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Advocates urge Gainey to take decisive action on transit in his first 100 days

Margaret J. Krauss
90.5 WESA
A bus makes slow progress through Shadyside on congested Centre Avenue. One element of the Pittsburgh 100 Days Platform would make it easier for buses to move through the city by giving them priority at stoplights.

While the Port Authority is a county agency, the city of Pittsburgh has enormous power to affect people’s experience of mass transit, and advocates are calling on Mayor-elect Ed Gainey to exercise that power within his first few months in office.

According to the U.S. Census, nearly a quarter of Pittsburgh residents do not have access to a private vehicle, and depend on public transit to get around. Transit is “an equity issue,” said Laura Chu Wiens, executive director of Pittsburghers for Public Transit.

“The city plays a really critical role in providing both the infrastructure and land use and planning decisions to ensure that transit is actually accessible and high-quality,” she said.

For the better part of a year, PPT has worked with riders, people with disabilities, older adults, planning professionals, and nearly 30 community groups to create the Pittsburgh 100 Days Transit Platform. It identifies 18 policy changes that Chu Wiens said are “achievable first steps” to improving people’s access to transit in the city. Broadly, the platform wants to see the Gainey administration act in the interests of people and not cars by creating and maintaining pedestrian and bike infrastructure and better regulating land use.

For instance, the coalition wants to see zoning and planning laws create greater density in the city by requiring less parking and more housing — particularly affordable housing — close to transit assets.

“It’s a justice issue,” said Peter Kaplan, the secretary for the Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network. The organization supports the 100 Day Platform because, Kaplan said, “Our faith traditions teach us that the divine spirit identifies with and seeks the flourishing of people who struggle under the weights of violence, slavery, poverty, social vulnerability, inequality of services.”

Pittsburgh has already missed several opportunities to link affordable housing with ease of travel, said Kaplan. He cited the housing built adjacent to the Martin Luther King Jr. East Busway when the East Liberty station was overhauled: While the project was dense and high-quality, all of the units were market-rate. Kaplan said the platform’s call for a citywide inclusionary zoning policy, which Gainey supported during his campaign, would help ensure “that kind of missed opportunity doesn’t happen again.”

“If transit works for everybody, it’s a more prosperous future for everybody,” Kaplan said. “A more accessible and free city for everybody.”

The 100-day agenda also addresses the concern that due to rising prices, many people are being pushed out of the city to areas where transit access is scarce.

“We need our city to plan for affordable housing and safe access to quality public transit to be located together,” said Carol Hardeman in a release from PPT. She directs the Hill District Consensus Group.

Other points in the platform focus on reducing specific barriers to using transit. For example, sidewalks feature heavily in the 16-page document, because “we have to make sure that we are even able to walk to our bus stops,” said Terri Minor Spencer, executive director of the community group West End P.O.W.E.R. Her biggest concerns are lighting and safety.

There are countless places in the city where the sidewalk hasn’t been fixed in decades, Minor Spencer said. She frequently sees people who use electric wheelchairs “in the street,” because the sidewalk is impassable. If Gainey and his administration take a sidewalk maintenance program seriously, she said, “It would help build pride in your community.”

Individual property owners are technically responsible for their slice of sidewalk, but Paul O’Hanlon, a member of the City-County Task Force on Disabilities, said it is the city’s job to make sure people actually maintain them. That becomes particularly important in the winter, when ice and snow make it difficult for people with disabilities to travel, or actively dangerous for older people.

“The city doesn’t want to enforce that duty [snow removal] and if they don’t enforce it, it doesn’t happen,” he said.

To aid with long-term maintenance, the plan calls for an expansion of the Snow Angels program — which organizes volunteers to shovel for seniors and others — to help audit sidewalks city-wide and provide a better sense of where problem areas are.

O’Hanlon also noted that some of the city’s most valuable real estate, sidewalks and streets, have been given over to private interests such as self-driving cars, sidewalk dining, and stand-on scooters — all of which can make the city harder to navigate.

“We’ve consistently created obstructions,” he said. “I just think that we haven’t really been protecting the infrastructure for the designated users.”

Something as simple as being able to wait for the bus out of the rain can also make a huge difference in choosing to use transit. And if people don’t have a choice, but must use transit, having a dry, comfortable place to wait dignifies the experience, said Chu Wiens. The platform calls to move bus shelters from abandoned stops to priority ones.

Bike Pittsburgh’s advocacy director Eric Boerer said investing in cyclist and pedestrian infrastructure and increasing density “contribute to making it easier to live without a car or car-light.”

The Pittsburgh 100 Days Transit Platform links improved transportation to realization of many of the city’s other goals, such as halving emissions and eliminating fatalities while people are traveling.

In a release, Gainey thanked the coalition for preparing the recommendations, and promised to review them with his team. In the coming months, he said, they plan to work with “PPT and other stakeholders to build a plan for local and regional transportation systems that meet the needs of every Pittsburgher.”

City Councilors Anthony Coghill, Deb Gross, Erika Strassburger, and Bobby Wilson also expressed their gratitude for PPT’s work, and an eagerness to work on transportation solutions.