How widening Bates Street in Pittsburgh's Oakland neighborhood could impact development projects
On a recent Friday, longtime Oakland resident Andrea Boykowycz stood alongside the northern end of Bates Street in the midafternoon — well before rush hour but right around the time when shifts change at the nearby hospitals. Already a long line of cars queued up on the two-lane street, which has become a critical gateway to the state’s third-largest job center – and a headache for almost anyone who relies on it.
“There are a lot of problems with traffic coming into Oakland up Bates Street,” Boykowycz said. “But those are not problems that widening Bates would necessarily solve.”
Almost everyone agrees with the first half of that sentiment. Pre-pandemic, more than 90,000 commuters and visitors streamed into Oakland every day, and many of them arrived by way of Bates, which runs three-quarters of a mile from the Boulevard of the Allies to Second Avenue and a partial interchange with the Parkway East. Solving the congestion problem on Bates “is a real need for this community to move forward,” said Rich Fitzgerald, Allegheny County Executive.
“Bates was never designed to be a major connector to an interstate,” said Cheryl Moon-Sirianni, director of PennDOT’s District 11. “As the development in Oakland grew … the traffic, obviously, utilizing Bates Street has grown significantly.”
But while everyone agrees Bates is a problem, there’s much less consensus on exactly how to improve the situation.
This year, PennDOT will study how best to widen the road, and in a separate review, whether to improve connections to I-376. The agency has $2 million to study how best to overhaul Bates; whether that expansion would include one or two additional lanes will depend on the results of the study, Moon-Sirianni said.
The hope of improvement comes as welcome news to Mavis Rainey, executive director of the Oakland Transportation Management Association. But she noted that Bates is part of a large network of critical connections, so planning for its future must be done carefully.
“This is going to impact everybody,” she said. “We can’t just build a road and walk away.”
‘Things over people’
The state has been trying to address the Bates chokepoint for years. But an infrastructure package passed by Congress and President Joe Biden last year means there’s finally money for Bates and other work deemed “projects of regional significance.”
But Oakland resident Boykowycz – who is also assistant director of the Oakland Planning and Development Corporation – worries that even if two additional lanes were added to Bates, drivers would still hit gridlock on narrow residential streets as they move into the neighborhood’s center. And already, the demand for parking spaces has created a lucrative cottage industry in which property owners pave over their backyards to sell as parking spaces.
“Oakland real estate really favors things over people,” Boykowycz said.
She is concerned that the pattern will only worsen as Oakland continues to grow. That would lead to higher emissions, more stormwater runoff, and an acceleration of the ongoing loss of green space in the neighborhood. In addition, if existing in Oakland without a parking space seems untenable, future housing developers will have to build lots of them, which makes housing more expensive.
Still, Boykowycz is not opposed to widening Bates — if it means setting aside a lane just for buses.
“Could we run meaningful transit into Oakland from Second Avenue, from the Mon Valley?” she wondered. “That would make it worth it.”
Otherwise, widening Bates doesn’t so much solve the traffic problem as entrench it, said Laura Chu Wiens, executive director of Pittsburghers for Public Transit.
“There’s this phenomenon of induced demand which is that by adding lanes for single occupancy vehicles, that traffic actually increases to fill new capacity, which means that there’s only an increase in emissions, and the same slow connection problem in the corridor.”
That’s not an entirely new concern. Before the pandemic 15,000 to 20,000 cars traveled the corridor each day, and more than 80 percent of them carried just one person. State and local officials recognized that congestion could limit Pittsburgh’s growth, and commissioned a study to look at alternatives.
Released in 2019, that report from the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission examined who travels through the corridor, and provided recommendations on how to better respond to current demand, as well as prepare for the future. In particular, the study laid out a series of options to reduce reliance on single-occupancy vehicles.
The analysis found that much of the traffic originated in the city’s southern neighborhoods and the South Hills, places with fewer options for direct bus travel. While the study’s authors suggested a number of ways that bus service could better serve those areas, they did not identify Bates Street as a potential route, even though it’s one of the few direct north-south connections into Oakland. In fact, the study’s only mention of mass transit on the road reads, “Buses currently cannot travel up Bates.”
A number of people interviewed for this story echoed that claim, ascribing it to the road’s steep grade, or the space required to turn onto Second Avenue and the Boulevard of the Allies. But buses can, and do, use Bates, said Amy Silbermann, Port Authority’s director of planning and service development. However, no buses are scheduled to run regularly on Bates because congestion makes timing so unreliable.
A bus-only ramp could finally address that problem. Moon-Sirianni of PennDOT said the effort to study and redesign Bates Street is in its very early days, but all modes of travel will be considered.
If “Port Authority, Allegheny County and the City of Pittsburgh … would like a lane for bus rapid transit, then we would look to see how to build that.”
Transit advocates say it’s crucial to focus on that approach now.
An eye on the future
That’s because the other end of Bates connects with Second Avenue and what county executive Fitzgerald calls “some of the fastest-growing and desirable areas in the region”: the Pittsburgh Technology Center, Hazelwood, and Hazelwood Green.
Neither Hazelwood nor Hazelwood Green are likely to reach their full density for another 10 to 15 years. But the latter is expected to draw thousands of people who will work, live, and play on the 178-acre former steel mill site, and it’s always been talked about as a kind of next frontier in local development, a place people would go to mostly without cars.
But late last year, the site’s owners — a group of foundations known as the Almono Partners — and developers received approval to add thousands more parking spaces. They say it’s temporary, until there’s enough demand to support other options.
Chu Wiens of Pittsburghers for Public Transit worries that expansion could limit transit choices permanently – if it’s coupled with a decision to widen Bates just for cars.
“We should be planning for the type of transportation we want to see people taking,” she said. “If you plan for roads that are primarily intended to serve single-occupancy vehicles, that's what you’re going to get.”
Sonya Tilghman, executive director of the Hazelwood Initiative, disagrees. Even if Bates were to be widened without a bus lane, she said, “Its capacity has a limit. I don’t think its capacity limit will support Hazelwood Green becoming some super automobile hub.”
Tilghman said one of Hazelwood’s challenges is that Second Avenue is the primary way in and out of the neighborhood. If Bates Street were to flow better, residents would then have better access to Oakland’s jobs and opportunities for healthcare and education.
Still, she hopes the traffic goes both ways, and “that folks who travel down to Hazelwood Green can also travel down Second Avenue a little bit and experience Hazelwood as we are reborn.”
The Almono Partners acknowledge the need for more transit options and roadway improvements, said Todd Stern, managing director for U3 Advisors, which works with the group.
“Improvements on Bates Street and the I-376 interchange would allow residents in the City, Hazelwood and the Mon Valley greater and more equitable access to jobs, education, and healthcare in Oakland, and could mitigate existing traffic pressures in the area,” he said in a statement.
When asked about concerns that a wider, cars-only Bates would harden reliance on cars in the corridor, the Almono Partners chose not to add further comment.
The Port Authority has made building connections along Second Avenue one of its top priorities. Its long-range plan, NEXTransit, envisions a “East / Central Pittsburgh River to River Connection” that would run from the Strip District to the Hill District, into Oakland, then through Hazelwood, and finally to Carrick and Overbrook.
Port Authority spokesperson Adam Brandolph said that connection could be made along many pathways “and Bates could certainly be one that we look at.” But he added, “We haven’t scoped out this project as of yet.”
Port Authority’s Silbermann added in an email that “more options are always a benefit to us. That could be said of any corridor.”
PennDOT will soon select a contractor to begin preliminary engineering and design. In the meantime, community advocates are trying to coordinate to push for a Bates that meets current challenges, and those to come.