Can Pittsburgh build the next great American transit system? - TransitCenter
August 31, 2015
Can Pittsburgh build the next great American transit system?
Pittsburgh's East Busway

“Gillig Parade on Pittsburgh’s East Busway” by m877 is licensed under CC BY 2.0

TransitCenter staff returned last week from a great trip to Pittsburgh, where we spent two days learning about local efforts and discussing current public transportation priorities with more than a dozen representatives from advocacy organizations, government offices, and local foundations. We still have a lot to learn and hope to continue to do so through the relationships we started to build there. In the meantime, here are some initial thoughts from four of us who made the trip, on what it will take for Pittsburgh to lead on public transportation:

Shin-pei Tsay: make transit a mayoral priority

Pittsburgh benefits from an alignment of the stars with respect to its governance (just the type we detail in our report, A People’s History of Urban Transportation Innovation). Mayor Bill Peduto enjoys a productive relationship with Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald. The City Council is filled with progressive leaders who support a sustainable transportation agenda. Eighteen months into the mayoral term, however, many of the people we spoke with voiced curiosity about what would actually happen on the ground relative to lauded plans for bus rapid transit, bicycles, and transit service expansion. To ensure these plans are put into action, we agreed with many local transit champions on the value of creating a transportation czar position within City Hall to operationalize Pittsburgh’s ambitious vision.

Pittsburgh is not the only city whose department of transportation reports to a larger department of public works. In fact, this can be a positive asset that enables coordination. But for that to be the case, transportation needs to be prioritized at the highest levels — by the mayor himself. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti placed his Great Streets program within City Hall, to signal City Hall’s priority around transforming select major streets into community-oriented complete streets. He recently appointed a progressive General Manager in Seleta Reynolds, who created a strategic plan that included targets for transportation improvements and is charged with implementation. Her work carries the weight of a direct tie to the Mayor’s Office, even though as in Pittsburgh, transportation is housed under the umbrella of Public Works.

Having such a strategic advisory within City Hall — perhaps even shared with the County Executive’s Office — could coordinate regional issues, direct foundation interests toward Mayoral priorities, and engage private corporations (including those in Pittsburgh’s growing tech sector) to collaborate on improving the City’s transportation system. A strong, City Hall-positioned transportation leader will go a long way toward making it happen.

Zak Accuardi: set sights higher than Denver

Several folks we met with mentioned a big study trip that much of the Pittsburgh’s transportation leadership made to Denver, which is seen as a potential transportation role model. Denver has had a lot of success in its public transportation planning (and we highlight this success — and Pittsburgh’s — in A People’s History), but as I walked, biked, and bused across the city I thought instead of my native Pacific Northwest, and in particular Seattle, as a potential model.

In addition to Pittsburgh and Seattle’s similarly dynamic topography, Pittsburgh is beginning to ask tough questions about fare policy in light of a complicated and already high-cost fare structure. Seattle provides one of the most interesting models for addressing this challenge, eliminating a long-standing free fare zone (like the one Pittsburgh has today) in exchange for a system that provides discounted fare to low-income Seattleites. The greater Seattle region also recently won approval from the State of Washington to go to the ballot for increased public transportation funding in 2016 — and advocates in Pittsburgh will need to navigate a similar process to get approval for their own regional transportation funding package in the years to come.

[easy-table caption=”Transit Commute Share (data from ACS 2007-2011)” colalign = “left|center|center” width=”70%” class=”table table-border”] City, Municipal (%), Metro (%) Pittsburgh, 19.0, 5.7 Denver, 7.5, 4.6 Seattle, 18.5, 8.3 [/easy-table]

Finally, a larger proportion of metro area Pittsburghers (or Yinzers, as you prefer) commute on public transportation than Denver’s metro area residents. At the city level, this difference is even more stark, with Denver lagging far beyond both Pittsburgh and Seattle (indeed, Pittsburgh’s mode share at the city level is slightly higher than Seattle’s).

Pittsburgh’s leadership can and has learned much from Denver’s story, but it shouldn’t stop there. And it can start by choosing a more aspirational model city — then working to surpass it.

Stephanie Lotshaw: focus on short-term demonstration…

Mayor Peduto has outlined an aspirational and progressive vision for what the future of Pittsburgh looks like. Several new plans are in the works at the city – a new bike master plan, a hazard mitigation plan, a comprehensive plan and a mobility plan, among others. However, many Pittsburghers are unclear what these changes are going to look like and how they are going to change the city they know and love. This is why the Peduto administration should focus on demonstration projects, much like was done under Janette Sadik-Khan at NYC DOT. By working on short timelines and showing people what is possible (rather than giving Pittsburghers multi-year plans with abstract drawings) the city can experiment with different interventions, see what works and what generates public support, only then making those changes permanent. Additionally, many might want to see the types and effects of transportation and street design changes before they choose to support a ballot measure. These rapid, easily implementable demonstration projects can help generate increased public support for a ballot measure and therefore a longer-term vision for the city.

Kirk Hovenkotter: …to support ballot measures as the long play

We heard that engaging a broad coalition to build support for a long-term, transformative vision of transportation is Pittsburgh’s next major looming challenge. Whether that vision includes an extension of the East Busway, transit priority lanes in the Golden Triangle, or improved bicycle facilities on the North Side, the opportunities for transportation investment in the region require funding beyond the increase provided by Act 89, the 2013 statewide gas tax restructure. While that revenue put the region’s transportation funding crises of the 2000’s behind it, Pittsburgh’s advocates understand that they need to build off that investment.

Yet the path to raising funding is no small feat. Southwestern Pennsylvania will have to obtain the authority to increase taxes from Harrisburg, then send a referendum to voters.

As a Seattlite, hearing about that process gave me deja-vu. As Zak mentioned, this summer a coalition of transit advocates, civic and political leaders in the Puget Sound marshaled a statewide sales tax increase for transportation through the legislature which included local authority for the region to go to the ballot to expand regional transit. Yet that coalition wouldn’t have been able to get this far without a clear regional vision that they could rally behind when it came to the legislature.

An organization or coalition is going to have to take the lead in facilitating the creation of that vision and articulating it to the Pittsburgh region. Whether it’s Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission (the designated MPO), the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, or both, there needs to be leadership that can channel Pittsburgh’s energy and enthusiasm around a transportation vision that can survive the legislature and a public vote.


Transit champions in Pittsburgh have been building momentum around system improvements for years, and they are now well-positioned to effect major change. Doing so will require the substantial coordination of these efforts in the coming years, focused mayoral leadership, and continued engagement on the part of the Port Authority. We look forward to seeing Pittsburghers’ collective vision become a reality, in which transit serves the greater Pittsburgh region efficiently, effectively, and equitably (and in which bicyclists and bus drivers live in perfect harmony).

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