Mayoral Candidates Tackle The Future Of Pittsburgh Transportation

May 4, 2017

How Pittsburghers get from one place to the next can be a controversial topic. As the city continues to develop, mayoral candidates are considering strategies big and small to make local transit infrastructure work for everyone, including cyclists.

Pittsburgh’s bike lanes have an outsized reputation in the city, despite the fact that they actually take up very little space. Bike lanes and shared lanes coexist with cars on just 13 percent of the city’s 1,000 plus miles of streets. But talking to mayoral candidates, one could be forgiven for thinking bike-lanes are everywhere.

“Bike lanes are a nice option, but they have to be appropriately placed,” said candidate Rev. John Welch. “In many such sections in the city of Pittsburgh they are not appropriately placed, which leads to safety issues for the cyclists and for motorists that are parked on the side of the road.”

Incumbent Mayor Bill Peduto, who has expanded on the previous administration’s introduction of bike lanes, said in fact, the lanes make streets safer and he gets knocked for advocating for them every day.

“But, you know, what the people who beat me up are the same ones that hate to drive in a lane of traffic with a bike in front of their car,” Peduto said. “In providing the bike lanes, it makes it not only safer for the cyclists, but it makes it safer for the person driving the car separating them and building it out. That's why cities around the world are doing it.”

That might be news to candidate and City Councilwoman Darlene Harris, who was allegedly caught on a video honking at a cyclist and demanding he stay in a bike lane on East Street. East Street, on the north side, does not have a bike lane.

Harris said one of the problems with the Peduto administration is that it doesn’t study the issues and it doesn’t take public input into account. She insisted it’s happened with bike lanes and with Bus Rapid Transit, or BRT.

“The big thing that this administration doesn't do is they do not include the community in any conversation,” Harris said. “They make the plans, they decide what they want to do and they start going forward whether the community likes it or not.”

In reality, there have been dozens of community meetings and traffic studies surrounding bike lanes, light rail, the Port Authority’s routes and BRT. According to Peduto, the problem isn’t a lack of community engagement, but a lack of money.

“Our roads, our bridges, you know, we're still decades behind where we should be,” Peduto said. “Back in 2014, we put $7 million in paving budget. This year we'll have $15 million – we’ve more than doubled it. But it's still not enough.”

Welch agreed the situation is less than ideal and noted that Pittsburghers are paying a steep price for what he said is a subpar transit system. He pointed out at a $2.50 base price, riders pay some of the highest prices for public transit in the country.

“Making it affordable is a priority for me,” Welch said. “There are still areas within the city of Pittsburgh that does not have efficient transportation because the bus routes don't run on weekends or the frequency is not really near where they need to be. And so if we're paying the high premium that we're paying for public transportation, we need to find a way to get further state subsidies to lower those costs.”

The price for keeping the city’s transit arteries running smoothly is steep, from bus infrastructure and labor costs, to resurfacing roads, and rehabbing moldering bridges. To that end, Welch and Peduto see potential in public-private partnerships.

“We need to leverage the relationship with private investors, corporations, venture capitalists or whomever to invest in making sure we have a nice transportation infrastructure,” Welch said.

Peduto put an emphasis on the public side of the partnership.

“I only favor public-private partnerships when they're written by the public,” he said. “So there are numerous examples of public-private partnerships that have failed because they were written by banks in order to look at the rate of investment and what the return would be.”

But Harris is skeptical of handing control and profits to outside entities and opposes the idea.

“Actually, I don't believe in any kind of outsourcing at all,” Harris said.

She said her transportation strategy is simple and straightforward.

“Well, that would be totally up to the communities,” she said.

Harris said she believes each neighborhood knows best what it needs, and transportation decisions should be based on those needs. Welch takes a different tack, and sees flaws with an approach - which he pegs on Peduto – that’s piecemeal.

“Pittsburgh is a tight city. First of all we need to have a comprehensive transportation strategy. We don't have that,” said Welch. “We're looking to drop in a bus rapid transit system without really addressing it within the context of a wider transportation strategy which I think is a problem. I don't like these one off solutions that we're seeing right now.”

Peduto’s approach might be better summed up as many-off solutions. His first term in office has seen the introduction of the Healthy Ride bike rental program, the use of city streets for Uber’s development of autonomous vehicles, a push for BRT, additional bike lanes and a complete streets plan. If he’s re-elected, Pittsburghers can likely expect more of the same, the second time around.

Correction: An earlier version of this story reported Peduto said the city  put $7 billion in the paving budget in 2014 and $15 billion this year. In fact the city had put in $7 million and $15 million, respectively.