Through more than two years of the pandemic, Pittsburgh Regional Transit did all it could to provide as much service as possible despite dramatically reduced ridership: making masked riders enter through rear doors; providing free service to reduce contact between passengers and operators; installing air purifying systems; sanitizing vehicles daily.
Now, as it adjusts to the post-pandemic world, the agency is ready to adopt new standards of service this week, some that will benefit riders and others that won’t.
On the negative side, service for some bus and light rail routes could be spaced out five minutes longer. On the positive side, the maximum number of passengers on a trip could be reduced for a more comfortable ride, and the minimum number of riders could be reduced to prevent elimination of some trips that only serve a few riders.
During a presentation to the agency’s planning and stakeholder relations committee last week, Amy Silbermann, director of planning and service development, said none of the negative changes are imminent, but they will be available if the agency has to use them. The new service standards will go to the full board for approval on Friday.
Silbermann said the standards set minimum goals for the agency to reach, but those goals must be realistic and achievable. Under federal law, the standards must be reviewed every two to three years, and the last changes were made in 2019, before the pandemic.Silbermann stressed that the new minimum goals are “specific to a post-pandemic world,” where transit ridership on buses remains about half what it was before the pandemic and light rail ridership remains about 70% of what it was in early 2020. One proposed change would allow rush-hour routes to operate every 15 minutes instead of every 10 if low ridership makes it too expensive to run more frequently.
Silbermann stressed that the new minimum goals are “specific to a post-pandemic world,” where ridership on buses remains about 2/3rds of what it was before the pandemic and light rail ridership is 30% of what it was in 2020. One proposed change would allow rush-hour routes to operate every 15 minutes instead of every 10 if low ridership makes it too expensive to run more frequently.
On the other hand, the agency would be required to provide additional light rail service if ridership is regularly more than 140% of capacity during peak travel times and more than 100% in nonpeak hours. On buses, more service would be required above 120% of capacity during rush hour and above 100% nonpeak.
The current standards for light rail are 250% of capacity during rush hour and 200% nonpeak; for buses, it is 140% in rush hour and 120% nonpeak.
Pittsburghers for Public Transit said PRT should focus on fixing long-term hiring problems rather than opening the door to more service cuts.
“We at Pittsburghers for Public Transit understand that the reduction of the service standards is a way to both manage and normalize the cuts in service frequency and capacity at PRT that has happened over the course of the pandemic,” Executive Director Laura Wiens said. “We want PRT to address the root causes that have obligated them to make these changes by both acknowledging and tackling the worker hiring and retention crisis.”
Other changes in the updated policy include:
• Increasing the goal for on-time service — one minute early to five minutes late — from 73% to 75% on buses and reducing it from 90% to 87% on the light rail system.
• Changing the goal for missed service — where regularly scheduled trips don’t arrive due to lack of operators or other circumstances — from 1% of all trips to 1.5%. That number was higher than 15% in early 2022 after the agency suspended and later fired operators who refused to get a COVID-19 vaccine. It’s been below 1.5% for the past three months.
• Switching the designation of the 28X and P78 routes from commuter routes to local routes and routes 2, 15, 27, 44, 55 and 58 from local to coverage routes to allow them to operate with fewer riders.
• Considering major service changes every three to five years instead of annually. Silbermann said the agency spends a lot of staff time each year reviewing requested service upgrades only to reach the conclusion that there isn’t money or staff available to accomplish them. The agency will still be able to react to special circumstances every year, but it won’t do full yearly reviews for service increases.
Silbermann said it is a good time to implement the longer review period because the agency is poised to begin a two-year study of all bus routes this summer. The goal there is to determine whether the agency should shift service to different, growing areas and establish new corridors, something called for in the 25-year plan released in mid 2021.
Silbermann said the agency always strives to reach a balance between setting lofty goals and meeting reliability standards for riders.
“We will always continue to push higher and higher,” she said. “We need something that pushes us but doesn’t cause customers to throw up their hands and give up when we can’t meet that.
“We think we can continue to rebuild back to what ridership was [before the pandemic], but it might not be the same kind of ridership to the same places. I think it’s really going to depend on what the public tells us they need.”
Wiens said she is concerned that changing the standards could reduce the agency’s attempts to improve its hiring and retention efforts. Hiring for transit jobs has been a continuing problem for several decades across the country, but she said it is “dismaying” that PRT isn’t throwing all of its efforts into addressing “that level of crisis.”
“Lowering the bar isn’t the step we want to see the agency taking,” she said. “I understand they aren’t intending to reduce service … but given the workforce situation, that’s what’s going to happen.”