Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Transit advocates critical of public BRT meeting

Posted By on Wed, May 6, 2015 at 11:07 AM

An audience member checks out one possible BRT schematic. - PHOTO BY ALEX ZIMMERMAN
  • Photo by Alex Zimmerman
  • An audience member checks out one possible BRT schematic.
Tuesday afternoon, city and Port Authority officials hosted the first of two meetings this week on the status of Bus Rapid Transit — an initiative that could modernize bus service between Downtown and Oakland.

The event's main purpose, according to materials that were circulated, was to give the public a chance to "review and provide input on the project purpose and need as well as on the impacts on the social/economic environment, the physical environment and the transportation system." Such input is required to qualify for federal funding, which the transit agency hopes will pay for a significant portion of the project.

But the presentation itself did not make explicit exactly what kind of input was being solicited. That led to a discussion that mostly reiterated the broad fault lines between the project's supporters and detractors, which disappointed transit advocates who were hoping for a conversation that would engage the public on the different models for BRT construction that were presented.

"This is a hard process to figure out what's going on," noted Paul O'Hanlon, a transit and disability advocate. "I don't think there was anything today that facilitated brainstorming."

The city and Port Authority laid out five plans for BRT, which were presented via maps throughout a ballroom at Duquesne University: Three of the plans involve various combinations of bus-only lanes on Fifth and Forbes avenues. One of the plans would improve the bus system that exists "without implementing full Bus Rapid Transit," while the fifth would keep the system as it is now. 

The event began with a presentation from City Planning Director Ray Gastil, who said that BRT is "critical" so that "Uptown is not just a place to drive through, but is a destination in itself." His presentation was framed largely through the lens of neighborhood development — and talked about the possibility that as part of an "EcoInnovation" district, the city could help attract development in Uptown.

"It really is an economic development argument [for BRT]," he told me after his talk. He added that BRT would target people who aren't already regular transit riders.

That line of thinking sparked responses that ranged from the argument that Uptown is already a well-served transit corridor that doesn't need hundreds of millions in transit infrastructure, to concerns about whether the city and Port Authority have already made up their minds about BRT. Other Uptown residents voiced their support, saying added transit infrastructure could revitalize the neighborhood.

Breen Masciotra, a Port Authority spokesperson, reassured the audience of roughly 100 people that BRT "is not a done deal ... there are no forgone conclusions."

The agency has said there will be more opportunities for public input in the coming months, including a second version of the same presentation tonight from 6-8 p.m. at the William Pitt Student Union, 3959 Fifth Ave., in Oakland.

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Thursday, April 23, 2015

Bloomfield residents up in arms over bike share stations

Posted By on Thu, Apr 23, 2015 at 5:07 PM

  • #KeepBloomfieldBikeShare Facebook Page
A group of Bloomfield residents, who say bike share stations will disrupt businesses, have sparked the furor of cycling advocates.

In a meeting earlier this week with city officials, Bloomfield Citizens Council head Janet Cercone Scullion, along with Gloria LeDonne of the Bloomfield Business Network, said the three bike share stations along Liberty Avenue "would cause disruption on the sidewalks and disrupt the businesses there," according to mayoral spokesman Tim McNulty.

The city, along with non-profit Pittsburgh Bike Share, are set to launch a program called Healthy Ride in May that will for the first time allow residents to rent bikes and return them at any of the proposed 50 docking stations around the city. Three stations are planned for the Bloomfield area on Liberty Avenue.

News of Scullion's meeting made its way to local bike supporters who expressed concern that the city might re-think the placement of bike share stations in Bloomfield. 

"Liberty Avenue is a very Pittsburgh street," says Bruce Chan, a Bloomfield resident and chairman of neighborhood group Bloomfield Livable Streets. "It runs through so many neighborhoods; it’s very crucial to the network of the city and cultural aspects of the community. We have a bike lane on Liberty Avenue – what better place to put a bike-share station?”

Scullion, who apparently objects to the placement of bike stations in Bloomfield, would not explain precisely what those objections are. Reached by phone, a woman who identified as Janet Cercone said “I don’t have any information on that for you,” before hanging up. She did not return messages.

"We’re trying to show the mayor and city administration that this small group doesn't speak for the entire community,” Chan adds.

For its part, city spokesman McNulty says placement of bike share stations have "always been in flux.”

City Planning Director Ray Gastil wrote in a statement that the meeting with Scullion and LeDonne "was a meeting that, frankly, should have happened earlier in the process of designing the network of station locations. Given the serious concerns we heard, we are now reviewing station locations and will be looking at options with the Bloomfield community.

"We have also heard your strong support for the Bikeshare program, and its importance to you," the statement continues. "We will be working with everyone to create the best opportunity for residents, businesses, and cyclists."

Bike Pittsburgh Executive Director Scott Bricker says “it’s a very hot button issue,” but did not immediately want to comment further.

A Facebook page in support of the bike share stations in Bloomfield had 231 members at press time and Chan is organizing a meeting to discuss the issue 6 p.m., Tues. April 28 at the East End Book Exchange.

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Friday, April 10, 2015

You'll be able to load your ConnectCard online starting next week

Posted By on Fri, Apr 10, 2015 at 11:47 AM

Starting April 16, Port Authority customers who use the ConnectCard will be able to load cash or passes onto their cards using a new website, instead of visiting vending machines or retailers.

The new web portal will allow users to use a credit or debit card to add cash; buy passes; set up recurring passes that will automatically bill the relevant card; and let riders to manage multiple ConnectCards from a single account (such as parents who want to add virtual cash to a child's card). 

But as I've noted before — and Port Authority acknowledged in the press release it issued today — none of this will happen in real time.

"Purchases made online will not instantly be available on the ConnectCard and may take 2-3 days to process, especially if a purchase is made on a Friday or over a weekend," according to a press release.

That's because the buses aren't equipped with technology that allows them to wirelessly communicate with the servers that house ConnectCard balances. The physical  fare boxes on each vehicle will only sync when they pass through a garage.

Port Authority spokesman Jim Ritchie has previously said that the transit agency is considering other methods to make the ConnectCard more attractive since many passengers still use cash. One option, he said, might be to target fare increases at cash users.

In the meantime, here's hoping this encourages some riders to abandon the agonizingly slow pockets-full-of-quarters fare payment system.

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Thursday, March 26, 2015

Pittsburgh Bike Share will (finally!) start in May

Posted By on Thu, Mar 26, 2015 at 1:30 PM

David White, executive director of Pittsburgh Bike Share, warns locations on this map may not be exact. - COURTESY OF PITTSBURGH BIKE SHARE
  • Courtesy of Pittsburgh Bike Share
  • David White, executive director of Pittsburgh Bike Share, warns locations on this map may not be exact.
Nearly a year after its scheduled launch, Pittsburgh's bike share program is expected to drop 500 new bikes on the street within the next two months.

“Things are marching forward,” says David White, executive director of Pittsburgh Bike Share, the nonprofit that manages the program. “We hope to have users with the ability to take out a bike starting in May.”

The program was initially announced in 2013, when then-Mayor Luke Ravenstahl told the Post-Gazette, "To have that cool, young, vibrant, hip city that young investors want requires projects like this."

The program has been beset by delays, something Bike Pittsburgh Executive Director Scott Bricker chalks up to a bidding process that took longer than expected and the overall complexity of the project.

“To be fair, I really don’t think that a single bike share program has launched exactly when people intended it to," Bricker says. "It’s a very complicated program to get off the ground. It’s essentially starting a whole new public transportation system.”

Bike sharing works essentially as a rental system that doesn't force you to return your bike to the spot you rented it. Pittsburgh will start out with 50 docking stations across the city, and there are already plans to expand the system in its first two years of operation.

The pricing hasn't been finalized yet, says White, but "we have a sincere vision of creating a system that does not require a fee to register." Bike sharing programs have often struggled to attract lower-income users, but White says, “The goal is to make the system competitive with other methods of transportation ... affordable to all users across all demographic groups." 

Payment can be made online, via a smartphone app or at the docking stations themselves; there will also be a membership option for more regular users.

The bikes themselves are manufactured by a German company called nextbike, and will be outfitted with a gear system designed to "help flatten some of the hills for people," Bricker says. 

“It’s just going to get a lot more people riding bikes,” he adds. "I really hope it gets more people engaged in the conversation about our streets, how they’re designed and who they’re for.” 

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Thursday, March 19, 2015

Port Authority changes will make funding your ConnectCard a whole lot easier

Posted By on Thu, Mar 19, 2015 at 11:09 AM

As early as April, Port Authority riders will be able to load virtual cash and passes on their ConnectCards through a web portal instead of at vending machines or retailers, the agency announced this morning.

But there's a catch: The website won't update ConnectCards in real-time; the process will likely take several hours — or up to a day in some cases.

The move is part of the transit agency's attempt to modernize and give riders more flexibility, says Thomas Noll, PAT's director of technical support and capital programs.
  • CP File Photo by Heather Mull

The new web portal will allow users to use a credit or debit card to add cash; buy passes; set up recurring passes that will automatically bill the relevant card; and let riders to manage multiple ConnectCards from a single account (such as parents who want to add virtual cash to a child's card).

The website will also allow users to load passes up to a month in advance of their use and add fare products "anonymously" to their ConnectCard without the agency storing personal information, Noll says.

So why won't the cards get information from the web portal in real-time?

Noll explains that the authority's busses and trains aren't equipped with cell technology that lets them connect with the internet.

Fare information taken from the web portal "is relayed to our central computer system," Noll says, but "that information needs to get on a bus."

The only way a bus will get updated information is when it visits a garage, which happens at least twice a day: when it leaves at the beginning of a run and returns at the end.

"When you add a cellular device" to every bus in the system, "it adds cost," Noll says.

Still, the web portal will likely represent a significant improvement from the current system, in which a rider must visit one of 61 vending machines or roughly 69 retailers to load their cards.

For now, the authority doesn't have plans for a mobile app; the only web interface will be the agency's website.

The new portal is in a pilot phase with 60 riders — and barring any hiccups, Noll says, "We should be ready to go next month."

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Thursday, March 5, 2015

Pittsburgh's inaugural 'Winter Bike to Work Day' tomorrow

Posted By on Thu, Mar 5, 2015 at 12:56 PM

Tomorrow is Bike Pittsburgh's first ever Winter Bike to Work Day, and yep, the event will continue despite the snow.

"We definitely won’t be rescheduling it again,” says Bike Pittsburgh's Ngani Ndimbie, who notes the original Feb. 27 date was cancelled on account of subzero temperatures. "We’re trying to promote biking as a thing that can be done year-round.”

To encourage people to brave the salt, snow and potholes, anyone who bikes to one of these eight coffee shops around the city from 7-9:30 a.m. will get a hot drink on the house. About 2.2 percent of Pittsburghers commute to work by bike, a number the local non-profit is trying to increase.

If you're nervous about biking in the snow, here are some handy blog posts about how to adjust your riding style and what gear you might want. 

But if the thought of getting mowed down by a snow plow freaks you out, either check which routes have already been plowed, or hang tight for a few months until the spring version of Bike to Work Day — this year, on May 5.

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Tuesday, March 3, 2015

PennDOT wants your input on North Side bike lanes

Posted By on Tue, Mar 3, 2015 at 4:06 PM

East Ohio Street corridor - GOOGLE MAPS
  • Google Maps
  • East Ohio Street corridor
If you're a fan of bike lanes or just really turned on by urban planning and infrastructure projects, you might want to drop by a public meeting hosted by PennDOT on the East Ohio Street Improvement Project on Wednesday afternoon, March 4.

The project includes work on streets, traffic signals, bridges and overpasses around East Ohio Street near the 16th Street Bridge, but PennDOT also has plans in the works to run a bike lane on part of East Ohio. The plan to build bike lanes, PennDOT says, will in part be determined by whether there is public support for it.
  • Google Maps

"It’s that weird no-man’s land where people get off the 16th Street Bridge or [are] getting off of [Route] 28 and they’re going to enter 579 North – or getting off into the neighborhood,” says Bike Pittsburgh Advocacy Director Eric Boerer, who is encouraging people to show support for more bike/pedestrian friendly infrastructure. "It’s currently designed for the highway users."

The meeting will be held on March 4 from 5-6:30 p.m. at Pittsburgh's Grand Hall at the Priory, 614 Pressley St, on the North Side. More information about the meeting here.

And if you still need inspiration to go to a public meeting about a local infrastructure project, look no further than John Oliver's latest riff on our crumbling infrastructure. 

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Friday, November 7, 2014

Watch this completely mesmerizing bus map

Posted By on Fri, Nov 7, 2014 at 11:28 AM

When Port Authority began rolling out real-time bus tracking, they banked heavily on outside developers. Instead of designing apps themselves, they've made the feed that provides live location updates available to pretty much any developer who wants it.

That's how Carnegie Mellon grad student Alex Rebert wound up designing a map that shows every real-time enabled bus in the Port Authority system dancing across the county. (Port Authority's system has had some hiccups, so not every bus may appear).

Here's a video we put together that explains how the map was developed (the map itself is a great way to kill a few hours at work). For a more thorough discussion, check out the email Q&A with Rebert below.

You wrote on Reddit that the site was a “small weekend hacking project.” What made you decide to spend a weekend on this project in particular?

A mix of unexpected free time and a bit of frustration with existing apps using the data.

The map is striking in its minimalism: There’s no detail beside the route number and location. Why did you decide not to include information about destination, whether it’s on or off-schedule, etc?

That's in part due to my laziness. More seriously, I tried to include the information that I thought was useful. [As far as I know] most people don't know the schedule. Knowing whether a bus is off schedule would not be informative. You just want to know how much time you'll have to wait, or when you should leave, or at which bus stop you should go to minimize the wait.

Concerning the directions of the buses, I thought that it could be inferred easily looking at the moving buses, but that's not the case. The buses are not updated often enough for that. I'm probably going to add that information somehow.

Based on the Reddit thread, it seems like you set up the site without Port Authority's permission. Was that hard to do undetected? Was there a reason for that?

The port authority provides an API and API keys to developer[s], which is great! I asked for a key Friday evening, but I figured that I wouldn't get it during the weekend. So instead of waiting, I checked if I could extract the data from here. It turns out you can.

Besides that, I would have used the official developer API. They seem like they're willing to increase the API quota when necessary.

Have you heard from them since the site went up?

Not really. I got my API key from them. I have yet to use it.

It’s hard not to become entranced by the buses gliding across the screen — is that a real representation of bus movement Or are you animating the difference between data points every X seconds? How does the site work?

You got it right. I animate the difference between the data every 5 seconds. It gives the map a real time feel, at the cost of adding a 5 second delay to the data you see. One could try to predict where the buses is going to be instead, and correct it when it gets new data. But that's a lot harder.

What’s the longest stretch you’ve spent just staring at the map?

Not that long. Maybe 5 minutes. It's interesting to see where all the buses are, how many in each route there are, how much distance is there between buses... I wonder what the Port Authority is doing with this data.

How many hits are you getting on the site?

I think I get 500 daily views on average now. More than 70% percent of users are people who are coming back, which is a good sign. It went up to 2,000 a couple of days after the launch due to the novelty effect. Laura Meixell's tweet brought a lot of traffic. [She's the analytics and strategy manager for mayor Bill Peduto] Users are mostly from Pittsburgh, but I got people from all over the world surprisingly.

Are you a regular Port Authority rider?

Yep. It has been my main form of transportation in the city for four years. I was glad to hear that they increased the number of buses in some routes recently!

The Port Authority has taken some heat for its roll-out of real-time tracking — in many cases, buses aren’t appearing at all. What’s your take on that? Do you worry it hurts the reliability of your map?

We should give them some slack. They introduced a feature that many riders wanted, and for that, we should give them props. I have no doubt they'll improve the data accuracy in the near future.

Is this project a work in progress, or are you finished with it?

I haven't worked on it much since I released it. I rewrote the backend to remove the 50 users limit, but that's about it. I'd like to add geolocation (so that it's easier to know when you are on the map), and display in which directions the buses are going. I'd definitely consider adding features that people request.

Got any other projects like this on the horizon?

Nothing planned right now. My startup keeps me busy enough.

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Thursday, September 11, 2014

More routes added to PAT's real-time bus tracking system

Posted By on Thu, Sep 11, 2014 at 12:19 PM


Riders who take some of the city's most-ridden bus routes can rejoice: Port Authority today announced that effective immediately 17 new routes have been added to its real-time tracking system.

Those routes include the well-travelled 61s and 71s as well as the 75 and 54N — all buses that serve Oakland (see below for a full list of routes with real-time tracking).

The service allows anyone with an internet connection to see — in real-time — exactly where the next bus is and how long it will take for it to arrive.

"The more people realize how reliable [public transportation] is, the more likely they will take it," Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald said at a press conference this morning.

The system will also eventually include a texting service for those without smartphones.

Including the routes that now have real-time tracking, about 25 percent of the system has the service, Fitzgerald says — and by the end of the month, that number will be closer to 50 percent.

The remaining routes will get real-time tracking in clusters of 10-15 new routes every couple weeks, with the goal of a full roll-out on buses by years' end. Tracking for T riders won't happen until next year.

The transit agency will also begin buying digital displays for high-volume stops that will show similar information; those aren't expected until the middle of 2015.

Riders can take advantage of the system by going to or by downloading smartphone apps "Tiramisu," "Transit" or "Transit Times Plus."

The system will cost $3.6 million for a full roll-out on buses and $5 million for the T, Fitzgerald said.

Here's a full list of routes that are live right now:

71A, 71B, 71C, 71D
61A, 61B, 61C, 61D

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Port Authority board amends budget for Bus Rapid Transit study

Posted By on Tue, Jul 15, 2014 at 10:39 AM

The Port Authority board voted unanimously this morning to amend its $183.5 million capital budget to move $1.56 million toward a study of Bus Rapid Transit — a project that would create special bus service between Downtown and Oakland.

The $4 million study is a necessary step to qualify for federal funding because the Federal Transit Administration requires an environmental analysis of the project as well as engineering plans, including "vetting" alternative routes (converting a lane of Forbes Avenue or additional lane on Fifth Avenue to be bus-only, for instance). The transit agency hopes to apply for federal funds by August 2016, board chairman Robert Hurley says.

"This will bring us to nearly three quarters of the funding for this project," says Hurley, referring to the BRT study. The county is kicking in $1 million — and there is $440,000 remaining on an existing $1.5 million BRT contract with Parsons Brinckerhoff — a study that "was stalled as a new administration came in." Hurley said he anticipates going back to the county for the remaining $1 million.

The project will require coordination between the Port Authority, city and county governments — and while mayor Bill Peduto has signaled his support for BRT in the past, he has not been as vocal an advocate as county executive Rich Fitzgerald, who has estimated the total cost of BRT in the neighborhood of $200 million.

"There will be a point in time where what we're going will have to be done in conjunction with the city," Hurley says, adding that meetings with the Peduto administration have been productive and "they're full-fledged behind this."

The resolution approved this morning moves $1.56 million that was previously approved for "North Braddock Avenue Bridge Painting and Repairs" — though Hurley says the move will leave $3.34 million for the bridge project and won't affect other capital projects: "We're not robbing Peter to pay Paul."

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