsburgh. But it’s encouraging that CMU’s chief campus architect Bob Reppe told me all about the plans for that stretch of roadway. PennDOT is renovating it as acomplete street, with features that recognize the existence of pedestrians and cyclists. Where once there was an underused parking lot, there will soon be a much more attractive welcoming space to the campus, and parking will be placed underground and out of sight.
It won’t happen overnight, but for rebuilding a city that’s better for everyone – drivers included – there is a formidable braintrust in place to keep Pittsburgh heading in the right direction.
Photo: A bike lane on Clemente Bridge, installed in 2015 (David Kent, Flickr, Creative Commons).