Pittsburgh is bucking the US trend on transit ridership numbers. How’s it doing it?

Pittsburgh. Image: Getty.

It’s no secret that public transit in the US is struggling to grow. There are, however, a few cities, including Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, that are managing to slow the downward trend relative and provide strong rider experience that is keeping more riders with the service.

What is this Pennsylvanian city doing to keep people riding at a rate that’s 92 per cent higher than the national average? It is continuing to implement new solutions and not shying away from the challenges that transit agencies face. This is where Pittsburgh’s Port Authority and city government excels, and their success provides key lessons that other cities and transit agencies should heed.

With the 26th largest public transit system in America – largely reliant on buses – Pittsburgh is a bit of an unlikely candidate for such a high rate of ridership. When looking closer, it becomes apparent that the city and Port Authority’s continued commitment to address issues and develop new strategies and services makes this transit system stand out.

Ride-hailing apps, like Uber and Lyft, have varying impacts on transit ridership around the country. The effects differ depending on location and mode – with bus networks seeing more of a negative impact than rail due in part to their first/last mile focus that directly competes with the ride hailing model. Pittsburgh has been lucky, because studies have found that the apps are having negligible impacts on transit in the city – except late night-buses and a bus route to the airport, which have seen declines.

Rather than accept that riders will continue to choose TNC’s over public transit, the Port Authority is actively working on ways to bring riders back and is evaluating better ways to co-exist with ride-sharing companies. One such example is adding luggage racks on buses that travel to and from the airport, to improve the experience for riders who might be lured by the ease of taking an Uber to the airport rather than dealing with where to store suitcases on a bus.

The city also recently appointed a mobility & infrastructure director, Karina Ricks - to work with residents and transit agencies to figure out the best way to improve transportation throughout Pittsburgh. The city’s mayor Bill Peduto created the Department of Mobility & Infrastructure and appointed Ricks as the Department’s director, after a study found that none of the city’s government agencies had direct oversight of transportation issues. This willingness to find solutions and restructure government agencies to better serve transportation needs is a great example of what makes the city excel.


Innovative new services are also integral to Pittsburgh’s success. The Port Authority recently rolled-out a bus-to-bike option for commuters that will allow them to switch directly from a bus to a bike offered through the city’s bike share, for a free ride to their final destination. Seamlessly combining different transportation options directly benefits riders by providing a better overall experience. The simpler an agency can make the journey for riders, the more inclined riders will be to use the service – especially when it’s often a much more economical option than alternatives like ride-sharing.

This innovation isn’t limited to the Port Authority. Mayor Peduto’s office also hasn’t hesitated to implement new ideas that might improve rider experience. One such initiative involves a partnership between the mayor’s Office and the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership that will rearrange traffic flow for vehicles, buses and pedestrians on the city’s busy Liberty Avenue. The project will add a dedicated bus lane for outbound buses – minimising delays – and add a sidewalk extension that separates pedestrians from those waiting for a bus, reducing sidewalk bottlenecks.

The end result should provide a much needed reduction in congestion for the thousands of Pittsburgh commuters that walk or ride along the street each day. The mayor’s willingness to invest in new ideas and take calculated risks to improve traffic flow is the type of initiative that other cities should replicate to solve their own transportation dilemmas.

Pittsburgh has managed to become a top city for public transit use due to the willingness of city officials to collaborate, experiment and face challenges directly. It’s a sentiment that cities around the country should replicate as they  combat the downward trend that plagues many transit systems. Recent budget cuts to the Port Authority threaten Pittsburgh’s success due to imminent service cuts, but the city’s proven track record of innovating in response to challenges positions it well to find cost-saving ways to mitigate issues and continue to improve service for riders.

Brian Zanghi is chief executive of the transport ticketing company Masabi. 

 
 
 
 

To build its emerging “megaregions”, the USA should turn to trains

Under construction: high speed rail in California. Image: Getty.

An extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, out now from Island Press.

A regional transportation system does not become balanced until all its parts are operating effectively. Highways, arterial streets, and local streets are essential, and every megaregion has them, although there is often a big backlog of needed repairs, especially for bridges. Airports for long-distance travel are also recognized as essential, and there are major airports in all the evolving megaregions. Both highways and airports are overloaded at peak periods in the megaregions because of gaps in the rest of the transportation system. Predictions for 2040, when the megaregions will be far more developed than they are today, show that there will be much worse traffic congestion and more airport delays.

What is needed to create a better balance? Passenger rail service that is fast enough to be competitive with driving and with some short airplane trips, commuter rail to major employment centers to take some travelers off highways, and improved local transit systems, especially those that make use of exclusive transit rights-of-way, again to reduce the number of cars on highways and arterial roads. Bicycle paths, sidewalks, and pedestrian paths are also important for reducing car trips in neighborhoods and business centers.

Implementing “fast enough” passenger rail

Long-distance Amtrak trains and commuter rail on conventional, unelectrified tracks are powered by diesel locomotives that can attain a maximum permitted speed of 79 miles per hour, which works out to average operating speeds of 30 to 50 miles per hour. At these speeds, trains are not competitive with driving or even short airline flights.

Trains that can attain 110 miles per hour and can operate at average speeds of 70 miles per hour are fast enough to help balance transportation in megaregions. A trip that takes two to three hours by rail can be competitive with a one-hour flight because of the need to allow an hour and a half or more to get to the boarding area through security, plus the time needed to pick up checked baggage. A two-to-three-hour train trip can be competitive with driving when the distance between destinations is more than two hundred miles – particularly for business travelers who want to sit and work on the train. Of course, the trains also have to be frequent enough, and the traveler’s destination needs to be easily reachable from a train station.

An important factor in reaching higher railway speeds is the recent federal law requiring all trains to have a positive train control safety system, where automated devices manage train separation to avoid collisions, as well as to prevent excessive speeds and deal with track repairs and other temporary situations. What are called high-speed trains in the United States, averaging 70 miles per hour, need gate controls at grade crossings, upgraded tracks, and trains with tilt technology – as on the Acela trains – to permit faster speeds around curves. The Virgin Trains in Florida have diesel-electric locomotives with an electrical generator on board that drives the train but is powered by a diesel engine. 

The faster the train needs to operate, the larger, and heavier, these diesel-electric locomotives have to be, setting an effective speed limit on this technology. The faster speeds possible on the portion of Amtrak’s Acela service north of New Haven, Connecticut, came after the entire line was electrified, as engines that get their power from lines along the track can be smaller and much lighter, and thus go faster. Catenary or third-rail electric trains, like Amtrak’s Acela, can attain speeds of 150 miles per hour, but only a few portions of the tracks now permit this, and average operating speeds are much lower.

Possible alternatives to fast enough trains

True electric high-speed rail can attain maximum operating speeds of 150 to 220 miles per hour, with average operating speeds from 120 to 200 miles per hour. These trains need their own grade-separated track structure, which means new alignments, which are expensive to build. In some places the property-acquisition problem may make a new alignment impossible, unless tunnels are used. True high speeds may be attained by the proposed Texas Central train from Dallas to Houston, and on some portions of the California High-Speed Rail line, should it ever be completed. All of the California line is to be electrified, but some sections will be conventional tracks so that average operating speeds will be lower.


Maglev technology is sometimes mentioned as the ultimate solution to attaining high-speed rail travel. A maglev train travels just above a guideway using magnetic levitation and is propelled by electromagnetic energy. There is an operating maglev train connecting the center of Shanghai to its Pudong International Airport. It can reach a top speed of 267 miles per hour, although its average speed is much lower, as the distance is short and most of the trip is spent getting up to speed or decelerating. The Chinese government has not, so far, used this technology in any other application while building a national system of long-distance, high-speed electric trains. However, there has been a recent announcement of a proposed Chinese maglev train that can attain speeds of 375 miles per hour.

The Hyperloop is a proposed technology that would, in theory, permit passenger trains to travel through large tubes from which all air has been evacuated, and would be even faster than today’s highest-speed trains. Elon Musk has formed a company to develop this virtually frictionless mode of travel, which would have speeds to make it competitive with medium- and even long-distance airplane travel. However, the Hyperloop technology is not yet ready to be applied to real travel situations, and the infrastructure to support it, whether an elevated system or a tunnel, will have all the problems of building conventional high-speed rail on separate guideways, and will also be even more expensive, as a tube has to be constructed as well as the train.

Megaregions need fast enough trains now

Even if new technology someday creates long-distance passenger trains with travel times competitive with airplanes, passenger traffic will still benefit from upgrading rail service to fast-enough trains for many of the trips within a megaregion, now and in the future. States already have the responsibility of financing passenger trains in megaregion rail corridors. Section 209 of the federal Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 requires states to pay 85 percent of operating costs for all Amtrak routes of less than 750 miles (the legislation exempts the Northeast Corridor) as well as capital maintenance costs of the Amtrak equipment they use, plus support costs for such programs as safety and marketing. 

California’s Caltrans and Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority, Connecticut, Indiana, Illinois, Maine’s Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin all have agreements with Amtrak to operate their state corridor services. Amtrak has agreements with the freight railroads that own the tracks, and by law, its operations have priority over freight trains.

At present it appears that upgrading these corridor services to fast-enough trains will also be primarily the responsibility of the states, although they may be able to receive federal grants and loans. The track improvements being financed by the State of Michigan are an example of the way a state can take control over rail service. These tracks will eventually be part of 110-mile-per-hour service between Chicago and Detroit, with commitments from not just Michigan but also Illinois and Indiana. Fast-enough service between Chicago and Detroit could become a major organizer in an evolving megaregion, with stops at key cities along the way, including Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, and Ann Arbor. 

Cooperation among states for faster train service requires formal agreements, in this case, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Compact. The participants are Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. There is also an advocacy organization to support the objectives of the compact, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission.

States could, in future, reach operating agreements with a private company such as Virgin Trains USA, but the private company would have to negotiate its own agreement with the freight railroads, and also negotiate its own dispatching priorities. Virgin Trains says in its prospectus that it can finance track improvements itself. If the Virgin Trains service in Florida proves to be profitable, it could lead to other private investments in fast-enough trains.

Jonathan Barnett is an emeritus Professor of Practice in City and Regional Planning, and former director of the Urban Design Program, at the University of Pennsylvania. 

This is an extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, published now by Island Press. You can find out more here.