Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Pod or bust for me

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So we learn the state of planning (pre-planning might be better description) of improvements to transit between Downtown and Oakland, arguably the busiest travel corridor in the region if counting people.  PG Roundabout: How 'rapid bus' might look in Oakland

We learn that that the nation's über transportation consultant, Parsons Brinckerhoff, is working on a bus rapid transit type improvement.  Funny thing is, just a couple years ago the talk was about a Personal Rapid Transit system along that corridor. Was all that considered and rejected? I missed that news story along the way possibly.  Or is there a plan for PRT still in the works?  Hard to tell from the pittsburgh-oaklandconnector.com web site.  Personal Rapid Transit (or PRT) you ask?  What they have at West Virginia University and that which is the remaining legacy of...   SKYBUS!

Why does it matter?  There happens to be new research out of Ohio State that looks at the state of metropolitan transportation planning in America and how it impacts regions.  For us the summary: "...transportation sustainability declined more quickly than average over those years in such cities as Pittsburgh and New Orleans".  Pittsburgh is listed among the "Cities that lost the most ground in transportation sustainability".  Yes, we are moving backwards. 

Parsons Brinckerhoff, by the way, really is the über consulting firm for transit and transportation across the nation and going back a long time.  For Pittsburgh it was Parsons Brinckerhoff that put together the rosetta stone known as the 1967 Allegheny County Rapid Transit Study .  That and other seminal pieces of the city and region's transit policy history are on my Pittsburgh Transportation Bibliography. I do need to update it and I recently acquired a copy of the 1951 Mass Transportation Study of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County.  (yes, that the type of thing I am goober enough to buy on Ebay when I find them).  But I still need to scan it. 

Why does it matter part 2? So plenty of folks take issue with my position criticizing the abandonment of all future rapid transit development in the region.  Rapid transit by most definitions means underground, subway, elevated railway, metro or metropolitan railway  By that definition  "Bus Rapid Transit" is arguably an oxyomoron technically. I think some are exhausted by the North Shore Connector debate. I do appreciate the cost issues involved.  Still at the end of the day there are some clear examples of how new rapid transit can impact communities in ways there are far fewer examples of similar impacts of bus routes (whether 'BRT' or not).

For example, see the latest research looking at what has happened in specific District of Columbia neighborhoods.  and no, I appreciate the greater complexity of neighborhood development, but I just don't see how you escape the impact of rapid transit lines.  In DC and the Green Line example mentioned there is an extreme case.  Long ago before the line was even begun I and some friends almost rented a house in DC that wound up being right next to where a new station was slated to go in.  Let's just say that the house next door from what we were looking at had a true growing up through the house.  Not intentional either. Now the same real estate must cost a fortune. 

So we can have that debate, but I will throw this out there.  I bet the usage of the North Shore connector is higher than many expected.  It also represents the hardest part of getting rapid transit over to the other side of the river.  Why do the hard part and stop there? Is it time to talk about extending transit to some of the fastest growing parts of the region in the North Hills and Southern Butler County?  Yes, I said it.  Rapid transit to Cranberry!   Anywhere but Pittsburgh it would be normal to at least debate the need to get rapid transit to the fastest growing part of the region. 


Blogger Benjamin Robinson said...

The Washington DC link is really interesting...especially with the fact that my brother actually lives near the Columbia Heights Metro station. Here's a pretty cool timeline about how the expansion of the metro in DC coincided with some significant economic development.


Tuesday, October 02, 2012 9:22:00 PM  
Anonymous MH said...

Anywhere but Pittsburgh it would be normal to at least debate the need to get rapid transit to the fastest growing part of the region.

I don't go that way much, but it seems that Cranberry has very rapid transportation by car right up until you reach Pittsburgh. I know that going from the eastern suburbs, you have a great deal of congestion in the last few miles. It seems to me that if the people coming in from the fastest growing parts of our region are getting slowed down at the end of their trip because that traffic is being added to the local traffic, the most cost effective way to reducing travel time and cost for everybody involved is to focus on transit for the closer-in areas. Because the distances are shorter, the same dollars can keep more people off the road and cut traffic for those who drive.

Wednesday, October 03, 2012 10:23:00 AM  
Anonymous BrianTH said...

Of course it is more exciting to contemplate transit driving new development, but I think there is a strong case to be made for your top new transit priorities being properly serving existing needs. And the fact that there is currently no rapid transit into Oakland at all is a huge anomaly from an overall system design perspective. Oakland is the second-most important CBD in the region, it is surrounded by dense residential neighborhoods, it is only accessible by congested roads, it has nowhere near enough parking . . . in my view Oakland represents far and away the most glaring unmet rapid transit need in the entire region.

Of course the basic story of what happened is that the subway from Downtown to Oakland that we should have built sometime in the last 100 years or so never got done. That story has had many twists and turns over the decades, but the basic problem remains at this point that we still don't have a way to fund it, and likely won't without significant political and policy changed at the state and federal level (I don't really know what happened with the Oakland Connector, but I am going to guess a private partner did not magically appear to provide such funding).

Nonetheless, it still makes sense, so we should still be viewing that subway as a long-term goal. That said, even such a subway really isn't a comprehensive solution to Oakland's rapid transit needs.

This BRT plan appeared a bit in the later stages of the Eastern Corridor Transit Study process, but really got advanced in the Transit Development Plan, known there as "Rapid Bus". And its chief virtue is not the way it would serve Downtown to Oakland, but the way it would upgrade the fan of core routes that collect people from throughout the East End and points further east and bring them into Oakland. And that is something BRT is actually uniquely good at: it will allow upgraded service not just to, but also all the way through, Oakland, all without transfers. And that is because all these Rapid Bus routes could share the same infrastructure in the Oakland corridor.

Again, I realize that's not a really sexy transit project, in part because won't be inspiring visions of massive amounts of new transit-inspired development. But it is very much needed now (long since past needed, in fact), and will likely remain a valued system component even in the hypothetical future in which Oakland gets other, sexier, rapid transit (at some unknown point in the uncertain future).

Wednesday, October 03, 2012 11:01:00 AM  
Anonymous BrianTH said...

By the way, I apparently stopped responding in that older thread, but two quick points:

1) My main bus route is the P71, which goes through my neighborhood (Regent Square), then hops on the East Busway in Wilkinsburg for the ride Downtown. Chris cited the opposition of some local NIMBYs to the Busway as proof the local residents would never ride the bus, but the P71, and many other routes like it going through similar neighborhoods, is evidence to the contrary (and note the P71 has survived all the cuts, in part because during the TDP study it was determined to have solid ridership, although they did merge two routes in the process). And again, that is what BRT is uniquely good at--I don't need to take a shuttle bus to a hypothetical East Railway to make a transfer, but instead can get on a single bus a block from my house that will take me all the way Downtown without a transfer.

2) Chris in the other thread was asking for success stories in the U.S. of such an approach, and seemed to reject NY as a whole because it has a lot of rail riders. But that doesn't seem on point to me: just because rail also has lots of applications in place like NY doesn't mean "BRT" has had no success there when appropriate.

And in fact one of the biggest "BRT" success stories in the entire world, particularly of the kind I am describing (congestion-bypassing collector-bus corridors), is in NY: the Lincoln Tunnel Exclusive Bus Lane. And if you are looking for an example of such a project that experienced robust ridership growth, and compares favorably with rail-based commuter services, then there you go:


"The XBL has enjoyed tremendous growth over the years. At the end of its first full year of operation in 1971, the lane accommodated approximately 206,000 buses, and 8.7 million passengers. By contrast, in 2009, the XBL averaged 1,791 daily buses, which translates to nearly 450,000 buses, and almost 16.5 million passengers for the year. During the weekday morning peak period, the XBL carries more commuters into Midtown Manhattan than PATH, Penn Station commuter rail, or ferries each carry during the same period."

So, no, there is not something so inherently inferior about such an approach that it can't work in the United States. It is working in NY, and in fact it is working along the East Busway, and I think there is every reason to believe it would work in Oakland. Just don't confuse it with a subway, because it is a different sort of thing with different virtues, suitable for addressing different needs.

Wednesday, October 03, 2012 11:51:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow, lots of great discussion here. I agree with BrianTH on almost everything: the EBT is an incredible boon to the PAT system. Most east end neighborhoods are within walking distance of an EBT stop and can get downtown in a matter of minutes. If the EBT ever goes, so does A LOT of ridership (the 71/60ish routes are fine, but take forever once they hit Oakland proper).

Regarding the T.

1. At minimum, at MINIMUM we need some sort of improved transit to the airport. Imagine stops in Robinson, Settler's Ridge, etc. Everyone that ever visits Pittsburgh always asks why the hell the airport is so far away and why transit it so bad.

2. Why did the T go to the Casino and not up through AGH? This is a serious question. Ever tried to walk to the AGH area from downtown? There's a SINGLE narrow, sketchy overpass to walk through, uphill, all the way to the North Side.

I think Cranberry is a stretch (my gut says a Canonsburg-Washington T extension is a better idea). A pipe dream for a city that has absolutely NO long term vision concerning transit development. No vision. At all.

Those are my thoughts. God bless the EBT.

Wednesday, October 03, 2012 2:11:00 PM  
Anonymous BrianTH said...


In answer to your #2:

In the 1990s PAT was planning for something then called the Spine Line, which would have been a subway from Oakland through Downtown to the North Side. The route on the North Side would have gone north past the highways and into the heart of the North Side.

Control of Allegheny County then changed hands to two Republican Commissioners, Larry Dunn and Bob Cranmer. They fired most of PAT's Board, and then their people on the Board killed off the Spine Line, citing in part the complaint that it was too much of a City-oriented project.

But then they brought forward a new proposal for the North Shore Connector. The NSC didn't include the Oakland branch, and it was redirected to go along the river, for service to the then-in-planning sports and entertainment venues.

That change made it less of a "City" project and more of a "suburb" project (the theory being suburbanites would be more likely to use it for access to the future sports and entertainment venues, and suburban commuters could also use the North Shore lots for parking during weekdays). Finally, it was also sold as a possible start toward getting to the airport, although that never made much sense (you are starting on the wrong side of the Ohio River), and subsequent studies have indicated it would be difficult to justify the cost of such a project.

Wednesday, October 03, 2012 2:29:00 PM  
Anonymous BrianTH said...

By the way, if I was going to extend the NSC, I would extend it a stop or two into Manchester. Again, maybe not so flashy as an extension to the airport or Cranberry, but it would likely provide a lot of ridership-for-the-buck, and in fact could encourage some development of the infill sort.

Wednesday, October 03, 2012 2:33:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


I had indeed heard the plan to extend the T to the airport from the north shore, and I agree, that makes no sense to me since you have to cross the river TWICE.

I'd agree on the Manchester point, even taking it up to Bellevue, close to the river, maybe to grab some of the McKees Rocks folks.

Nice far-sighted plans we've laid out here. Then again, we aren't politicians.

Wednesday, October 03, 2012 2:45:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Also, the HOV lane is so damn under-utilized, it seems like its begging to be turned into something better. But North Hills suburbanites tend not to use transit, since, as previous commenters noted, the traffic does move pretty smoothly into the city from the north (Route 28 "temporary" construction aside, which when completed, will open that corridor up even further).

Wednesday, October 03, 2012 2:49:00 PM  
Blogger C. Briem said...

I just will add my version on the demise of the Spine Line. I think too much is made of local politics in how that all played out. In 1994 the change in power in congress really lead to money for big ticket transit drying up and can be tied pretty directly to the demise of Spine Line. So no matter what Larry and Bob did there wasn't going to be money anyway. NSC connector part of the project only survived because of concerted efforts of Santorum and Specter. Politics can be so odd.

Wednesday, October 03, 2012 5:08:00 PM  
Anonymous BrianTH said...

A lot of the local House of Reps delegation also pitched in, and with Santorum and Specter that ended up being a large number of Republicans lobbying a Republican White House for a project designed by Allegheny County Republicans to serve their constituencies in the suburbs. And of course the suburbs of Pittsburgh were perceived at the time to be a major swing area in state and federal elections.

So maybe the politics really weren't so odd. At least not until you fast forward to future Republicans using the NSC as a prime example of wasteful government spending, apparently forgetting who planned, lobbied for, and ultimately funded it.

Anyway, I agree when trying to imagine counterfactual alternatives in which the Spine Line gets funded, you have to include all these levels of government, so you have to imagine not just that the Democrats retain control of Allegheny County, but probably also at least that Gore wins the White House in 2000, and perhaps the Democrats get more local House districts as part of a Democratic majority, and get Santorum's Senate slot, again as part of a Democratic majority in the Senate. And even then, there are enough veto points for the minority at the federal level it might still have been stopped.

But holding aside hypothetical scenarios in which the Spine Line gets done, if you just want to explain why the NSC goes along the North Shore instead of the into the North Side, then you can stick with what actually happened.

Thursday, October 04, 2012 7:21:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

One more anecdote on Spine Line death: Squirrel Hill merchants, having seen what downtown looked like during the subway construction said "no way" to digging up Forbes for a few years.

On crossing the river twice to get T to airport: I heard it explained that a second river crossing would be no more expensive than dealing with the capacity issues that having all the traffic come from the south would. Makes some sense to me, as you'd want to balance the loads going in and out of the subway in town and two/three lines out the north end of the subway would balance the service to the south - doing the aiport from the south end leaves you with 4 lines terminating / turning at Allegheny Sta.

On extending T to North Side: look at some of the NSC project maps, there's a red arrow coming off the line in the general direction of the Norths Side, right before the PNC Park station. If you look closely before turning into the station when riding outbound, you'll see a stub of a junction there (signal is mounted on a stand there, not on a wall) where there is room for trackwork to a future extention to the Northside. Would love to see that built from there, through the northside and up the HOV lanes someday.

Thursday, October 04, 2012 9:19:00 AM  
Anonymous BrianTH said...

That capacity issue doesn't make much sense to me, because the pre-existing portion of the T is nowhere close to even half of its infrastructure's maximum capacity.

And of course if you wanted to give it an alternative terminus, you could always do Oakland--which brings the discussion full circle.

Thursday, October 04, 2012 12:14:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

@BrianTH -

That's interesting as the person I talked with indicated that the downtown portion of the system had very little capacity to give. That comported with something I had read (must have been the '93 Spine Line study) that noted issues with the subway's rush period capacity with additional lines from the South / East entering the subway.

Of course with the two-car trains now being run and the service reductions since 1993.... maybe there is more room than I was led to believe.

Thursday, October 04, 2012 12:27:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Brian's citation of the xbl is interesting. it says the buses carry more people into midtown manhattan "During the weekday morning peak period." this seems to be very key to the claim. in fact, penn station handles 600,000 per day which is obviously well in excess of the 16.5 million rides the bus lane is claiming (in fact, it may well handle the same volume of the xbl in a five week period). perhaps they simply meant the njt portion? that's still 276k per day, also well in excess of the stated number. you guys are the numbers geniuses but it seems to indicate that with bus, despite all the benefits brian sings, sees an enormous dropoff in ridership between a narrowly defined peak and off peak. that rail must have much stronger off peak ridership. perhaps that's the case, people love the busway at rush hour but those same people don't consider using transit for other needs. fwiw, I believe penn station ridership is upwards of 160 million annually.

Saturday, October 06, 2012 10:32:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

really busway vs rail is a question of volume, railways, with the greatly reduced friction, can simply move more people per labor hour and provide greater value for long term capital dollar. of course, if you don't have the volume, you've bought something you don't need. briem is correct is wondering why it's a good idea to simply leave the nsc as it is when the expensive tunneling has been done and significant excess capacity exists. it is my understanding that the tunnel was designed with the idea a spur might one day operate headed due north or northeast. this has no bearing on whether a $20 million investment in improving bus service is worthwhile.

Saturday, October 06, 2012 10:52:00 PM  
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