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Pittsburgh's focus on scooters and rideshare apps hurts public transit, advocates say

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA

Pittsburgh’s transportation policies have prioritized tech giant interests at the expense of some city residents, advocates argue in a report released Thursday.

Pittsburghers for Public Transit found that people who rely on public transportation the most have been left stranded by the city’s current mobility infrastructure. Under the administration of former Mayor Bill Peduto, private transit services like ride-sharing, scooters, and Zipcar flourished.

“If transit riders cannot get to and from bus stops… then the best transit service is rendered functionally useless,” said Laura Chu Wiens, executive director of Pittsburghers for Public Transit.

Move PGH, an initiative launched in 2019, encourages residents to bundle transit options to get to their destination. For example, a rider would take a Port Authority bus and then a scooter or city bike for the final mile of the trip.

But that approach doesn’t serve Pittsburgh residents with physical disabilities or lower incomes. The study found that often these groups face the most obstacles getting to a bus stop and from the bus stop to their destination.

The report also notes low-income residents are often priced out of using microtransit options like electric scooters, which cost nearly $5 for a one-mile trip. Port Authority bus fare is almost half the price.

Electric scooters, owned by Ford-backed bike and scooter company Spin, are a large target of criticism in the report. Last year, the scooter rollout came with several growing pains, ranging from how City Council regulates riders to a flood of reports online about scooters blocking traffic in bike lanes.

But the study notes the scooters do nothing to fill transit gaps for those who can’t ride them. This includes those with balance or vision impairments, wheelchair needs or those above a certain weight. Spin’s terms of service set a 220-pound weight limit for riders.

The study authors concede that not all transit options must be accessible to everyone but argue there has been too much investment in options that exclude a large swath of the population while claiming to provide “universal basic mobility.”

Wheelchair users often engage with electric scooters as an obstacle, according to Paul O’Hanlan, a member of the City County task force on disabilities. Parked scooters can sometimes be found blocking curb ramps, making it impossible to pass.

“What we often see with some of this new technology is that not only does it leave us out, but it leaves us with bigger problems to fix later,” O’Hanlan said.

The Port Authority of Allegheny County declined to comment on the study or how the city's mobility initiatives affect county transit offerings.

The report also took aim at a project proposed to create a transportation link between Oakland and parts of Greenfield, Hazelwood and Hazelwood Green. It was initially designed to feature autonomous shuttles, scooters and small, slow-moving electric shuttles. Critics argued the plan did not meet the needs of the communities and would only serve tech workers commuting to Hazelwood Green.

Mayor Ed Gainey announced earlier this week the city would put an end to the project in favor of improving access along Second Avenue, Bates Street and Boulevard of the Allies with more community input.

During a panel discussion Thursday, Pittsburghers for Public Transit called for the Mon-Oakland Connector budget to be reallocated to benefit the community of Hazelwood through accessible sidewalk development, affordable housing projects and better access to affordable groceries.

“It’s our money and we need to make sure we get to say how it’s spent,” said Teaira Collins, a Pittsburghers for Public Transit member and Hazelwood resident.

The Mon-Oakland Connector project was used to exemplify the group’s larger argument that the city’s recent mobility proposals benefitted private tech companies more than city residents. Authors criticize the Pittsburgh Mobility Collective, a group of for-profit companies partnering with non-profit and government agencies, as an entity not being held accountable for how its initiatives affect residents.

“The Pittsburgh Mobility Collective is composed of private companies helping set policy that would affect their own operations in Pittsburgh” without community input, the report argues.

The report calls on Gainey to mold transit policies around equity for all Pittsburghers during his administration’s first 100 days by changing zoning codes to eliminate parking requirements, which could allow for a higher density of affordable housing near transit routes. The group also proposes a dedicated sidewalk program to improve snow removal and accessibility.

“For too long, our city government has been disproportionately focused on single-occupancy vehicles and trendy transportation technology, like autonomous vehicles and e-scooters, that do not and cannot meet the needs of all Pittsburghers for safe, affordable, and effective transit,” the report said.

Kiley Koscinski covers city government, policy and how Pittsburghers engage with city services. She also works as a fill-in host for All Things Considered. Kiley has previously served as a producer on The Confluence and Morning Edition.