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?