Bright yellow and red signs reading “Transit Moves Us” were held high outside council chambers in the City-County building Downtown Wednesday afternoon. Other signs proclaimed “City Resident, Transit Rider” as transportation advocates, citizens and elected officials gathered for the release of advocacy group Pittsburghers for Public Transit’s recent study.
The 56-page report looks at delayed bus times, ridership, bus shelter coverage and accessibility to bus stops in 2022 and found that unreliable transit service affected transit routes and residents in every part of the city last year.
Laura Chu Wiens, PPT executive director, noted that the study, “Representing Our Routes: The State of Public Transit and How the City Can Improve It,” is released within a week of Transit Equity Day and Rosa Parks’ birthday, both on Feb. 4.
“Transit is at the heart of economic justice work, at the heart of racial justice work, at the heart of environmental justice work and at the heart of labor justice work,” she said. “In many cases, those forms of justice and equity cannot happen without access to transportation and public transit as a human right, and we started this report to present a picture of what we know is a crisis in transit service in our region.”
One highlighted statistic illustrates that 38 out of 105 Pittsburgh Regional Transit routes were below 50% reliability for at least one month in 2022. PRT’s reliable service standard is 73%.
“That means tens of thousands of residents over the course of last year would go out to bus stops, would go out to T stations, and they had worse odds than the flip of a coin to know whether or not transit was going to show up,” Wiens explained.
Some routes with high ridership, such as the 61A, 61B and 71C, experienced acute service unreliability of 50% for three or more months in 2022.
Impacts were greater for communities in the East End compared to the rest of the city as the 61b-Braddock-Swissvale line had five months of less than 50% reliability in 2022, according to the data.
Bonnie Fan, one of the study’s authors, called seeing timely service a gamble. In turn, this makes needs such as getting essential services, getting medication, seeing a doctor, arriving to work on time and seeing loved ones also a gamble.
“When the lifeline of a transit line is severed, we’re no longer just talking about livability, we’re talking about suffering,” Fan said. “We’re talking about it being incredibly painful to move through day by day. That pain of waiting for two to three hours in the cold downtown or taking your tired and hungry children home on a long walk or being afraid of being able to hold down your job with consecutive times late to work. That is a collective pain.”
The study also found a lack of real-time language-appropriate communication between PRT and transit riders to communicate service disruptions, service cuts and bus stop removals.
Wiens pointed out that in an international study done by Moovit, a transit and journey planning app, Pittsburgh riders listed “accurate and reliable arrival times according to the published schedule” as their No. 1 concern and need for improvement, followed by affordable fares.
“In the past, we’ve heard that City Council has been reluctant to intervene around transit service needs because not your agency, not your problem, and we would just say that if constituents were to come to you and say, ‘My water is working only 50% of the time or less’ that would be a crisis,” Wiens said. “Transit is no different because what we’re seeing is a child care crisis. It’s an education crisis. It’s a workplace crisis. It’s a health care crisis for people to have service that doesn’t show up.”
Lorena Pena has lived in Pittsburgh for almost two years and relies on the public transit systems. “It makes it possible for me to be here,” she said Wednesday afternoon.
Last year, when there were closures to the Red Line over the summer, Pena said the changes brought many challenges.
Pena suffered from lack of sleep as she had to wake up more than an hour earlier than usual to get to work on time, and physical exhaustion due to walking up to half an hour some days to avoid being late on top of her already physically demanding job and mental exhaustion, “because every night I [would] be thinking about what would be the next day with transportation.”
In addition to unreliable schedules, the study identified other transit issues such as overcrowding, lack of sheltered bus stops and longer wait times.
In June 2022, researchers found there were about 2,500 fewer vehicle revenue hours across the entire PRT footprint, which translates to 8% less transit service in Allegheny County compared to 2019. According to the study, routes such as 39 and 51 now have buses arriving every 51 and 61 minutes, respectively, instead of the previous 38 and 48 minutes.
Alisa Grishman said she “cannot tell you how many times I’ve missed medical appointments due to a lack of consistent public transit.”
Last week, Grishman said she had to beg her pain management clinic to reinstate her appointment that was canceled because she was 18 minutes late, three minutes over the clinic’s cut-off time.
“I’ve actually had to cancel appointments because there aren’t any shelters anywhere near me to protect my roughly $40,000 wheelchair from getting damaged in the rain waiting for a bus,” she said. “Public transit is the only thing that makes living my life possible as it does for thousands of disabled people throughout the city.”
On average, only 8% of PRT stops have shelters, forcing riders to wait in the elements. In District 5, only 6% of the bus stops are sheltered, which is the lowest percentage out of all the districts at 19 of the 294 stops.
“If there are gaps in transit service, we don’t have the luxury to have alternate methods of having our needs met,” Grishman continued. “If we can access public transit, we can live independently in our own homes.”
Grishman called on Pittsburgh City Council to address not just bus frequency but also improvements for sidewalk access to buses, snow removal regulations enforcement, providing snow removal resources to disabled and elderly residents who can’t clear their own sidewalks, the development of more bus shelters and a focus on transit access for all major project planning in the city.
“Nothing about us without us,” Grishman said before cheers of agreement echoed through the halls of the fifth floor.
Pittsburgh Deputy Mayor and Director Jake Pawlak, City Councilmembers Barb Warwick, Erika Strassburger, Bobby Wilson, Deb Gross and Councilman Bruce Kraus’ chief of staff Bob Charland were in attendance Wednesday.
Warwick, who represents the fifth district, is recognized in PPT’s study as being “a key champion” in helping organize the call to extend the 75 bus to Hazelwood and weekend service on the 93. She has also been involved in efforts in the City Council to invest in infrastructure priorities named in the Our Money, Our Solutions campaign.
“Bus lines are a lifeline, and as a county and as a city we need to do better,” Warwick said.
Warwick spoke of working with PRT on improvements, encouraging the department of mobility to put public transit at the core of every major project and updating the city’s zoning code to ensure that every development includes a transit element.
“Building a better public transit system is about building the Pittsburgh of the future,” she said. “There is no such thing as a world-class city that does not have an outstanding public transportation system.”
PRT spokesperson Adam Brandolph said that it’s no secret the COVID-19 pandemic has negatively impacted the public transit industry. While it’s taken time for ridership to stabilize and to develop patterns that the service can plan for, the steps PRT is taking are “clearly working,” he told the Union Progress in an email.
On-time performance is currently at 70% reliability, which is up from September’s 60% reliability, and out-of-service is about 1%, which is down from between 4 and 5% last April, he said.
“Cherry-picking data is not a methodology,” Brandolph said of PPT’s report. “It might be good for a soundbite, but it serves no purpose in reality and provides no solutions. Babe Ruth hit .181 for the Boston Braves in 1935. Tiny sample sizes, you see, don’t tell the whole story.”
Transit riders and advocates met with City Council members individually to further discuss the data in their respective districts and identify possible solutions from their elected officials.
This story was updated at 4:42 p.m. on Feb. 10 to include comments from PRT spokesperson Adam Brandolph.