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Pittsburgh’s BRT is years away, but service changes are here – and some riders aren’t pleased

A 71C bus on Fifth Avenue in Oakland.
Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA
A 71C bus on Fifth Avenue in Oakland. Starting in October 2023, the 61D, 71A, 71C, and 71D will turn around in Oakland, instead of heading Downtown.

Beginning in October, Downtown Pittsburgh will lose four East End bus routes. The 61D, 71A, 71C, and 71D will all turn around in Oakland instead, Pittsburgh Regional Transit announced this week.

The changes come as PRT prepares to begin the first phase of construction on the bus rapid transit line between Oakland, Uptown, and Downtown. PRT officials say they don’t want buses to become snarled in traffic, but the changes are not temporary: They have long been discussed as part of service changes related to the introduction of the BRT line.

But Laura Chu Wiens, executive director of Pittsburghers for Public Transit, says that for a project intended to improve quality of service, “It’s really disappointing that for communities like Uptown and Homestead, Homewood and Highland Park, riders are going to be losing direct connections to critical amenities and job centers like Mercy Hospital and Duquesne University and the Waterfront.”

Chu Wiens said the changes will impose time and financial costs for riders who will now need to transfer. Riders who pay cash — because they are unbanked, lack access to a smartphone or easy access to a ConnectCard machine — will see their costs double as they have to pay another fare for the bus they transfer to.

“It makes the transit system less accessible for older adults and people with disabilities,” she added.

Alisa Grishman, founder of Access Mob Pittsburgh, lives in Uptown and uses a power wheelchair. She said getting on and off the bus with a wheelchair is already difficult.

“Now for a number of the things that I do, I’m going to have to do that twice in each direction,” she said. “I’m so frustrated. I built my life around access to these buses.”

PRT deputy chief planning officer Amy Silbermann said the changes will improve service overall, but acknowledged they won’t be better for everyone.

“We’re trying to make sure we’re accommodating them as well, even if it’s not 100 percent as good as it is today,” she said.

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PRT has added service to the 82, 87, and the P7. That helps respond to areas where the cuts would have reduced a one-seat ride for 10 or more people. Silbermann said the agency did not accommodate service plans to areas with fewer than 10 riders. Chu Wiens called the added service on the three routes a “Band-Aid,” noting it does not address decreased access to Uptown, or from Uptown to the East End or Waterfront.

Silbermann said the travel patterns for the buses are decades old, and correspond to a time when most people traveled Downtown for work, and not to the universities.

After reviewing rider data, Silbermann said, transit officials determined that nowadays most people on the routes they examined get off in Oakland rather than continue on to Downtown.

“We had routes coming about every one-and-a-half minutes in Uptown and Downtown,” she said. “On average, those buses had fewer than 13 people on them each.”

Since those buses tend to stack up now, Silberman said, reducing the number that travel between Oakland and Downtown will speed up service.

Those time and financial savings can be invested elsewhere, she said.

“We don’t want to be running mostly empty buses in a corridor when there are areas that are overcrowded and there are communities that don’t have any service,” Silbermann said.

For example, Silbermann said that thanks to these adjustments, P1 buses will be able to run every 8 minutes instead of every 12 during peak travel times. Some of the routes that will turn around in Oakland also saw some modest improvements in frequency.

The affected routes will have “Short” added to their route names, as well as to the buses’ head signs. Notices will be posted next week at bus stops along those routes.

PRT will hold a meeting on Sept. 12 to explain the changes; they are set to take effect on Oct. 1.