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Jeremy In Flight

I'd rather take the bus, but Pittsburgh's public transit is doing its best to convince me to drive

And now for something completely different.

When I started blogging here, the point was to give myself a space where I could think through issues specifically related to information, design, and technology. But to paraphrase Ben Folds, today I have the urge to get on the microphone and talk about some shit that’s been on my mind … and it has nothing to do with UX.

The other week, I was hired for a freelance job as an information architect, my first such gig out of graduate school. (Huzzah!) I’m working for an agency called Mind Over Media, and if you’re not familiar with them, their offices are in Pittsburgh’s Strip District near the Downtown. As soon as I realized I’d be commuting to the Strip at least a couple times a week for the next few months, I thought of how hellish this city’s traffic can be around its bridges and tunnels, and I decided to try taking the bus.

Now, as a University of Pittsburgh student, all my rides on city buses were free (at least “free” in that Pitt subsidized them with my tuition dollars). With my master’s degree in hand, however, that was over. I paid $2.50 for a one-way ride Downtown, then an extra $1.00 for a transfer ticket to a route that would take me up to the Strip. Returning home, I paid the same fares. And it was at this point I crunched the numbers, and I was stunned to realize how overwhelmingly the math suggested I should never take a bus in Pittsburgh again.

I figure my round-trip commute is about 12 miles by car. I also have a sense of my Honda Civic’s fuel efficiency, and I’m taking into account current gas prices of roughly $3.50 per gallon. So, here are my choices:

  • If I drive, each round trip to and from work will cost me $1.62.

  • If I take the bus and buy tickets per ride, my round-trip commute costs $7.00, more than 4 times more expensive than driving.

  • If I take the bus and buy a weekly -or- monthly pass, and only if I make that commute at least 5 times per week, each round-trip would cost me about $5.00, still 3 times more expensive than driving.

It’s worth noting here that the way the Port Authority of Allegheny County has established its fare system, the average commuter who rides the buses to and from work 5 days a week stands to save absolutely nothing by purchasing a weekly pass. And the savings of a monthly pass are negligible.

This is incredible, and it is absurd. Yes, someone who rides the buses every day for everything stands to benefit from lower costs per ride. But many within that ridership demographic are taking the buses no matter what. Often, it may be the case they have no choice. If Pittsburgh is going to have a healthy public transit system, it needs the people who are on the fence, who could drive but instead choose not to.

For that decision to happen, the Port Authority must convince these Pittsburghers that public transit is not only worth their money but also their time and energy. Spectacularly, it’s doing the exact opposite — proving its transportation to be an expensive pain in the ass. As the Post-Gazette reported in 2013, the authority increased fares three times in five years  (making Pittsburgh’s among the highest in the country) and recently it twice cut its service routes by 15 percent. In other words: more expensive fares, fewer ways of getting around, longer commutes, more waiting, more hassle. No wonder ridership is at an all-time low.

Pittsburgh’s public transportation is chasing away would-be customers, and it is burdening the low- to middle-income people who need it most. According to the American Public Transportation Association, two-thirds of Americans who take public transit have household incomes below $50,000. If we’re not including rail and only talking about buses — which is Pittsburgh’s primary mode of public transportation — it’s closer to 75 percent of riders with household incomes below the national median.

For my part, I really want to take public transit. I like not having to worry about parking or driving, I prefer to save the mileage on my car, and I love urban life and believe public transportation is vitally important to a city’s overall well-being. But still, I need at least two of the three variables in the money-time-hassle equation to balance in my favor. I’d be willing to accept a commute that’s longer by bus … if it were also comparably expensive and less stressful. But if taking the bus eats up more of my time, adds hassle to my day, and on top of that it’s also significantly more expensive, then why shouldn’t I reach for my car keys?

Granted, there are many, many facets to this issue that I haven’t even begun to address. There are the additional costs of driving, such as parking and traffic and car maintenance. There are the arguments concerning the economic benefits of investing in public mass transit, which I’m fairly sure work in its favor as an asset, but lord knows it’s never that simple. And there’s also the acknowledgement that the Port Authority of Allegheny County does indeed have a wicked budget problem on its hands. I don’t know the answer. What I do know is that I see other cities somehow making it work, and their governments, their economies, and their people are benefiting. Pittsburgh needs to make it work, too.

Jeremy BurtonComment