By Ryan Deto
on Wed, Feb 15, 2017 at 1:48 PM
CP photo by Ryan Deto
Gov. Tom Wolf at a press event in March 2016
Expanding Allegheny County’s public-transit network is an idea that has wide-reaching support. Residents in low-income neighborhoods say they need more buses because that is their only means of getting around affordably. Wealthier neighborhoods often desire a light-rail system that connects to Downtown and other hip neighborhoods. And while finding additional funds has proven extremely difficult, Gov. Tom Wolf is proposing a fix that would at least stop cash from funneling out of Pennsylvania’s public-transit fund.
For the past several years, a growing chunk of the Pennsylvania's motor vehicle fund has been siphoned off to pay for an increasing number of Pennsylvania State Police troopers. (Monies from the fund are used to pay for a multitude of projects, including bridge and road construction.) Last year, state legislators responded by passing a rule limiting PennDOT’s allocation for state police, and mandated that allocation shrink by 4 percent each year until it’s reduced to $500 million. But Gov. Wolf is going even further and is proposing moving the state-police funding out of the motor vehicle fund entirely.
In his 2017-2018 budget, Wolf wants to fund the troopers through a $25-per-person fee, for towns that rely solely on the service of state police, instead of taking money from the motor vehicle fund. "Nothing else in life is free," said Wolf of state police in Allentown’s Morning Call in February, "and this isn't either."
Chris Sandvig, a transit expert at Pittsburgh Community Redevelopment Group, says that under the current circumstances, the motor vehicle fund is obligated to pay for both road construction projects and state police, meaning funding for state police is in direct conflict for money that could go to improve our roads. Sandvig says that as the motor vehicle fund is increasingly taken over to pay for state police, then money to build road constructions could then be in conflict with funds for public-transit improvements.
And Sandvig says more and more small municipalities are using state troopers to police their towns. In fact, statewide news website Keystone Crossroads reported in May 2016 that more than half of Pennsylvania municipalities fully rely on state troopers for police service.
“The users of the highway system are paying for state troopers in towns that don’t want to pay for police,” says Sandvig.
Sandvig says the more money used from the motor vehicle fund to pay for state police means a significant chunk is unavailable to pay for potential public-transit projects. In 2010, the motor vehicle fund contributed $530 million to state police, and in 2016 it had ballooned to $839 million. “If it continues at this rate, it’s on track to a hit a billion dollars this year,” says Sandvig. “This is unsustainable, and something needs to be done.”
Currently, the motor vehicle fund is primarily funded from a tax on gasoline and a fee collected through motor-vehicle registration. Sandvig is pleased with the governor’s proposal. “So many people put so much work into funding public transportation, and the money we pay at the pump should go to transportation," says Sandvig.
Wolf’s proposal needs support from the state legislature before becoming law, but state Republicans, who control both the House and Senate are open to negotiating a fee on municipalities.
By Ryan Deto
on Thu, Feb 9, 2017 at 12:39 PM
CP photo by Ryan Deto
Sneckdown on Friendship Avenue in Bloomfield
What the heck is a sneckdown? A neckdown is a traffic-calming design (like a curb bump-out) that is meant to slow down drivers. Combine neckdown with snow and you get sneckdown.
After snowfalls, Pittsburghers can see sneckdowns just about everywhere they look, since there are plenty of places where snow falls on the street that cars don’t drive over. Sometimes these untouched snow patches are as small as a kite, but other times they are as large as an above-ground swimming pool.
Eric Boerer, of Bike Pittsburgh, says they illustrate exactly how much extra space is given to vehicles on Pittsburgh streets.
“The clear thing is that they show a lot of unused road space,” says Boerer. “And this is one of the big issues we have in such a tight city.”
Boerer says some of the most egregious sneckdowns occur in Bloomfield. He points to the intersection of Liberty Avenue and the Bloomfield Bridge, and spaces around Friendship Park, as an areas where snow highlights a lot of unused square footage. He believes this unused space provides strong arguments that sidewalks can be made larger and bike paths can be installed, even if the city has a sometime contentious relationship with winter bike riders.
Bike Pittsburgh does a lot of outreach to teach Pittsburgh residents about smart road design that can accommodate cars, bicycles and pedestrians equally. (This concept is known as complete streets.) Boerer says normally groups like Bike Pittsburgh would have to set up physical objects and staff in sections of roads to prove roads can be designed differently, but sneckdowns accomplish that work for them.
“It is almost like a real-time [road design] experiment,” says Boerer. “It proves your point without doing an intervention. It can reveal a lot about how motorists are using the streets.”
Sneckdowns can also reveal other uses for wasted space on road. Boerer says sneckdowns at the intersection on Schenley Drive (near the Schenley Park visitor center) reveal ample space that could be used for green space, like grass or bushes. He says this could help mitigate stormwater issues that occur often in Oakland and Four Mile Run in Greenfield.
Boerer says sneckdowns are well known in the bike-ped advocacy community and by city planners, but there have been no street redesigns in Pittsburgh as a result of sneckdowns as in New York City and Philadelphia. But, he is hopeful that will change considering Pittsburgh’s growing interest in road design with the city’s formation of the Complete Streets Advisory Council.
“Right not there is a lot of momentum on complete streets,” Boerer says. “Sneckdowns are part of that. [They are] a great way to visualize these traffic calming ideas.”
By Ryan Deto
on Mon, Feb 6, 2017 at 6:02 PM
CP photo by Ryan Deto
Uber protesters in Denny Park, in Pittsburgh's Strip District
On Feb. 2, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick announced that he was leaving President Donald Trump’s economic advisory council. The billionaire was already in a lot of hot water for joining the team, both from the public and Uber employees. But criticism escalated Jan. 28, when during a hour-long strike by New York City taxis in solidarity with immigrants affected by Trump’s travel ban, Uber turned off its surge pricing. (Uber says the no-surge-pricing timing was unrelated and happened after the taxi strike was over.) The company subsequently lost more than 200,000 users after a #DeleteUber Twitter campaign.
But protesters in Pittsburgh are still upset with the ride-hailing company. On Feb. 4, a group of more than 35 protested at Denny Park in the Strip District, and then marched toward Uber’s Advanced Technologies Center (where they make and test driverless cars), located just a few blocks away.
Laura Wiens, of transit-advocacy group Pittsburghers for Public Transportation, commended Kalanick for stepping down from Trump’s advisory council, but believes the company can do more to support immigrants. Wiens said she would also like to see Uber oppose state anti-immigrant bills like SB 10, Pennsylvania’s anti-sanctuary city bill currently in the state Senate.
Uber spokesperson Craig Ewer responded to the protest with a statement sent to City Paper: "More than ever, it's important that we all support freedom of speech. Like many others, Uber strongly opposes the President's unjust immigration ban which is harming many innocent people, many of whom are drivers. That's why we created a $3 million legal-defense fund to help, and why we're offering compensation for lost earnings for any driver stranded abroad. We will continue to stand up for those being hurt by the President's executive order."
Uber also recently donated $10,000 to Women's Center and Shelter of Greater Pittsburgh to provide rides to victims of domestic abuse.
Wiens added that the group's frustration with Uber goes beyond its immigration-related policies, and PPT believes Uber has policies that hurt workers.
“Just as Trump is in support of deregulation, so is Uber,” said Wiens. “Just as Trump is anti-worker, so is Uber.”
Sean McGrath is an Uber driver who said Uber has labor practices that hurt drivers’ ability to make money and speak out against management. Uber refers to drivers as “partners” and pays drivers as independent contractors, not employees.
“The partnership is only one-way,” said McGrath. “There is no way for us to voice our opposition.” McGrath has recently grown frustrated with how quickly the Uber app updates its “hot spots,” or highlighted areas where drivers can take advantage of surge-pricing rides. “This zones refresh every 15 seconds, so you expect to get a good pay, but then the surge disappears by the time you arrive.”
Tom Conroy, of the Amalgamated Transit Union, which represents most of the county’s public-transit workers, was most critical of Uber’s specific role in Pittsburgh: driverless vehicles. He says driverless vehicles could eliminate public-transportation jobs and that Uber has been silent on this topic.
“Where is [Uber’s] commitment to the 100,000 of workers who stand to lose jobs with the emergence of autonomous cars,” said Conroy. Protesters also called on Uber to share its transportation data with Pittsburgh, as well commit to a more transparent process when working with the city and community.
By Ryan Deto
on Fri, Jan 6, 2017 at 3:44 PM
Photo courtesy of Bike Pittsburgh
Bike riders on Penn Avenue protected bike lane
Pushing back against new bike lanes is becoming a Pittsburgh tradition. When Mayor Bill Peduto started to install the lanes a couple years ago along Penn Avenue, in Oakland and elsewhere, there was outcry from business owners, residents in the neighborhoods and drivers worrying about parking. Granted there was also support from hundreds of bikers and advocates, but that support tended to be downplayed by media outlets.
Now, two years after having set up protected bike lanes Downtown on Penn Avenue (which sometimes receives more than 1,000 trips per day) and the Roberto Clemente Bridge, the city is still facing strong push-back on an extension to that system along Fort Pitt Boulevard. In response, Pittsburgh City Councilor Theresa Kail-Smith (District 2) is proposing the creation of a bike-lane committee to field complaints and suggestions for new bike lanes.
However, as advocacy group Bike Pittsburgh points out, there already is a Complete Streets Advisory Committee being set up that can field road-design complaints, such as for bike lanes.
“We believe that [Pittsburgh] should first concentrate on getting the Complete Streets Advisory Committee off the ground and running — a committee that was written into the Complete Streets bill that unanimously passed council in November,” wrote Bike Pittsburgh director Scott Bricker in an email to City Paper. “If a bicycle-only advisory committee is still needed, so be it, but they should figure out how it will coordinate with the Complete Streets Committee so that the two are not redundant.”
In addition to the Complete Streets committee, Pittsburgh’s Department of City Planning conducts numerous public meetings every year led by bike/pedestrian coordinator Kristine Saunders, where complaints and suggestions about new bike-lane projects can be filed. CP has sat in on many of these meetings, which are always held in the neighborhood directly affected, and they usually include many representatives from both the pro-bike-lane and anti-bike-lane creed.
Nonetheless, the Pittsburgh Trib Live reported Jan. 3 that Kail-Smith was motivated to set up a bike-lane committee due to “numerous complaints about existing lanes Downtown from residents who say they take up space for street parking and cause traffic congestion.”
But the assertion that bike lanes cause more congestion actually runs contrary to studies in multiple big cities across the country. In New York City, a protected bike lane on Columbus Avenue actually improved congestion, decreasing travel time for cars from 4.5 minutes to 3 minutes along a 20-block stretch. In Minneapolis, the U.S.’s top bike-commuting city, news-data website fivethirtyeight.com studied 10 segments in the Minnesota city in 2014 and determined that the addition of a bike lane at the cost of a car lane had no affect on traffic times for cars.
In fact, a 2013 University of Virginia study shows that bike riders only reduce congestion when they have bike lanes to ride in. The Fort Pitt Boulevard proposed extension to Downtown's protected bike lane would add about half-a-mile of lanes and connect directly to the Great Allegheny Passage trail, which runs to Washington, D.C.
The proposed bike-lane advisory committee will be discussed at 10 a.m. Wed., Jan 11, in the city council chambers, located on the fifth floor of the City-County Building at 414 Grant St., Downtown.
By Ryan Deto
on Thu, Jan 5, 2017 at 11:14 AM
Photo courtesy of Envision Downtown
Strawberry Way before (left) and after (right)
The alley known as Strawberry Way that slices through the northern section of Downtown, from Liberty to Grant streets, has always been a shortcut for some Pittsburgh pedestrians, but not always a desirable one. Trash was usually strewn across its asphalt and the blank, high walls of skyscrapers hurried walkers through as fast as their feet could carry them.
Then this summer, thanks to the work of public-private partnership Envision Downtown and others, the alley was transformed. Colorful designs were painted on the blacktop by local artist Deanna Mance, roadblocks were put up to stop cars from driving through, and picnic tables and planter boxes were placed on the street to encourage people to enjoy their new Downtown oasis.
Last week, the national transit and urban planning news site Streetsblog USA awarded Strawberry Way its Best Street Transformation, People’s Choice. The Pittsburgh alley beat out five other projects in cities including San Francisco, Chicago and Atlanta.
“Strawberry Way is the latest example of partnerships at work to promote a people-first Downtown Pittsburgh,” wrote Sean Luther of Envision Downtown in an email to City Paper. “In this case, Envision Downtown relied heavily on a coalition of the PDP, the City’s Department of Public Works, the Office of Public Art, the Colcom Foundation and PPG Paints to drive this transformative project forward.”
The Strawberry Way transformation won the honor by receiving the most votes on the Streetsblog USA website.
In addition to being more aesthetically pleasing than before, Luther says the the project has resulted in a 43 percent increase in pedestrian traffic through the alley, according to a study completed by Envision Downtown. Also, there has been an outstanding 462 percent increase in people spending time in Strawberry Way.
Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto is proud of Strawberry Way’s transformation too. “Strawberry Way is a great example of our community-driven vision for making Pittsburgh a sustainable and efficient 21st Century city for all,” wrote Peduto in an email to CP.
Check out the CP video below to see the transformation in progress.
By Ryan Deto
on Fri, Dec 30, 2016 at 10:49 AM
CP photo by Ryan Deto
Grab your free connect card before 2016 ends.
Starting New Year's Day (Sun., Jan. 1, 2017), there will be a slew of changes coming to how riders pay for and ride on Port Authority of Allegheny County buses and light-rail cars. Most riders have probably been reminded hundreds of times by the media, Port Authority advertisements and bus drivers themselves, but Pittsburgh City Paper thought it prudent to offer one final reminder.
Also, Fri., Dec. 30, and Sat., Dec. 31, are the last days to get a free ConnectCard at the Downtown Port Authority Service Center at 534 Smithfield St., participating Giant Eagle grocery stores and a lots of other locations. ConnectCards will cost $1 starting Jan. 1, 2017. And you'll want to have one, because the cash fare is rising from $2.50 to $2.75; ConnectCard users will pay $2.50.
Since the $3.75 Zone 2 fare charge is being scrapped and all fares will be $2.75 or less, the changes should provide a boost to some suburban riders who rely on the bus to get around. And there are also some policy changes that could help riders with disabilities.
All the changes are outlined below:
$2.50 fare throughout whole system if using ConnectCard
$2.75 cash fare
$1 transfers using ConnectCard only (cash users will have to pay $2.75 again if transferring)
$1 fee to purchase new ConnectCards
7-day pass available for purchase
Half-fare passes for people with disabilities will be available on ConnectCards, as will reduced-fare child passes eventually.
Pay-as-you-enter on all routes
Exit through back door(s) on all routes. (Riders unable to use back door can exit at front.)
Elimination of the Downtown free zone for bus rides. (Light-rail will still be free Downtown and to the North Shore.)
Suburban light-rail riders will operate on a honor system and will tap cards either in car or on receptacles on stations, starting July 2017.
By Ryan Deto
on Mon, Nov 7, 2016 at 5:01 PM
Image courtesy of WOW air
For years, the only all-season international flights out of Pittsburgh International Airport were one-hour journeys to Toronto, a city just a five-hour drive from Pittsburgh.
But today it was announced PIT airport will finally be seeing year-round flights again across international borders with flights to Iceland. WOW air has announced four flights a week from Pittsburgh to Reykjavik, Iceland's capital, starting in on June 16. From the volcanic nation's capital, WOW also offers connections to 20 European cities, including Paris, Rome, London and Barcelona.
“We are excited to once again have year-round transatlantic service with easy access to Europe,” Allegheny County Airport Authority CEO Christina Cassotis said in a press release.
WOW air is a low-cost carrier that has been rapidly expanding into U.S. markets, with Pittsburgh becoming its first midsize city to receive service. Flights are currently on sale from Pittsburgh to Iceland and beyond, with some one-way flights for as low as $99. (However, rates in the summer months are about triple that.)
Regardless, Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald is thrilled to see Pittsburgh get more European flights.
“Our recent growth and momentum at Pittsburgh International is matching the momentum and growth of our region," said Fitzgerald in a press release. "WOW recognized Pittsburgh’s pent-up demand for air service to Europe, and the airline will greatly enhance travelers’ options.”
And WOW's CEO Skúli Mogensen feels that the airline's expansion into Pittsburgh will work as a two-way benefit, also attracting Europeans to the Steel City. (Maybe they will want to visit our potential Whiskey Museum.)
“Pittsburgh is certainly a destination on the rise and one that will appeal to a wide range of European travelers looking to discover somewhere different, so we’re thrilled to add the destination to our route list,” said Mogensen in a press release.
But while excitement seems to be in the air at the airport, riders on WOW might want to temper their enthusiasm; the low-cost carrier only allows one carry-on bag per passenger and the fees can reach as high as $100 on a one-way flight.
By Ryan Deto
on Fri, Oct 21, 2016 at 1:19 PM
CP photo by Theo Schwarz
Susan Hicks ghost bike on Forbes Avenue in Oakland
When Susan Hicks was bicycling in Oakland on Oct. 23, 2015, she was riding the exact way Pennsylvania law told her to: as if she were driving a car.
Unfortunately for the University of Pittsburgh educator, and for those who loved her, a car collided into a car behind her and caused a chain reaction that squeezed Hicks in between two vehicles and ultimately resulted in her death. Now, on the near anniversary of that tragic day, advocates and friends are organizing a group ride to honor Hicks and to bring awareness to bike-safety issues.
"Remembering Susan helps us remember her legacy of making the world a better place to live, which include the safety improvements that are so necessary in Oakland," Eric Boerer of Bike Pittsburgh wrote in an email to Pittsburgh City Paper. He is helping organize the event with Hicks' close friends.
Hicks' death, as well as the death of cyclist Dennis Flanagan in the West End, was the last straw for many bike advocates in Pittsburgh. On Aug. 31, hundreds of advocates packed a room at Carnegie Mellon University, demanding that PennDOT start to create more bike-friendly infrastructure, starting with Forbes Avenue in Oakland, were Hicks was killed.
Dawn Seckler, a close friend of Hicks, says that Hicks was a very passionate academic adviser to her students who helped them get grants and scholarships.
"Susan was really that kind of adviser that would get students really excited about getting opportunities," says Seckler. "And she would work hard to make those possibilities become realities."
To celebrate Hicks' life as a cyclist and educator, her close friends started a scholarship fund last year in her honor. Seckler says that Hicks had such a positive effect on people, that the fund raised more than $20,000 in less than a year, and a Pitt student has already received money from the scholarship.
"This was a really tangible way that we could create a legacy to Susan's energy," says Seckler.
Seckler adds that the cycling community has also been instrumental in advocating for Hicks.
"Susan was a multifaceted person," says Seckler. "She had more than one community, and these communities have been engaging with one another. The biking community has been able to mobilize her advocacy and get to know this really unique woman. We all have so many communities, and they don't always come together, and it has been wonderful seeing these communities come together."
For those wishing to participate, a memorial event starts at 4:30 p.m. today (Oct. 21) at the Hicks ghost bike, near the corner of Forbes and South Bellefield avenues, near the Carnegie Music Hall. A memorial group ride then starts at 5:30 p.m. from the ghost bike to Brillobox in Bloomfield, where a fundraiser happy hour will be held from 5 to 8 p.m.
By Ryan Deto
on Fri, Oct 14, 2016 at 3:06 PM
On Oct. 11, Pittsburgh government groups and nonprofits released a video aimed at reminding pedestrians in Downtown to stay off their phones when crossing the street. A grim reaper walks up to distracted pedestrians and shouts zingers like, “I love the cell phones, makes my job so much easier.”
The video is an advertisement for the campaign “Look Alive, Pittsburgh,” which will run throughout October with improv actors dressed as grim reapers confronting Downtown pedestrians who are on their phones while crossing the street.
Gabriel McMorland is a member of the Pittsburgh City-Allegheny County Task Force on Disabilities, and he advocates for people with disabilities and pedestrians. He has issues with the video because he says it puts too much of the onus on pedestrians to avoid being hit by cars, when drivers are often distracted at the wheel.
"The Look Alive campaign follows the same victim-blaming logic we see in far too many public discussions about people in vulnerable situations,” wrote McMorland in an email to Pittsburgh City Paper. “I'd much rather see a crew of these grim-reaper puppets pushing cars out of the crosswalks or calling out drivers for texting behind the wheel. We've got a culture that accepts life-threatening behavior from drivers as the norm, and I'd like to see more efforts to change that."
According to a study by Ohio State University, the percentage of pedestrians killed while using cell phones has risen from less than 1 percent in 2004 to more than 3.5 percent in 2010.
Some pedestrians in the video seem unaware of their surroundings, and the grim reaper scares a few who are staring at phones as they cross the street. However, each person that is walking while texting appears to be crossing the street on a walk signal and within the designated crosswalk.
McMorland believes there is a better strategy for pedestrian safety. He references an advocate in Mexico City, who dresses up as a wrestler and blocks cars as pedestrians cross the street, as a superior example of how to avoid pedestrian death by cars.
And it’s not just pedestrian advocates who are upset with the campaign. Adam Shuck, curator of the popular lunchtime newsletter Eat That, Read This, tweeted criticism of the video, saying this “grim reaper pedestrian victim-blaming stunt is some hot garbage.”
The video was produced by the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership and PDP spokesperson Leigh White says the intent was “to use humor to encourage pedestrians to be more self-aware.” She says PDP acknowledges the criticism, but believes the campaign is and will be successful.
“While we have heard some criticism of the campaign, and suggestions that there is an element of victim-blaming, we feel the campaign only encourages pedestrians to reduce behaviors that place themselves at increased risk and in no way absolves vehicles of their responsibility to make pedestrian safety a paramount concern,” wrote White in an email to CP. “We plan to address driver distraction in the next phase of the campaign, with the same goals of reducing behaviors that increase risk to pedestrians, bikers and other vehicles.”
The initiative plans to address distracted drivers by using Downtown bus shelters. The shelters will have white panel advertisements that read “We’re keeping this space blank. So you can keep your eyes on the road.”
Also, electronic “geo-fencing” perimeters will be placed at high-traffic intersections and will place pop-up advertisements on user’s cell phones reminding both pedestrians and drivers to monitor the intersection.
“We have all been guilty of being a distracted driver or pedestrian. We look forward to using the very technology that is distracting to promote our safety-awareness efforts and encourage people to keep their attention where it is needed” said PDP president Jeremy Waldrup in the campaign’s initial press release.
By Ryan Deto
on Mon, Jul 18, 2016 at 3:41 PM
Image courtesy of Pittsburgh Department of City Planning
An example of Complete Streets design
"Complete Streets" should be coming to Pittsburgh soon, and the city is asking for input. The idea, which brings equity to roadways by ensuring cars, pedestrians, cyclists and public transit riders have equal access to streets, will be the first of its kind in the region says Kristin Saunders, the city's bike and pedestrian coordinator.
“We want to build a city that accommodates people walking, taking public transit, biking, and people driving,” Saunders said to a crowd of 50 at the South Side Market House on July 7. “Our streets should be great public spaces.”
She presented a draft of the city’s Complete Streetspolicy during the public meeting, and laid out how the city plans to redesign streets to accommodate all users. She said roadways could receive complete streets designs in three ways: by creating new roadways, during street pavings and utility replacements, and through large-scale capital improvement projects. She says this helps to limit costs, since pavings and replacements were scheduled anyway and grants are a separate source of funding from the city’s capital budget.
In fact, one Pittsburgh road will be seeing some equitable road design in the near future. Broadway Avenue in Beechview will be redesigned with friendlier sidewalks, improved light-rail stations and, possibly, Pittsburgh’s first bike lanes shielded by parked cars thanks to a $600,000 state grant awarded to the neighborhood.
“This is such fantastic news for Beechview,” said Pittsburgh City Councilor Natalia Rudiak in a statement. “The neighborhood is poised for renewal with young families buying homes and developers taking on major renovations. Now, our public infrastructure can be more accessible and attractive.”
However, there will be some exceptions, and Eric Boerer of bike-advocacy group Bike Pittsburgh asked at the meeting who would decide what streets are excluded from complete streets design. Saunders said an advisory committee will make those choices and decisions on the committee’s size and makeup, which are not final. She did hint that they will involve members of city government and advocacy groups, however.
But for those who wish to ensure their voices are heard, comments can be given here. Respondents can also send letters to the Department of City Planning offices at 200 Ross St., Fourth Floor, Pittsburgh, PA 15222.The public comment period closes on July 25.
A meeting is also being held tonight (July 18) to receive public input for Pittsburgh's new citywide bike plan at the 1319 Allegheny Ave., North Side from 6-8 p.m. Two more bike-plan public meetings will be held in the next two weeks at various locations around Pittsburgh. Check the city planning department’s calendar for details.