Monday, October 14, 2013

If by "Bus Free Zone", You Mean...

by Vannevar Bush

On October 4th, the Post Gazette's wonderful Jon Schmitz wrote an article which performed a significant public service by shining light on a previously undisclosed process to change the nature of downtown public transit. The headline answered the what question: "Proposal will make Downtown Pittsburgh core totally bus-free" and the subhead answered the why question: "Overcrowding at bus stops frustrates business owners".

The article is really worth reading; it provides direct quotes from elected officials, and identifies the reasons for the changes. We note that Allegheny County Executive Fitzgerald talks about removing stops and removing queues from sidewalks in front of businesses; the presumptive next mayor, Peduto, talks about changing routes and implementing a circulator system. The business advocates talk about removing stops. The passenger in a wheelchair says, please don't remove my stop.

The response was a hue-and-cry. This post will address the article and the proposal as described in the article, along the lines of Noah Sweat's 1952 If By Whiskey speech; the next post will address the other side of the coin.

Focusing on the article is appropriate because it's written by a responsible journalist in a reputable paper; although some have said "there's more to the plan", nobody has offered a public view of the plan, and nobody has disputed the veracity or accuracy of the quotes or content; PAT has not released any documents related to the plan; and finally, there clearly is something underway that has been disclosed by the reporter and newspaper. So let it be said: well done, Mr. Schmitz and P-G.

The article, and ACE Fitzgerald's own words, suggest that the problem is clusters of people standing outside of downtown businesses on the sidewalk. Let's take that a bit further, let's extend that by asking: who is waiting outside in the rain for the bus, and who owns the downtown businesses?

Personally, I end up concluding that wealthier business interests don't like having queues of people of color standing outside their establishments. They'd like them to stand elsewhere, and guess what - moving the bus stops further out would accomplish just that.

And to me, that's exactly what that article reads like.

So those old people, the folks with a bum leg, the people carrying groceries home, the cleaning lady that's tired after a long day - they can walk another four blocks in the rain and the snow, because we don't want them lining up for their bus in front of the jewelry store or the boutique. Mind you, we want them to work, but do they have to stand here? Why can't they get cars, anyway, like everybody else?

This is racist and classist. Cities everywhere are adding public transit into downtown core areas. Not Pittsburgh - no, Pittsburgh is moving the bus stops out of downtown, because of the lines of people waiting for the bus. Unbelievable.

Fun fact1: The County (PAT, but in this administration the ACE) chooses the bus routes, but the City (Peduto) gets to set the bus stops, so it's a dance. Fitzgerald can change the route, but if Peduto doesn't agree then the busses can't stop.

Fun fact2: How many bus stops does the proposal remove? This is a map of downtown bus stops, the boundary of the bus-free zone as identified in a subsequent Post-Gazette article, and each stop that would be lost is numbered; all 48 of them. That's right; they intend to remove 48 bus stops.

If this proposal was driven by congestion - if that was the problem we were solving - the answer would be traffic calming, restrictions on trucks and large vehicles between 0600 and 1800, and more (rather than less) public transport. Each bus is 60 cars. We note that the proposal makes no impact on suburban bus stops (and their Anglo riders).

Eight days after the first PG article, a second article reported that the Bus Free Zone project has been underway for eighteen months, and although channels exist for public input none has been sought. Implementation is now on hold until the new mayor is seated in January.

So - if by "bus free zone", you mean moving queues of tired, poor, black and brown people away from the sidewalks in front of businesses, or away from the blocks where the comfortable walk between their conference rooms and their Starbucks, then this plan is dead in the water, and the people that advised you to do this are idiots.

On the other hand, if by "bus free zone", you meant something else - more about that in the next post.


  1. Van: I don't doubt that some individuals and interests seek to eliminate Downtown stops for classist and ugly reasons. That is certainly something which seems to happen in this world.

    But at the same time, I would not by any stretch say *all* sentiment we hear in favor of moving major stops from standard-width sidewalks in front of major retailers is ugly or class-based. Affluent white humans also take up space. A perpetual crowd milling on a standard-issue sidewalk is a nuisance -- and is no good for any pedestrians who seek to traverse it.

    Without pushing public transit patrons into the river, I think it's worthwhile to see if we can design / finagle more "intentional" places for them. On holiday here in Europe I've seen transit riders queued on islands in the middle of streets, for example... but I've seen much that wouldn't be easy to wave a wand and implement.

    I also want to stand up for the people saying, "There are too many stops." At the risk of losing half my following, in Munich and Amsterdam bus stops aren't nearly so frequent that they're "point to point". Persons, including the elderly and the disabled, definitely do ambulate a healthy handful of blocks to get to and from their stops. The key difference is, pedestrian infrastructure is quite a bit more reliable.... the slopes are wider and more gradual, the crosswalks are wider and more prominent, and the "walk" signals more frequent. If we're doomed to operate a public transit system in a Downtown with substandard pedestrian infrastructure, and therefore we're doomed for each individual route to stop each and every block, that does seem like an unfortunate state of affairs. It doesn't demand a simple solution but it does demand a good one, and I wouldn't dream of short-circuiting that conversation. So I'm looking forward to pt. 2.

  2. There are cities which limit buses in the city. Portland is one, the difference is that there is also a rail system to help people navigate within the city limits. If the buses all stop at the city limits, the T only goes on one direction. If you need to get from the Point to the Convention Center, that is one long walk for an ablebodied person, let alone a person with limited capabilities. Those of us who wait for the bus do not block access to the stores. Eliminating buses could actually have a negative impact on those shop owners. Less people waiting and window shopping means less impulse purchases. The assumption that the majority of bus riders are less than affluent is simply not true. Many people rely on public transportation to get to their job. I have a home, we own 2 vehicles but I take public transportation because it is economical and fairly convenient. Take away more of the convenience and more people will be clogging the roadways with their cars.

    1. Glad you brought up Portland. They have one of the most ideal small city solutions to downtown mass transit that I have ever seen. It's free and emmissionless and there's no chance that our local yinzercrat 'leaders' would understand nor implement it. They just don't have any money, because they let the UPMC's of the world exist tax free.

  3. Add more dedicated lanes, maybe some off-bus fare collection, homogenize the stops for more of the main routes, and so on--there is a lot of potential for a Downtown system that would be better overall for riders, easily enough to compensate for a few individuals being a tiny bit farther away from their closest stop (and I walk across Downtown twice each day to get back and forth from my work and stop--I realize I am not a worst-case scenario but Downtown really is quite compact).

    But I would absolutely oppose any system redesign that added a lot more transfers. Those are ridership killers.

  4. Create BRT style stops integrated with new development like subway. Reduce the localized environmental impact of buses (noise, pollution). Waiting for a bus and having a bus pass you should all be pleasant experiences, like a tram in Europe. Slim the buses down a bit. be innovative.

    A circulator can work if there are protected intermodal stops. This does not have to be all or nothing.

  5. Great post Bram, thanks. And thanks to Mr. Schmitz for getting out ahead of the usual community input process that normally occurs after everything is a done deal except for something innocuous like, perhaps in this case, the color of the new bus stop signs, which the public is allowed to choose from a color scheme selection of black and gold, gold and black, or municipal blue and white, to complement the existing street signage and confuse the commuters. Once a color scheme is selected, public officials are free to belligerently trumpet their transparency and responsiveness.

    1. All glory to Vannevar for writing this post, and thanks for chiming in.

  6. There already are some bus routes that do not enter downtown any further than Grant Street to the east or Penn Avenue to the north, for instance. Folks sometimes get off and hop onto another bus if they need to get further in another direction: that was the impetus several years ago of making the ride free within the downtown area. It's not very convenient, and didn't solve a lot of the problems, because there are not buses going from every Point A to every Point B. And even when there are, waiting for them while time ticks by is a tough prospect, versus walking and risking the wrath of the drivers who want to turn while the pedestrians also have the green light.

    When buses in general operated on more frequent schedules, there were fewer riders waiting for them at any given time. When we had trolleys (would that we could have them back now), there were islands on the street where riders waited. Yes, sometimes riders overflowed onto the sidewalk waiting for the streetcar to arrive. (And yes, we did have islands on some of these narrow streets.) Streetcars did not pull over to the curb, so the traffic issues they caused were different.

    Some of the problems caused now derive from addressable conditions, besides the reduced frequency. If an individual could take either a 58, a 61, or a 52, say, then those three buses - all heading generally east - should arrive and depart from at least one common stop downtown. This would distribute the load.

    Also, during rush hour the car traffic jams up all roads, and it generally is traceable to the highways, not the neighborhood roads. Again, we foolishly built highways right into and through our city. And only rarely can we jump off one highway and onto another if the traffic is jamming up.

    The highways are what should have gone around the city, not the buses and local traffic.

    I'll be eager to read the next post, too.