Recently, global engineering behemoth Arcadis released the Sustainable Cities Mobility Index report. In it, they examined 100 cities around the world to see how their urban transportation systems were functioning. The report grouped the ratings into three categories: People, Planet, and Profit. Overall, cities in Asia and Europe fared far better than North American cities, as public transportation is designed and encouraged on a broader scale than the car-centric United States.
Overall, Pittsburgh ranked 77 out of 100 cities detailed in the report. Here’s how the breakdown looked over the three categories and what could be done to improve the situation.
The People category looked at traffic fatalities, the user experience of the systems, the availability of the systems during the day and night, wheelchair access, and how systems interconnected with each other. In this category, Pittsburgh graded out poorly with a ranking of 85 out of 100. In front and behind of Pittsburgh in this category were Baltimore and Dallas, respectively.
There were many factors in each category, but at the end of the report they show the weights for each one. In People, modal split and access to transportation were two of the three most important factors. Tokyo and Seoul have nearly 50% of their daily trips completed by public transportation. Although not specifically mentioned in the report, I would hazard to guess that Pittsburgh’s split is more in the 20’s.
Pittsburgh was specifically mentioned in the report for having excellent wheelchair access across their systems, both with kneeling PAT buses and elevators at their subway stations. But what else can Pittsburgh do in this category?
I’ll take this moment to once again beat the drum for the Light Rail North concept that Steve DiMiceli and I developed and presented to then-Councilman Peduto and County Executive Fitzgerald. The North Hills is the growing population center of the region and a light rail could not only link these destinations in northern Allegheny County, but could also reach into Butler County to grab the suburbanites of Cranberry Township.
Pittsburgh and Allegheny County are moving forward on the Bus Rapid Transit system that will link the two economic engines of the region, the City of Pittsburgh and Oakland. I have my qualms with BRT, as I consider it to be an outdated mode of transit that will soon be obsolete, but I will acknowledge that at least something is being done to augment the public transit options in the City.
The Port Authority does offer ConnectCard, which is a smart card payment system that is easy to reload throughout the system, so hopefully that will continue to expand its usage as time moves forward. They could also improve wayfinding on the subway and bus system for passengers by showing where a particular vehicle is along its path using GPS milestones. This would be a relatively low-cost upgrade of the user experience.
The Planet category was focused on greenhouse gas emissions, access to bicycle infrastructure, congestion during commutes, air pollution, green space, and electric vehicle incentives. Pittsburgh was ranked 64 out of 100 in this one, with Beijing and Houston in front and back of them. That’s rather dubious company to be in, as both are smog-infused enviroscapes. Pittsburgh’s continued issue with air particulates is most likely what hurt their score here.
While I’m not a bicycle enthusiast myself, I do want to commend Mayor Peduto for the creation of the bicycle infrastructure in the downtown part of the City. Yes, it’s inconvenient for drivers on Penn Avenue and other parts at times, but if people want to ride their bikes to work and help save gasoline and congestion, I applaud them. The region is definitely coming up to speed on bicycle lanes, led by the great group Bike Pgh. Now if they’ll only obey the same traffic laws as motor vehicles.
I would like to see Pittsburgh step into the arena of electric vehicles and creating charging stations a little bit more. Again, that would be a low-cost way to control pollution, while still acknowledging that Pittsburgh is a car-centric city.
I did find it interesting that Arcadis referenced that large port cities were dinged in the rankings due to environmental pollution from all the ships. While Pittsburgh pales in comparison to large ocean and bay port cities, we are a large inland port city with our fair share of barge traffic that may have influenced the ranking.
The final category of Profit examined the city’s financial support to transportation, the affordability of it for the user, and the overall vision that the city had for urban transportation in the future. Number of trips taken by users was a heavily weighted factor, as well. Pittsburgh had its highest ranking at 54 out of 100, sandwiched between Bengaluru and Tianjian.
Using the U.S. Census 2016 update figures, the per capita income in Allegheny County is $33,830. An annual Port Authority pass is $1,072.50 (you essentially get one month free if you buy a whole year), so that represents 3.2% of an average person’s annual income. Obviously it is higher if you are making less than that, but there are discounts for students and seniors available. The Arcadis report says that in cities like Taipei and Wuhan, the percentage of annual income is 1.4 and 1.5%, which is why they graded out so well. This provides even more incentive to ride public transit.
Port Authority itself is not exactly flourishing financially and is constantly under threat of having a significant portion of its $241M of state aid cut. This is a large part of the reason that Port Authority is pursuing the cheaper upfront cost of BRT rather than light rail transit.
One of things that this region is woeful at is Transit Oriented Development. Port Authority, Urban Redevelopment Authority, and Allegheny County Economic Development should all pool their resources to develop plans to create transit routes that also include housing and commercial destinations. If people can walk to a bus, subway, or T stop, then that obviates a large part of the need to have a car in the first place.
A city that was not included in this report was Minneapolis. Last summer, my wife and I went up to Minneapolis for a long weekend. We rode their light rail from the Airport to our downtown hotel for $2.25 per person each way. That’s a complete bargain compared to a taxi. It was a smooth ride that took just 25 minutes. Their light rail drops passengers off at key employment locations between the Airport and Minneapolis (and the other way to St. Paul), plus key commercial and entertainment centers like where the Twins and Vikings play. This was probably a very helpful component in Minneapolis’s pitch to host the 2018 Super Bowl.
Pittsburgh needs a more robust public transit network. It needs to upgrade the existing, but also start to at least plan to create new avenues of public transit. The Bus Rapid Transit is a good start and I hope it is utilized, but more needs to be done to ensure that Pittsburgh does not fall behind the curve.