What the bus route changes actually mean for Pittsburgh

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Over the summer, I spent some time with a past teacher of mine who is a technician for Pittsburgh Regional Transit. We spoke, as we have in the past, about how far Pittsburgh lags behind other cities in terms of transportation, specifically with regard to bus scheduling and software. Who among us has not stared down at the Transit app, standing out in the cold on Forbes or Fifth, wondering when the bus will finally come? Tangentially, PRT did receive $100 million dollars and will likely not spend any of it on tech upgrades.

What they will spend it on was teased to me in my conversation with my teacher. I don’t remember thinking much of the alterations he described. Even when things change here, nothing really changes. As much as Pittsburgh has gained from being a city that has changed immensely in the past 30 or more years, we also, on a very basic level, thrive on consistency. Holding on to the historical or traditional aspects of our culture has kept us grounded, I think, especially when it comes to attending to the lesser-loved neighborhoods of Pittsburgh.

In my very Pittsburgher opinion, Carnegie Mellon, though very historical in name, is a symbol of progression in our city. Through the arts, technology, and simply bringing in students from around the country and the world, Carnegie Mellon has revolutionized Pittsburgh so wholly that it has become entirely alien from it.

The reason I delve so deeply into this dichotomy — besides the fact that it sort of consumes my brain all the time — is because it perfectly explains why the newly proposed Pittsburgh Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) project is being sold by PRT as being mainly positive in effect and also why that could never entirely be true, regardless of what changes are actually made to the bus lines.

The biggest problem I see with the proposed changes (which is noted by pretty much anyone with eyes and the correct contextual background), is that PRT took a chainsaw and cut a clean line in the space between some of Pittsburgh’s most underserved neighborhoods and Downtown — right in Oakland. I will caveat that this is only true for some bus lines, and that PRT was careful to leave at least one bus in every neighborhood that runs straight Downtown with no transfer. For some, though, it will now require a transfer to get through Oakland, which for anyone who does not have a bus pass magically coded into their ID card can cost (maximally) $2.75. I’ll say it again: no student in Oakland is going to be paying for this change. Though PRT has made some pretty commendable decreases to the transfer fare rate for those paying with Connect Cards or “Stored Value” tickets, if you’re forced to pay with cash, this will impact you. This is not a coincidence. Transfers also cost a lot of time. Think about doubling the amount of time it takes to catch a single bus and now add that time to a morning commute Downtown.

For us though, the main problem is that we can no longer take each 61 or 71 at face value because now, for example, the 61D will not go Downtown. That’s right out-of-towners: You now have to learn what all those pesky letters mean, or you’ll be headed right back to campus after you reach Carlow on Craft Avenue.

Another issue I find is the structural addition of bus-only lanes on Forbes and Fifth. I really do commend PRT for attempting to streamline traffic, because as every Pittsburgh driver knows, being stuck behind a bus is the worst (both because they stop often and because the drivers, while so completely competent, are terrifying). To be frank, though, our city’s infrastructure problem was not isolated by any means to the Fern Hollow Bridge. I’m no expert, but I really see no way for Forbes or Fifth to continue to support the traffic they see now with a decrease in lane space. I’m curious to see what will result, though. If it works, it will be better for people living in Oakland, no doubt.

They’re also apparently adding more of those nifty “station”-like structures like the one on Atwood, which should be pretty cool and helpful for those needing to buy tickets so as to avoid paying fare with cash. They’re also extending the Downtown bus lines essentially through to the Point, which is actually massively useful.

It took me a while to parse the map that PRT released detailing the route changes, but once I did, I understood exactly how this plan fit into the general socio-economic landscape of Pittsburgh. The negative impacts are essentially what I would have expected given Pittsburgh administration’s usual attitude towards neighborhoods like Wilkinsburg and Braddock and the nurturing care they pour upon Oakland and Squirrel Hill.

I’m not saying that I think it’s okay that some people living in, say, Swissvale, will no longer be able to get home using the P3 while people living in Shadyside will see much smaller service changes. However, I do think it’s something similar to what Pittsburgh has withstood for years, and what it will continue to withstand. PRT opened a public forum and will be releasing a report based on the feedback they get, but I do not expect them to change their plans based on this report. They actually already released a report detailing how they’re screwing over the smaller, low-income, outskirt communities they’re meant to serve. People will settle for what they can get, and traffic in Oakland will probably be pretty bad for a little while. But it's unfortunate that improvement in our city's public transit infrastructure is accompanied by slashing service to communities that already exist on the margins.