Transportation expert suggests city take the road less traveled
A local transportation expert has been saying for years that the Port Authority of Allegheny County doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel to alleviate bus congestion in downtown Pittsburgh.
Now, George White, a Downtown resident and retired head of the University of Pittsburgh Transportation Systems Research Center, has renewed a long-running debate and added a new twist to a study on Downtown bus patterns he conducted in the late 1990s for the Port Authority.
White now maintains the Port Authority can simultaneously increase ridership, improve service and ease congestion. Revised bus routes could add more than 4,000 commuters bound for the top 12 office buildings and boost ridership into the Golden Triangle by 33 percent, generating $7 million more in annual revenue.
Port Authority Chief Executive Officer Paul Skoutelas said he intends to review the study.
White blames outdated bus routes for the congestion.
“We are essentially stuck with a bus system that actually still preserves — like a fly in amber — a bunch of characteristics of the old streetcar routes,” White said.
White’s study found that 2,769 buses a day enter the Downtown area, turning more than 8,000 times to loop back toward the suburbs. Collectively, the buses travel more than 3,000 miles a day inside the Golden Triangle, according to the study.
His proposal maps out six color-coded bus routes that pass through Downtown without looping back. Transfers would occur at 15 locations. It will simplify bus travel inside the Golden Triangle while enhancing service between the city and suburbs, White said.
“Any revision of the routing of buses through downtown Pittsburgh must also include a review of traffic flow, parking and traffic control,” said Port Authority spokeswoman Judi McNeil.
An intriguing aspect of White’s study concerns its impact on the delivery system for key downtown locations, such as the USX Tower, the destination for about 11,000 daily commuters, many of whom drive cars. The Port Authority could almost double its passenger capacity for Downtown by having more buses pass the USX Tower and other large buildings, according to White’s estimates.
“No new buses. No new bus drivers. Just more efficient mapping,” White said.
Margaret “Midge” McCauley, director of Downtown Works, the company hired to design and redevelop the Fifth and Forbes corridor, said bus traffic must be reduced by 50 percent on those Downtown thoroughfares to transform the corridor into a tony retail plaza.
White maintains his plan would do just that.
He doesn’t have a cost estimate, but White believes it would be a one-time expense that could be financed with a grant. Major costs would include rebuilding the Port Authority’s computer system to handle the route changes, educating the public about changes, retraining bus drivers and renegotiating labor contracts, he said.
White said the plan should take about a year to put into effect.
Some observers say bus route changes are far more complex than such proposals make them seem.
“The concept of through-routes is something that is not a bad idea, but when you sit down and try to apply it to the transit industry, especially here in Pittsburgh, there are a lot of intangibles that come into play,” said Patrick J. McMahon, president-business agent of the union that represents Port Authority workers.
One of the biggest challenges is to connect routes on either side of the city to match rider demand.
Mariann K. Geyer, executive director of the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership, cautioned that fixing bus congestion shouldn’t be seen as a cure-all.
“I think it’s unfair for anybody to say ‘Move the buses and you solve all the problems,’ ” she said.
She said more than half of the people who go Downtown each weekday, about 70,000, do so by bus or light rail.
But White’s idea has strong backing.
State Sen. Jack Wagner, a Beechview Democrat, called the proposal “brilliant.”
“It’s precisely what we need to do in government. We need to come up with ways to increase efficiency and reduce cost,” he said.
Pittsburgh City Councilman Bill Peduto, of Point Breeze, said White’s proposal merits serious review.
“You need to start with the idea that our buses should not all intersect in downtown Pittsburgh and turn around in the Golden Triangle. It makes Downtown an unfriendly place to work, live or visit,” he said.