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. 

 
 
 
 

How can cities become more bike friendly? The Netherlands offers useful lessons

(Aurore Belot/AFP via Getty Images)

It might seem like cycling is in the DNA of the Netherlands, a country where even the prime minister takes his bicycle to work. But the Dutch haven’t always lived as one with their bikes. In the Amsterdam of the early 1970s, cars were considered the wave of the future. They can be seen filling up squares and streets in historical photographs, and killed an average of over two Amsterdammers per week, including many children.

It is nothing more than an “accident of history” that the Netherlands embraced cycling, says Marco te Brömmelstoet, the director of the Urban Cycling Institute in Amsterdam and a man better known as the city’s cycling professor. Today’s bike rider’s paradise was created after parents and activists took to the streets to protest “child murder” by car. A Saudi oil embargo, rising gas prices, concerns about pollution and anger about the destruction of entire neighbourhoods to build motorways did the rest. 


Amsterdam, 1958. Not a cyclist's paradise. (Keystone/Getty Images)

What’s important about this history is that it can be replicated in other cities, too. Of course, the Netherlands has certain advantages – it’s flat as a pancake, for example. But in the eyes of traffic reformers, the rise of e-bikes (and even cargo bikes) means there’s no excuse for prioritising cars everywhere. 

So how can cities, flat or not, follow Amsterdam’s path to creating places where cycling is a pleasant, safe and common way to get around? The Dutch have some tips. 

Separate bikes from car traffic

Any city could start painting dedicated bike lanes on the streets. But in the Netherlands, those white marks indicating space for cyclists are considered just a minor first step. 

“A line on the road is not enough. Motorists will ignore it,” says Frans Jan van Rossem, a civil servant specialising in cycling policy in Utrecht. If other cities want their residents to choose bikes instead of cars when dodging pandemic-era public transport, protecting them from fast-moving car traffic must be the priority, Van Rossem says. 

The Dutch research institute CROW developed a widely praised design manual for bicycle infrastructure, full of tips for creating these protected lanes: A row of vertical white posts or a curb can serve as a physical separator, for example. Still, cyclists tend to feel safest in a "solitary" path, separated from the road by grass, trees, or an elevated concrete island. 

“The main bottleneck, the main reason why people don’t cycle, is that they don’t feel safe,” Van Rossem notes. “To start, construct separate paths.”

Turn those bike paths into a network

Many cities may have some bike lanes on some streets, but leave cyclists to roll the dice everywhere else. Will conditions still be safe when they turn left or right? Often they have to continue their way without any protected facilities for cyclists. 

“In many cases, cities take fast action, without thinking it through very well,” says Lucas Harms. He leads the Dutch Cycling Embassy, a partnership between the Dutch government and several companies, which promotes Dutch bike knowhow globally. “Don’t build small pieces of bike lane from nothing to nowhere. Think about a network of cycling infrastructure.” 

Utrecht aims to have cyclists within 200 to 300 metres of a connected path anywhere in the city, Van Rossem says. Avoid constructing those paths in sketchy industrial areas, he warns. “A connection through an unattractive area may be fast, but won’t be used a lot.”

Embrace the ‘fietsstraat’, a street where bikes come first


On some streets, drivers have to give up their privileges. (Rick Nederstigt/AFP via Getty Images)

A peculiar Dutch invention called "fietsstraat" (cycling street) holds strong potential for the rest of the world, Kevin Krizek says. He’s a transportation professor from Colorado who spent three years at Radboud University in Nijmegen. 

On cycling streets, cars are “guests”, restricted by a speed limit of 30 kilometres per hour. Drivers are not allowed to pass, so cyclists comfortably dominate the road. In the Netherlands the fietsstraat is usually paved with red asphalt, to resemble a bike path and notify drivers of their secondary status. But creating a cycling street can be easy. “All you need to do is put signs at intersections,” Krizek says. The effect is revolutionary in his view. Drivers have to give up their privileges, and cyclists can take the lead. 

Some Dutch traffic experts worry the cycling street won’t work if a city doesn’t also have a robust cycling culture. In the Netherlands, drivers are aware of the perils of urban cycling because they too use bicycles. Moreover, Dutch cities use sophisticated “circulation plans” to direct cars away from city centres and residential areas, onto a few main routes. 

Without “calming” traffic this way, the cycling street could be a step too far, Harms says. “In a city like New York, where all roads are equally accessible and full, it’s better to separate bicycles and cars,” he says.

Redesign intersections for cyclists' safety

If cyclists have to cross intersections “at the mercy of the Gods”, you’re not there yet, says Harms. When he travels abroad, he often finds clumsily designed crossings. As soon as cars turn, cyclists may fear for their lives. 

Harms recommends placing physical barriers between cars and bikes in places where they must cross. The Dutch build elevated islands to direct traffic into separate sections. The golden rule: cars wait behind bicycles. That way, drivers can see cyclists clearly at all times. Barriers also force Dutch cyclists to turn left in the safest way possible. They cross the street first and wait for their turn again before making their way left.

“You can create that with simple temporary measures,” Harms says. Planters work fine, for example. “They must be forgiving, though. When someone makes a mistake, you don’t want them to get seriously injured by a flower box’s sharp edge.”

Professor Krizek points out how the Dutch integrated cycling routes into roundabouts. Some are small; some are big and glorious, like the Hovenring between Eindhoven and Veldhoven, where cyclists take a futuristic-looking roundabout lifted above the highway. Most of those traffic circles move high volumes of cars and cyclists through intersections efficiently and safely. For a simpler solution, the Dutch manual suggests guiding cyclists to quieter streets – crossing a block up or down may be safer. “Nobody knows how to do intersections better than the Dutch,” says Krizek. 

Ban cars, or at least discourage them


A man rides down from a three-level bicycle parking garage near Amsterdam's main train station. (Timothy Clary/AFP via Getty Images)

The quickest, most affordable way to make a city more bikeable is to ban cars, says Ria Hilhorst, cycling policy advisor for the City of Amsterdam. It will make streets remarkably safe – and will most likely enrage a significant amount of people. 

Amsterdam doesn’t outlaw cars, but it does deliberately make their owners feel unwelcome in the historic city’s cramped streets. Paid parking is hugely effective, for example. Many car owners decide to avoid paying and use bicycles or public transportation for trips into the city. Utrecht, meanwhile, boasts the world’s largest bicycle parking garage, which provides a dizzying 12,500 parking spots.

To further discourage drivers from entering the city’s heart, Amsterdam will soon remove more than 10,000 car-parking spaces. Strategically placed barriers already make it impossible to cross Amsterdam efficiently by car. “In Amsterdam, it is faster to cross the city on a bike than by car,” Harms says. “That is the result of very conscious policy decisions.”

Communicate the benefits clearly

Shopkeepers always fear they will lose clients when their businesses won’t be directly accessible by car, but that’s a myth, says Harms. “A lot of research concludes that better access for pedestrians and cyclists, making a street more attractive, is an economic boost.”

Try replacing one parking space with a small park, he recommends, and residents will see how it improves their community. Home values will eventually rise in calmer, bike-friendlier neighbourhoods without through traffic, Van Rossem says. Fewer cars mean more room for green spaces, for example.

“I often miss the notion that cycling and walking can contribute a lot to the city. One of the greatest threats to public health is lack of exercise. A more walkable and bikeable city can be part of the solution,” says Ria Hilhorst. “But in many countries, cycling is seen as something for losers. I made it, so I have a car and I’m going to use it, is the idea. 

“Changing this requires political courage. Keep your back straight, and present a vision. What do you gain? Tranquility, fewer emissions, health benefits, traffic safety, less space occupied by vehicles.” 

Again, she points to Amsterdam’s history. “It is possible; we were a car city too.”

Karlijn van Houwelingen is a journalist based in New York City.