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Christof Spieler @christofspieler
, 17 tweets, 7 min read Read on Twitter
I talked busways on Saturday. Let’s talk about the “T,” Pittsburg’s light rail. It’s a bit of an oddity. In the 1910s, long before scooters and TNCs, interurbans — electric rail lines between cities — were a disruptive transportation technology. The T is one of the few survivors.
Pittsburgh had multiple interurbans; what is now the T extended south to Washington, Donora, and Charleroi, serving a series of small towns. They were connected to a large urban streetcar network to run into downtown. Before cars, this was the way to get around this rural area.
Pittsburgh kept streetcars into the 1960s — far longer than most US cities — but then replaced most of the network with buses. But these old interurban lines survived because they tunneled through Mount Washington and the area they served was relatively affluent and influential.
This brought an odd outcome: Pittsburgh replaced rail with buses in its densest, highest ridership areas but kept rail in a relatively low density corridor. Thus, the T is one of the lowest ridership light rail systems in the country.
In the 1980s, Pittsburgh then doubled down and invested in major upgrades for the system: new light rail vehicles, upgrades to the suburban route, and a new downtown subway to replace street running (dashed.)
The result is a very strange mix of old and new. This is a Pittsburgh light rail station…
… and so is this. That wooden frame on the left is the outbound platform — as minimal as a light rail station gets.
Fares are collected by the driver at the front door; riders pay when boarding inbound, when getting off outbound. No off-board fare collection except when ticket booths at stations are manned. Most stops are request stops. It’s run like a very infrastructure-intensive local bus.
Frequency is low, too: Library has a train every 12 minutes at peak, but a train every half hour midday and on Sundays.
Despite this, the system has two lines through most of the South Hills: the Red Line (here at Mount Lebanon), which serves areas of more activity, and the Blue Line express along Overbrook, rebuilt in the 1990s, which has fewer boardings along the way but provides faster service.
…and there’s even a parallel 4.3 mile busway., That’s a lot of expensive infrastructure when most of Pittsburgh has to rely on (often infrequent) buses in mixed traffic.
There are some other quirks, too, born from history: announcements refer to “cars,” not “trains.” There’s a detour track over the hill that once carried service but now is used only when the tunnel is closed. The tunnel itself is also a busway.
And there’s the Penn Station spur, which one has the least service of any light rail line in the US and is now the only modern light rail line in the US to have all service eliminated. It’s still used to store cars and for special events.
There are lots of way to improve this network (like better bus connections w/ free transfers.) But ultimately, like I said, geography trumps technology. The low density around the lines will never lead to high ridership.
To me, the biggest lesson is a simple one: historical accident is a bad way to plan. Just because someplace had service once doesn’t mean it’s the place that we should invest in today. That’s true for bus networks, and it’s true for rail lines. (Bonus @PATrolleyMuseum photo!)
More in my book: If you’re at #RVPGH, come see me, @farrside, and @bbwilson3 at lunch today for “New Books for Rail~Volutionaries.”
Also, I apologize for spelling Pittsburgh wrong in the first tweet.
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