One Year In, Pittsburgh’s Mobility Head Reflects On Creating An Accessible And Inclusive City

Nov 13, 2017

From a transportation perspective, Pittsburgh has a lot of challenges: narrow streets, steep hills and aging infrastructure that needs maintenance.

They’re challenges Karina Ricks is keen on tackling as she works to make the city safer and more accessible in her role as director of Pittsburgh’s Department of Mobility and Infrastructure, created in 2016.

90.5 WESA’s Margaret J. Krauss spoke with Ricks as she approaches her one-year anniversary on the job.

Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

MARGARET J. KRAUSS: I was listening to an interview that you did with the Institute of Transportation Engineers and you talked about continuous learning. Is that culture kind of new? Transportation seems like it's been static for a long time. This is a huge generalization, but we're in a period of significant upheaval in terms of what is becoming available and how our ideas of transportation are changing.

KARINA RICKS: So, I think maybe what might be new is a renewed emphasis on data-driven decision making and data-driven analysis. I think that we're also getting a new appreciation of innovation and technology and an understanding that the public sector will will rarely move quite as swiftly as the private sector is able to in those areas. And so partnership is the only way that we can really keep pace with what's happening in our industry.

KRAUSS: The city and Uber have come under criticism [for the way they partnered]. In terms of partnerships and moving them toward the public good, will it come down to ‘We own the right of way’ and so that’s our main leverage?

RICKS: It may come down to that. So, Uber, of course, is not the only transportation networking company out there. I think we sometimes use as shorthand for many of these different providers. Many of these providers have operated independently to the extent possible to the public agencies that govern their cities. Are perhaps not participating in the planning and upkeep of the rights-of-way that are essential, basically their operating platform. To the extent that other stakeholders and travelers in the rights-of-way do. With these innovations, we’re finding our way to work together.

But they provide a really important service and they do challenge us, particularly public transit authorities. They challenge us to up our game in providing a higher quality of service to travelers, to rethinking how we craft that service.

KRAUSS: Many people might not equate a robust transportation network with a socially just or equitable city. But why is that the case?

RICKS: What we know is that there are two types of mobility. Or when you look up mobility in the dictionary it will say mobility is both the freedom to move around and to get from place to place. But the second definition of mobility is that the ability to change one's economic status or social status. Transportation mobility, the ability to access different locations, is the single greatest factor in households ability to change their economic mobility.

I think there is a lot of wisdom in really talking that as the mission of this department. That the mission is to provide the kind of transportation or physical mobility services that are necessary to support the economic mobility aspirations of the city. And I know that that's something the mayor holds very dearly in his vision and something that I'm thrilled to be a part of trying to achieve here.

KRAUSS: I guess what would you keep in mind in terms of enabling a city that can attract more people?

RICKS: That's such an important question right now. Creating a city that we can really be inclusive, that we can maintain the population that's here today and welcome in new population means that we need to solve the equation on both sides.

We need to have adequate housing and adequate affordable housing. We need to have adequate transportation and affordable transportation that gets people to the jobs and the places that they need to go to so that they can arrive to those jobs on time so that they can do well in those jobs so that they can get a promotion and go to the next great job. This is really important to building, I think, a prosperous city.

By and large we really cannot put more single occupant vehicles on our roads. We are approaching capacity particularly in the peak hours. And if we do want to add 20,000, 50,000, 100,000 residents over the next few decades, we need to think about ways to travel differently and that means traveling in higher occupancy modes whether that's shared autonomous vehicles or more mass transit or more bicycling or walking. All of those modes take up substantially less roadway space than the single occupant vehicle.

There's a lot to do. It's a long list but really I think the focus is always on accessibility and safety, on the preservation of our system making wise investments with the public dollar. I think that Pittsburgh is really on its way up and I honestly can’t tell you how exciting it is to be in this city at this time and to be a part of all of this.