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. 

 
 
 
 

A new wave of remote workers could bring lasting change to pricey rental markets

There’s a wide world of speculation about the long-lasting changes to real estate caused by the coronavirus. (Valery Hache/AFP via Getty Images)

When the coronavirus spread around the world this spring, government-issued stay-at-home orders essentially forced a global social experiment on remote work.

Perhaps not surprisingly, people who are able to work from home generally like doing so. A recent survey from iOmetrics and Global Workplace Analytics on the work-from-home experience found that 68% of the 2,865 responses said they were “very successful working from home”, 76% want to continue working from home at least one day a week, and 16% don’t want to return to the office at all.

It’s not just employees who’ve gained this appreciation for remote work – several companies are acknowledging benefits from it as well. On 11 June, the workplace chat company Slack joined the growing number of companies that will allow employees to work from home even after the pandemic. “Most employees will have the option to work remotely on a permanent basis if they choose,” Slack said in a public statement, “and we will begin to increasingly hire employees who are permanently remote.”

This type of declaration has been echoing through workspaces since Twitter made its announcement on 12 May, particularly in the tech sector. Since then, companies including Coinbase, Square, Shopify, and Upwork have taken the same steps.


Remote work is much more accessible to white and higher-wage workers in tech, finance, and business services sectors, according to the Economic Policy Institute, and the concentration of these jobs in some major cities has contributed to ballooning housing costs in those markets. Much of the workforce that can work remotely is also more able to afford moving than those on lower incomes working in the hospitality or retail sectors. If they choose not to report back to HQ in San Francisco or New York City, for example, that could potentially have an effect on the white-hot rental and real estate markets in those and other cities.

Data from Zumper, an online apartment rental platform, suggests that some of the priciest rental markets in the US have already started to soften. In June, rent prices for San Francisco’s one- and two-bedroom apartments dropped more than 9% compared to one year before, according to the company’s monthly rent report. The figures were similar in nearby Silicon Valley hotspots of San Jose, Mountain View, Palo Alto.

Six of the 10 highest-rent cities in the US posted year-over-year declines, including New York City, Los Angeles, and Seattle. At the same time, rents increased in some cheaper cities that aren’t far from expensive ones: “In our top markets, while Boston and San Francisco rents were on the decline, Providence and Sacramento prices were both up around 5% last month,” Zumper reports.

In San Francisco, some property owners have begun offering a month or more of free rent to attract new tenants, KQED reports, and an April survey from the San Francisco Apartment Association showed 16% of rental housing providers had residents break a lease or unexpectedly give a 30-day notice to vacate.

It’s still too early to say how much of this movement can be attributed to remote work, layoffs or pay cuts, but some who see this time as an opportunity to move are taking it.

Jay Streets, who owns a two-unit house in San Francisco, says he recently had tenants give notice and move to Kentucky this spring.

“He worked for Google, she worked for another tech company,” Streets says. “When Covid happened, they were on vacation in Palm Springs and they didn’t come back.”

The couple kept the lease on their $4,500 two-bedroom apartment until Google announced its employees would be working from home for the rest of the year, at which point they officially moved out. “They couldn’t justify paying rent on an apartment they didn’t need,” Streets says.

When he re-listed the apartment in May for the same price, the requests poured in. “Overwhelmingly, everyone that came to look at it were all in the situation where they were now working from home,” he says. “They were all in one-bedrooms and they all wanted an extra bedroom because they were all working from home.”

In early June, Yessika Patapoff and her husband moved from San Francisco’s Lower Haight neighbourhood to Tiburon, a charming town north of the city. Patapoff is an attorney who’s been unemployed since before Covid-19 hit, and her husband is working from home. She says her husband’s employer has been flexible about working from home, but it is not currently a permanent situation. While they’re paying a similar price for housing, they now have more space, and no plans to move back.

“My husband and I were already growing tired of the city before Covid,” Patapoff says.

Similar stories emerged in the UK, where real estate markets almost completely stopped for 50 days during lockdown, causing a rush of demand when it reopened. “Enquiry activity has been extraordinary,” Damian Gray, head of Knight Frank’s Oxford office told World Property Journal. “I've never been contacted by so many people that want to live outside London."

Several estate agencies in London have reported a rush for properties since the market opened back up, particularly for more spacious properties with outdoor space. However, Mansion Global noted this is likely due to pent up demand from 50 days of almost complete real estate shutdown, so it’s hard to tell whether that trend will continue.

There’s a wide world of speculation about the long-lasting changes to real estate caused by the coronavirus, but many industry experts say there will indeed be change.

In May, The New York Times reported that three of New York City’s largest commercial tenants — Barclays, JP Morgan Chase and Morgan Stanley — have hinted that many of their employees likely won’t be returning to the office at the level they were pre-Covid.

Until workers are able to safely return to offices, it’s impossible to tell exactly how much office space will stay vacant post-pandemic. On one hand, businesses could require more space to account for physical distancing; on the other hand, they could embrace remote working permanently, or find some middle ground that brings fewer people into the office on a daily basis.

“It’s tough to say anything to the office market because most people are not back working in their office yet,” says Robert Knakal, chairman of JLL Capital Markets. “There will be changes in the office market and there will likely be changes in the residential market as well in terms of how buildings are maintained, constructed, [and] designed.”

Those who do return to the office may find a reversal of recent design trends that favoured open, airy layouts with desks clustered tightly together. “The space per employee likely to go up would counterbalance the folks who are no longer coming into the office,” Knakal says.

There has been some discussion of using newly vacant office space for residential needs, and while that’s appealing to housing advocates in cities that sorely need more housing, Bill Rudin, CEO of Rudin Management Company, recently told Spectrum News that the conversion process may be too difficult to be practical.

"I don’t know the amount of buildings out there that could be adapted," he said. "It’s very complicated and expensive.

While there’s been tumult in San Francisco’s rental scene, housing developers appear to still be moving forward with their plans, says Dan Sider, director of executive programs at the SF Planning Department.

“Despite the doom and gloom that we all read about daily, our office continues to see interest from the development community – particularly larger, more established developers – in both moving ahead with existing applications and in submitting new applications for large projects,” he says.

How demand for those projects might change and what it might do to improve affordable housing is still unknown, though “demand will recover,” Sider predicts.

Johanna Flashman is a freelance writer based in Oakland, California.