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. 

 
 
 
 

Here’s how Copenhagen puts cyclists at the top of the social hierarchy

A cyclist in Copenhagen, obviously. Image: Red Bull/Getty.

Have you ever wondered why Britain is not a nation of cyclists? Why we prefer to sit in traffic as our Dutch and Danish neighbours speed through the city on bikes?

Forget about hills, rain, and urban sprawl: the real reason we aren’t cycling is much closer to home. It is not just lack of infrastructure, or lack of fitness, the reason that 66 per cent of Brits cycle less than once a year, is because of status.

An obsession with social status is hard-wired into our brains. As we have built a society that relies on cars, the bicycle has slipped to the periphery, and gone from being regarded as a sensible mode of transport, to a deviant fringe-dwellers choice.

Even though cycling to work has been shown to be one of the most effective things an individual can do to improve health and longevity, researcher David Horton thinks that there are a set of collective anxieties that are stopping us getting in the saddle. These include not just an unwillingness to be made vulnerable, but fear of being thought of as poor.

A quick look over the North Sea shows that there is an alternative. Danish culture has elevated cycling to the point of reverence, and the social status of cyclists has followed. As we have busied ourselves building infrastructure that testifies to the dominance of the car, Denmark has been creating magnificent architectural features, aimed specifically at bike users. The Cycle Snake, or Cykelslangen, literally suspends the cyclist above the city, metaphorically elevating the cyclist and creating a sense of ceremony.

In doing so, they are subtly persuading people of all backgrounds to see past their prejudices or fears and take it up as the clearly better choice. This means there are more women cycling, more older people cycling, and more ethnic minorities cycling. The activity is less dominated by comfortably middle class white males: there are cyclists from every side of the community.  

The Cykelslangen, under construction in 2014. Image: Ursula Bach and Dissing+Weitling architecture.

Despite abstract motivations like getting ripped and conquering global warming, it is only when the bike path becomes the obviously better choice that people will start to cycle. It can take years of traffic jams before people try an alternative, but if you make motorists jealous of cyclists, then the tables can quickly turn.

Another way that Copenhagen has done this is by taking privileges normally afforded only to the motorcar, and given them to the bike. The city has ensured that cycle routes do not include blind corners or dark tunnels, and that they form a complete, coherent network, and a steadily flowing system – one that allows cyclists to maintain a reasonable pace, and minimises the amount of times you have to put your foot down.

The ‘Green Wave’, for example, is a co-ordinated traffic light system on some of the main thoroughfares of the capital that helps minimise the amount of cycle congestion during peak times. It maintains a steady flow of cycle traffic, so that there is no need to stop at any point.


Small measures of prioritisation like this one increase the sense of safety and consideration that cyclists experience, making it natural for the citizens of a city to act in their own self-interest and get on their bike.

As well as redefining the streets around the bicycle, the Copenhagen Cycle Chic blog positively fetishises cyclists. The tagline “dress for your destination, not your journey” depicts the social fashion life of the cycle lane as a “never ending flow of happy people heading from A to B”. Its writers are  literally making cycling sexy, dispelling the idea that going anywhere by bike is odd, and helping the world to see that the bicycle is actually the ultimate fashion accessory.

So unlike in London, where cycling is still a predominantly male pursuit, Copenhagen sees a more even split between men and women. Not just because they feel safer on the roads, but because culturally they are comfortable with their appearance as part of a highly visible group.

So while our low level of cycling is partly due to our physical infrastructure, it is also due to our cultural attitudes. The mental roadblocks people have towards cycling can be overcome by infrastructure that is not only safe, but also brings old-fashioned notions of dignity and grace into the daily commute.

Of course, office shower facilities might stop cyclists being ostracised, too.