A City For All Requires Transit For All

Nov 2, 2017

Pamela Edwards leaves her house in Brushton every morning at 6:40 a.m. to catch her first bus.

While she waited for her second bus in East Liberty on a recent morning, she remembered a time when there were five different buses to catch in and out of the East End, whenever she needed them. 

Now there are two, and she said she makes sure the Port Authority knows how much she depends on them.

“If we don't complain, they're going to say, 'Oh, OK, there's nobody, there's no problem. We can eliminate that bus,'" she said. "And that's what I think a number of people have done. They had them eliminated because no one fought for the buses.”

Life involves a lot of traveling: to take kids to school, to get to work, to buy groceries, to see family, to see a doctor. For people who rely on public transit, those routine journeys can seem more like a series of timed obstacle courses—maybe the bus won’t arrive on time, maybe it’ll be so full it doesn’t even stop.

Edwards got rid of her car because it was too stressful to drive to her job at Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority downtown. But for a lot of people in Pittsburgh, owning a car isn’t even an option.

Transportation is the second biggest barrier to people in the Pittsburgh region being self-sufficient, according to a 2012 study from the Urban Institute. As some neighborhoods in Pittsburgh see more development and housing prices go up, it restricts where people can afford to live. That can push people out of their neighborhoods and further from transit hubs, said Linda Metropulos, director of housing and neighborhood development for ACTION-Housing.

“Being able to put housing next to really good public transportation is really important to the quality of life for those people who live in affordable housing,” she said. “Because it allows them to live without a car.”

Living without a car means life costs less, nearly 20 percent less. Putting affordable housing next to transit is still fairly uncommon, but more and more people are on board with the idea. There are two main ways to go about it: either bring transit to people or bring people to transit.

Bringing transit to people is expensive, especially in low-density areas. And the Port Authority of Allegheny County has limited resources. Ultimately, that means there’s a lot of pressure on people of low and moderate incomes, said Laura Weins, director of Pittsburghers for Public Transit.

“In ensuring that transit riders have access to transit, you also need to make sure that there’s a place for them to live near transit,” she said. “There should be mandatory affordable housing adjacent to good transit. That’s the answer."

That’s where transit-oriented development, or TOD, comes in. The idea is that transit assets like busways can drive investment in neighborhoods. The key is making sure that investment doesn’t displace people.

The Port Authority has adopted TOD guidelines, such as creating more walkable transit stations and mixed-income, mixed-use communities. But they can’t act alone, said Port Authority’s Interim Chief Executive Officer David Donahoe.

“None of this will happen independently because we don’t control zoning, we don’t control land use,” he said.  “All those things have to come from other folks.”

Some of those include the city and the county. Neither has yet adopted policies that protect affordability in changing neighborhoods, though they’re working on it.

Majestic Lane is Pittsburgh’s Deputy Chief of the Bureau of Neighborhood Empowerment. He said housing, transit and workforce development all have to work together.

“All this stuff is about how are people able to live their best lives? And how are the institutions coming together to create an ecosystem that works for people? So that they’re actually able to flourish in our region,” he said.

A committee working on a policy that could bring more affordable housing to transit hubs will make its presentation to Pittsburgh City Council in mid-November.

That would be good not just for people who depend on affordable housing or who have no choice but to take the bus; it’s good for people like Pamela Edwards too.

“I love buses. Buses are the best thing smoking,” she said. “You can meet everybody, of every class. And then you only see them for a short period of time.”

Edwards self-describes as nosy, but another way to put it is she notices people, and likes to talk with them. It’s fun, she said. She and her bus family take care of one another as they go.

Coverage of issues of social justice and racial and economic equity in Pittsburgh on 90.5 WESA is generously supported by the Heinz Endowments.