Public transit expert Jarrett Walker loves Pittsburgh’s busways | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper
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Public transit expert Jarrett Walker loves Pittsburgh’s busways 

The public-transit consultant has redesigned bus networks across the globe and believes Pittsburgh’s busways could be key in the region’s successful transit future.

click to enlarge Penn nusway station, Downtown - CP PHOTO: RYAN DETO
  • CP photo: Ryan Deto
  • Penn nusway station, Downtown
Jarrett Walker is a bit of guru on redesigning bus networks. He has worked with networks in Houston, Columbus, and Seattle, and has seen successes in those cities. He is wrapping up work in Dublin, Ireland.

Walker is in Pittsburgh for the Rail~Volution conference in Downtown. He is not weighing in on whether Port Authority of Allegheny County should or shouldn’t alter its bus network, but he did sit down with Pittsburgh City Paper to discuss Pittsburgh’s big public transit opportunity: busways.

Pittsburgh has three busways: South, West, and East (aka Martin Luther King Jr.). Each are a dedicated right of ways that are free from everyday traffic. Only public buses, emergency vehicles, and some special government vehicles are allowed to ride in the busways.

"I am a huge fan of Pittsburgh's busways,” says Walker. “They remove one big disadvantage of rail, which is that when you get to the end of the infrastructure everyone has to get off. The buses keep going off the ends of the busways to go wherever it makes sense to go.”

click to enlarge Jarrett Walker - PHOTO COURTESY HUMANTRANSIT.ORG
  • Photo courtesy humantransit.org
  • Jarrett Walker
Walker says Pittsburgh’s busways “make sense” for areas they serve, and the region's light-rail makes sense for the areas it serves.

Take the East busway. It stretches from Swissvale, through the East End, and into Downtown. It carries 24,000 riders a day. Several buses use the busway and exit it to then ride on suburban streets to serve communities like Penn Hills, McKeesport, Oakmont, and Monroeville. The busway itself serves dense parts of Pittsburgh and bordering suburbs, but since buses are not confined to tracks like trains, they can branch out and pick up more passengers that don't live in walking distance to the busway.

Walker says pro-bus arguments are starting to hit the mainstream.

“Relatively recently, we have been having conversations about bus systems, at the right level of public decision making,” says Walker. “The notion that buses can be useful, is relatively new.”

In fact, public transit advocates are starting to heavily focus on the advantages of the busway. They even want to expand it. Pittsburghers for Public Transit have called for the extension of the East Busway to Monroeville, along with other transit-friendly initiatives. PPT is hosting an event in conjunction with Rail~Volution on Wednesday to explain their advocacy for busway expansion.

Walker believes Pittsburgh’s busways have opportunities that goes beyond transit service. On Monday, he took a trip on the busway from Downtown to Wilkinsburg. He said housing development near busways could be much greater than it is now.
Right now, the only station with somewhat dense development nearby (a term called “transit-oriented development") is the East Liberty Station. On the East Busway, there are large scale development opportunities at the old Iron City brewery complex near the Herron Station, the Lexington Technology Park near the Homewood Station, and areas near the Wilkinsburg station.

Walker says one way to make housing affordable near transit is to make parking requirements low. He mentions some of the newer East Liberty apartment complexes may have included too much parking, which could have driven up their costs.

"In Portland, we zone for high density not just around rapid transit stations, but also around frequent bus lines,” says Walker, who lives in the Oregon city. “We also require less parking for apartments near frequent transit, because if you're going to live at high density on good transit, it means you're less likely to need one car per adult. That's how you make housing affordable, because too much parking makes high density too expensive."

Because of the potential of Pittsburgh's busways and the dense development they can encourage, Walker believes the city has a great opportunity grow around public transit, and avoid some traffic issues.

“You have so much going for you in Pittsburgh,” says Walker. “I live in Portland, Oregon. We are choking on prosperity, and we need you to take some of it. If you are going to build high density, put it in places that people can get to with transit.”

The Rail~Volution conference is being held at the Wyndham Hotel in Downtown and continues through Wednesday.
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