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Stop the Madness 

What's wrong with public transit? Sometimes it's the public.

The Port Authority has its problems: rising fuel costs, a protracted battle with the drivers' union, that irritating woman on her cell phone ...

But part of the problem with public transportation is ... the public.

Consider this fact, revealed in a Port Authority "peer review" comparing itself to transit agencies in nine other cities. The average Port Authority bus has more than 20 bus stops per square mile it serves. Of the nine other comparison cities, only Milwaukee has a higher density. As for the T -- that bus-on-rails which calls itself a light-rail system -- it has nearly three stops per mile. That's two to three times the number in most other peer cities.

No one who rides on, or behind, a bus will be surprised by that. And the finding has already generated some attention thanks to a blog authored by Ken Zapinski, a senior vice president at the Allegheny Conference on Community Development. "Portland and Seattle, two locales that transit advocates love to gush over, have 13.2 and 9.2" bus stops per square mile, he notes at nocommuterleftbehind.wordpress.com.

So why is our system so congested? Blame your fellow riders.

"We have more than 17,000 transit stops in Allegheny County, and if you ask people if that's too many, they say yes," says Port Authority spokesperson Judi McNeil. "But it's always someone else's stop they want to get rid of."

It's easy for guys like Zapinski and me to mock the profusion of stops. I'm built like an Olympic swimmer, and Allegheny Conference members are skilled in unarmed combat: If our stop closes, it's no problem for us to walk a few extra blocks. But Pittsburgh has a notoriously tricky geography, and a lot of seniors trying to negotiate it. Seventeen percent of Allegheny County residents are age 65 or older, among the highest percentages in the country. In the counties housing Seattle and Portland, the percentage of seniors is less than 11 percent, well below the U.S. average.

What's more, those oldsters have plenty of time on their hands.

In the late 1990s, for example, the Port Authority tried to reduce the number of T stops. "There was one stop where we saw about two people in the course of a couple days," McNeil recalls. But when the Port Authority proposed removing that stop, "More than 200 people showed up at a public hearing and swore they used the stop every day."

And while McNeil wasn't anxious to discuss this point, there are neighborhoods where the Port Authority has special reason to tread carefully.

Ever ride the T through Beechview, where seemingly every other block has its own stop? I'm guessing that has something to do with Beechview's status as the stomping grounds of the politically powerful Wagner family. (In fact, the T lumbers past a bar owned by the Wagners known as The Huddle, conveniently located near the stop at Coast.) Jack Wagner, the state's auditor general, has blasted the Port Authority in the past, and in recent months urged an overhaul of its board. Would the authority risk angering him, just to remove the stop at Belasco?

Something has to give. Stopping and starting every few blocks wastes costly fuel, and idling bus engines reduce air quality. In fact, the agency is working on a sweeping overhaul of the system, a draft of which is due out in early 2009. The system will likely have more "feeder routes" taking riders to the T and to busways. Lots of people think that's a good idea, but there's been little discussion of the likely downside: more transfers, fewer direct trips Downtown -- and fewer stops.

Right now, the Port Authority is taking on the drivers, who are an easy target. Everyone, from the Allegheny Conference on down, complains about their salaries, and we all have a surly-driver story. But labor talks mark the beginning, not the end, of changes to the system.

Clearly, the Port Authority could be improved: Some of Wagner's criticisms -- over the agency's move from the North Side to pricier digs Downtown, for example -- have been well made. But politicians demanding more efficient management should be careful what they wish for. So should riders who want streamlined service. Down the road, we may get such a system -- and as a whole be better off for it. But drivers may not be alone in feeling they were thrown under the bus.

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