Sunday, February 2, 2014

16 Thoughts for a Superior BRT Network in Pittsburgh

Seeing that the current mayoral administration is pretty keen on choosing Bus Rapid Transit, or BRT, as the mode for Pittsburgh’s transit future (at least for the foreseeable future anyway), we should embrace this as a sign of progress instead of griping that we won’t be extending our light rail (LRT).  Sure, it’s a difficult pill to swallow. But let’s be honest for a minute: Pittsburgh isn’t the richest city in the U.S. Until 2008, we were losing population for the previous half a century! Perhaps one day we will be able to afford a light rail system that may even replace the very BRT we design today.  Until then, let’s make the best with what we can afford, at least until we can afford the best.

Unfortunately, for the most part today, bus transit has a negative connotation while rail has a positive one. While that is not really fair nor is it true that rail is that much better, the unfortunate reality is that BRT pushers have a long way to go in order to convince the public that buses can be as enticing as LRT. Even the FTA used the motto “think rail, use buses” when referring to BRT systems. But I do believe that Pittsburgh can overcome this BRT stigma and create a top-notch network. So, regardless of the mode Pittsburgh chooses, here are a few thoughts to consider when moving forward in order to create the best possible rapid transit system:

   1.     Transit perception
If people hate buses so much, then why even call it BRT? The first word is Bus! Rather, we should be thinking about Pittsburgh’s rapid transit network as a whole and include the current “T” lines in our thinking. Therefore, I would call the whole system something like “PRT” for Pittsburgh Rapid Transit.

   2.     Clarity
A good map can go a long way. Because most buses have many complex routes with lots of stops, they can be quite confusing. It can be very hard to ride the bus on a casual basis. Rapid transit systems shouldn’t have this problem because they have far fewer stations and lines. Therefore, we are able to make clear maps and diagrams. If we create a comprehensive, easily understood idea of the transit network, we open the door to many more riders.

   3.     User interface
Regardless of transit mode, there are many other factors that go into creating an enjoyable transit experience. Among these include comfort, cleanliness, efficiency, reliability, reach and cost. We also need to think about the little things like ticketing, signage, real-time trip-planning, station architecture and even vehicle design. Riding transit can and should be a great experience.

   4.     Think big
The larger the network, the stronger the network. With each new station, the more the reach grows and the more riders will ride. If there is a comprehensive plan in place (like my LRT map), we will be able to work towards a well-conceived plan instead of building piecemeal in a fractured way. In doing so, we must think about how each of these lines will eventually connect to other lines and form a comprehensive network.

   5.     Confidence and permanence
  One area where BRT lags behind rail is that it doesn’t convey as much permanence. With buses, there is always the fear that cutbacks will lead to changed and lost routes. With rail, the physical infrastructure instills a confidence in riders, homeowners and developers that the transit authority is committed to building and maintaining these transit routes. With BRT, we must demonstrate permanent investment in order to instill this same confidence.

   6.     Technology rules
Data drives the world. If we want to make transit appealing, we should make it cutting edge. Smartphone apps, signal priority, driverless vehicles, shared rights-of-way are all ways we can make our transit systems efficient, fast, cheaper and convenient.  We should aim to portray ourselves as the most advanced transit system possible—even if we use buses!

   7.     Access = Value
Real estate around transit hubs often sees great increases in value due to new connections with the world around them. We call the growth that ensues T.O.D. or Transit Oriented Development. Thus, where we put new transit stations has a huge effect on the areas around them. It is important that we think about capturing this development as smart growth in the form of vibrant, walkable neighborhoods.

   8.     T.O.D. vs. D.O.T. 
Just as transit effects development, the same is true in reverse. Development Oriented Transit, as I like to call it, focuses on putting transit where potential riders already are. This is the case with the current BRT proposal for the Forbes/Fifth corridor. What we need to ask is “how much should we use new transit to serve current populations versus to create new development?” Finding the balance is essential in transportation planning.

   9.     Center and edge
One way to balance the ideas of serving current populations while spurring future growth to put new transit nodes on the edge of current developments. On average, people are willing to walk between ¼ mile and ½ mile (5-10 minutes) to get to a transit stop. If we have a station within this walking radius of existing developments as well as blighted areas, we will see both immediate ridership and potential economic revival.

   10.   Riverfronts
Our rivers are the reason Pittsburgh was settled where it is. However, since the departure of the many steel mills and factories that once lined the three rivers, Pittsburgh has been severed from its most valuable asset. Many derelict sites along the rivers offer great opportunity for redevelopment and should be the focus of new T.O.D. as the city re-stitches its urban fabric back to its lifeblood, the rivers.

   11.   “Choice riders” and “Captive riders” 
The two categories for transit riders, choice riders are those who have many transportation options, including private automobiles, while captive riders don’t have this luxury.  Unbelievably, 29.5% of Pittsburgher households don’t own cars (11th most in the U.S.)! While new transit development is often geared towards attracting choice riders, we must also think about better serving those who are dependent on transit. Our focus should be “the greatest good for the greatest number.”

   12.   Pulling and pushing 
There are two ways to get more people to choose to ride transit: Pulling them onto transit and pushing them out of cars. I already mentioned the importance of a great transit experience, but we also need to think about the flipside- cars. Automobiles are hard to compete with because they offer point-to-point, private rides. But we can deincentivize driving by making it more expensive and less convenient. Parking and gas costs, traffic, car maintenance and even potholes are all factors that may cause people to choose transit over automobiles. I’m not suggesting that we intentionally make driving a car worse, but I am suggesting that we shift some resources towards transit growth and away from automobile comforts.

   13.  Use BRT for its advantages
Besides being cheaper, buses do offer some advantages over rail, most importantly, flexibility. Buses can go anywhere. They can become local routes at the end of the feeder lines, serving a greater population at certain transit nodes. Also, buses can easily transfer from one line to another, making it easier to reduce the number of transfers for its riders.

   14.   Put it to a vote
Transit funding is challenging because of the steep price tag involved. But after the overwhelmingly positive response to my thesis, I believe that Pittsburghers would be willing to support funding a good portion of a comprehensive transit system. Many cities across the U.S. have voted for increased taxes for expanding transit systems. If Pittsburgh can do it for a new stadium, we can do it for a transit system that both serves inhabitants and invests in our city’s future.

   15.   Admitting mistakes
The hardest thing for planners, engineers, politicians and cities is to admit when they are wrong.  However, it is the only way to move forward. Obviously, after the exorbitant cost of the North Shore Connecter, we aren’t going to be digging another tunnel under the rivers anytime soon. But in addition to criticizing big blunders, we must also constantly be critiquing our work and adapting our thinking to find the best solutions to our transit challenges.

   16.  Laying the groundwork for the future
Paramount when thinking about this step in transit development is how our choices today will affect future developments. Cities evolve over hundreds if not thousands of years and our current challenges are only a tiny part of the city’s lifespan.  In 1918, Pittsburgh had over 600 miles of streetcar and rail before they were systematically removed in favor of buses. Today’s urban planners regret much of this removal and can only dream of the walkable, tight-knit communities that were once fostered around such transit. We cannot afford to allow trends in public transit at the expense of our city’s future.

Rather, we must think big picture and ask ourselves some serious questions. What does choosing BRT mean? How will the success or failure of this new transit project affect the subsequent transit projects? Are these choices going to restore confidence in transit and foster smart growth? And most importantly, what kind of city do we want to be?

Friday, October 18, 2013

New Interest and Links

So. It seems that 2 years later, my thesis is sparking some internet buzz and I thought that I would give you all an update. I successfully defended my thesis and graduated in 2012 with my Masters of Architecture  and have just recently moved back home to the Burgh with my wife, Betsy, who is at Duquesne getting her PhD in Psychology. I am still figuring out what to do in back in Pittsburgh at the moment, though I have been interviewing at the different architecture firms around town. I hope to help the city in its urban renaissance in any way possible!

Here are a bunch of links you may find interesting-

Thesis book links:

Mini movies I made about my thesis project while in school:

Transit map T-shirts and posters:

Online Portfolio:

I know there are a lot of hurdles that the city (and state) would have to go through to implement a project so large. It would most likely cost many billion dollars. But we can't stop dreaming! Keep up the interest and maybe we can make a difference in the future. As Pittsburgh grows, we will need a plan for transit. IT HAS TO HAPPEN EVENTUALLY. It is important to have an idea of what to work towards so that we dont have to compromise a vision when forced to build out of necessity. Here is a plan, a goal, something to work towards!

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Here It Is! I couldn't keep it hidden any longer.

So, I thought that I would wait till the end of the semester to get this map out there, both because it is still probably going to be tweaked and because I wanted to present the entire semester's work at once. Anyway, I can't wait any longer. I hope you like it. Maybe it will create some internet buzz. I will explain it all in a different post, hopefully soon. It uses the old rights-of-way from freight trains, reconnects the city to its waterfronts, has a feeder/local downtown loop, and follows all of the city's studies including the spine line, Easter Corridor Transit Study. I still have a long 5 months of work on the rest of the thesis though.
Samson T Map

Here is the design in actual lines:

Lines Map

*note: T Map has been revised based on comments.

Monday, August 22, 2011

New Semester

The summer is over. Now, with all the students back from break, the real fun begins as studios are back in session. Thesis this semester will focus heavily on research, much like in the summer. This is the list of goals for the end of this semester:

  •  a full map of all the lines of a BRT/LRT system throughout the Pittsburgh Metro area. 
  • identify the site of the hub station that I will be designing. 
  • more focus with the thesis topic of "image of a city"- (thesis statement)
  • a detailed site model
  • a preliminary design
  • complete understanding of a wide range of research topics

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Summer Winding Down

Summer sessions are nearly over and I am gearing up for the Fall semester. On the research page of the blog I have a couple of new posts including one that compares the above/below grade threshold to birth, a paper I wrote on Transit Oriented Development and analysis of the "Spine Line" corridor study of 1993.

I'm now looking at the specific locations of where best to put the stations. The Spine Line study and ECTS have given me good direction to start. I have also uncovered some great concept maps from two designers, Craig Toocheck and Edward Shin. These maps are similar to the ultimate map I create for a new LRT or BRT system.

I am also going to compare BRT and LRT systems in my final paper for Professor Buehler. From my research thus far, it appears that BRT is much cheaper and easier to implement while LRT has more appeal in that it is perceived as permanent and pushes its city to "modern" status. For the purposes of my thesis, which explores the ideas of "the image of a city"is affected by public transportation, LRT is perhaps better. Conversely, BRT systems are not common in the USA and Pittsburgh boasts one of the biggest networks with 3 existing lines. There is also the possibility for Pittsburgh to combine these two systems into one cohesive transit network.

Either way, this coming semester will be exciting as I explore these topics and many more.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Transportation Planning Class and NYC

These past several weeks I've been busy researching and writing two papers for my Transprotation Planning class that I am taking with Dr. Ralph Buehler. I will soon write a post that overlooks the impact of this research and how it will affect my thesis project.

Much of what I am learning are the non-architectrual aspects of transit systems. This area has a range of topics from budgets and financing to social perceptions of transit. Many of these topics seem too concrete and disheartening to wishful dreamers like many young architects (myself included), but they are necessary in order to have a working and viable system.

The first paper discusses the history of transit in the U.S. and looks at the modes of transit. It examines how cities affect transit and how transit affects cities. Cities play a major role in the evolution of transit, and conversely, transit plays a major role in the evolution of cities. This cause-effect cycle is what has shaped America’s urban transit landscape as well as our cities.

The second paper, which I am currently writing, examines the riders of transit. It focuses on riders' views and attitudes towards transit systems and how we can learn from other countries (Germany) to get more riders using our transit.

Additionally, I will be going to NYC this weekend! I plan on riding much public transportation there (NYC and metro area accounts for up to 1/3 of all transit in the U.S.!) as well as exploring the new Highline park. The park is a great example of re appropriating urban elements for new uses and reshaping the image of a city. I hope to apply the lessons of the Highline to Pittsbugh.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Visiting the Steel City

I am back in my hometown of Pittsburgh this week and plan on completing several studies for my research.

Firstly, I plan to create a colors/materials palette of the city. This will give my audience a better grasp of the city's beautiful rainbow of brick and painted steel. Clearly, the bones of the city are from its industrial boom, and much of the city is weathered to a profound and dark palette. The city's past, replete with steel mills and smokey skies, has left its permanent print on nearly every building built before the 1970's. In downtown, this deep palette mixes harmoniously with the skyscrapers built in the 1980's and 1990's as well as the convention center built this past decade. Bricks meet glass and steel meets steel, and the outcome is surprisingly well balanced. The backdrop of the mountains, covered with trees, adds a green presence rarely felt in the center of a metropolis.

Secondly, I plan to ride the "T" (Pittsburgh's light rail system). This will give me a good feel for the details and operation of the system. This includes development of the system, how frequently it is used, above/below grade situations, electrical mechanics, stations, signage etc. With this critical information, I will be able to better understand any efforts in adding to the system.

Thirdly, I will spend a day wandering downtown to see where the best sites for new stations. I will need to gather further information by studying maps, street grids and traffic patterns, but this will give me a jumpstart understanding the role of the T on the pedestrian scale in downtown.

Finally, I will try to document the city's steel history and its current presence in the city. From the slag heaps in Nine Mile Run to the Waterfront's smokestacks to the heavy machinery in Station Square which is now used as sculpture, the remnants of the city's industrial past penetrate Pittsburgh, both physically and psychologically.

What a beautiful city.
View From Mt. Washington