[Possibly the first in a series of articles for those thinking about moving to Pittsburgh. This is from the point of view of someone who didn’t grow up here and probably wouldn’t have moved here if it weren’t for family reasons. I’d like to think my view is somewhere between the born-and-raised, love-it-or-leave-it types and than the I’m-stuck-here-in-hell-for-four-years college crowd.]
Over on the Pittsburgh Livejournal there are regular questions from people thinking of moving here wanting to know what live in Pittsburgh is like. I was writing this as a response to one of those but decided to flesh it out a bit and put it here.
It’s true that individual people in Pittsburgh are very nice here. I’ve met some really great people in the year and a half I’ve lived here and the level of kindness they’ve shown reminds me of where I grew up in rural Louisiana.
However, some days about the only thing I can say nice about Pittsburgh is that the people are nice and the houses are cheap. Pittsburgh can be a hostile city in many ways if you’re an outsider, especially if you’re an outsider who wants or needs to rely on public transit.
It’s not an open hostility — you’ll never see a “Welcome to Pittsburgh, please go home!” bumpersticker — it’s simply that Pittsburgh is still suffering from post-steel-collapse diaspora. The folks who stayed don’t seem to be interested in changing things to keep people here, much less attract new people to the region. Simple infrastructure like street signage and public transportation are broken or failing, but people here are so used to the way it’s always been that they don’t realize how bad it’s become. Pittsburgh has great potential as a city but instead of fixing the simple things that make life easier, the city (and county and surrounding towns) spend what little capital they have building sporting stadiums and casinos and ignore the fundamental needs of the city.
If you grew up here, you don’t need the signs and you’re used to the decaying public transit system. If you live outside of a few select neighborhoods, you probably own a car or rarely leave your neighborhood. If you’re new to Pittsburgh, even driving with a map in one hand and a local in the passenger seat won’t keep you from taking the wrong exit or questioning the competence of the people who locate street signs. Sadly, taking public transit isn’t a reliable substitute, as public transit here is “the suck”, as the kids say. I’ve lived in cities with bad public transit (ex: Houston), but in those places it was simply a lack of public transit in the first place or a public transit system designed only to support suburban commuters getting into the city. In Pittsburgh, public transit is a decaying remnant of what once must have been an excellent network of buses and streetcars. Many of the buses are old and in need of repair — some even run without operating toll collection equipment and everybody rides for free on that run.
Public transit here is run at the county level by the Port Authority of Allegheny County, which everyone still calls by its previous name, “PAT”. No, I don’t know why the Port Authority runs public transit here, but they do. On the face of it, having it run at the county level is a good idea, as there are a kerjillion little tiny towns surrounding Pittsburgh that need public transit but can’t afford to operate it on their own.
I don’t know the history of PAT and the Port Authority, but within a few weeks of taking the bus I started to believe that transit here was designed and maintained not only by people who do not take public transit, but people who’ve never taken public transit in any other city on Earth. The recently hired CEO of the Port Authority has transportation experience in other cities, but looking at the bios of the nine board members I can only find one person with any transportation experience or that claims to be an active user of public transportation. That the other eight members — mostly lawyers and accountants — profess no experience nor claim to be an active user of public transportation probably explains a lot of the Port Authority’s current problems.
Making matters worse, the Port Authority’s plan for dealing with budget shortfalls is to eliminate routes, not to cut salaries, to raise rates or to figure out how to convince more people to ride buses and thereby increase revenue. Favoritism and financial problems abound — there was an article in the paper recently about how most of the PAT officials have special passes that let them drive on the bus-only express lanes so they can avoid regular traffic on the parkways. The financial scandals surrounding Port Authority pensions are outrageous and our lack of “Sunshine Laws” make it difficult to find out how bad things really are.
So on the one hand, you have an aging, failing bus system with the people in charge mostly being politicians and lawyers, not transit experts nor users of public transit and who seem to have little personal incentive to improve the transit system. On the other hand, you have a bus system that seems to have been invented in isolation from all other bus systems in the world and that is in need of not just repair, but complete redesign to make it more rider-friendly. (And on the third hand, you have a minority public opinion that considers public transit socialism wanting it to be privatized or self-supporting.)
If you do take the bus here, one of the biggest problems you’ll have adjusting to is the bizarro-world payment system: you pay to get on or to get off depending on the time of day and the direction the bus is headed. How do you know when to pay? Sometimes the bus driver will put their hand over the fare box when you get on, meaning you’ll pay when you get off. You can only get off the rear of certain buses at certain times of the day, so figuring out how to not move to the back of the bus even tho the driver is yelling at you is always fun. Another thing to get used to is that buses with similar names and numbers go to similar parts of the city except when they go to completely different places or take an express route that skips stops.
If you’re from Pittsburgh and you’re reading this, you’re probably thinking, “It’s not hard to understand once you’ve learned it.” Here’s the thing — no other bus system I’ve ever used works this way. Visitors and tourists shouldn’t have to learn some bizarro-world method of using the bus. No one should have to “learn” to use a bus system when they move to or visit a new town. I’ve seen bus drivers yell at people for not paying when it’s pretty clear the person doesn’t speak much English and is having a hard time figuring out what it is they’ve just done wrong. I’ve been yelled at myself a couple of times — I showed my pass when I got on, nobody said anything, so I just hopped off the bus thinking things were fine, when in fact, the bus was operating in “pay off” mode, as it is called.
The schedules and bus routes are kind of confusing at first until you realize that you pretty much need to know the names of neighborhoods to know where the buses actually go. The buses I take are named after the town on the far end of the route, a place I’d never heard of until I started taking the bus. The Port Authority’s online scheduling system is good for figuring out what buses you might want to take, but to plan the details of your trip you’re often better off reading the schedules yourself. You’ll do yourself a huge favor if you go by some place like Carnegie Mellon’s UC and grab one each of all the schedules or navigate the Port Authority web site and download the PDF for each route.
And finally, there are the bus drivers. There is much urban lore about the Port Authority bus drivers, their union, and what’s in their contract. I’ve heard that they make better salaries relative to the local economy than any bus driver in America; that they get one “free” vehicular manslaughter; that they have the highest accident rate in the US; etc etc. It is true that Pittsburgh is a very pro-labor town and that the unions here are still pretty strong, so given what little we do know about financial goings on at the Port Authority, I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that the average bus driver makes more than the average police officer, nurse or firefighter. (I haven’t been able to find a copy of their contract and would love a copy or a pointer to an online copy.)
As far as I can tell, there’s pretty much no incentive for the drivers to operate the buses on schedule or be kind to passengers. Any kindness is because, as I’ve said before, people in Pittsburgh can be amazingly friendly and kind, even to us newcomers. I’ve met some really great bus drivers who really helped me out when I was lost or got on the wrong bus. One morning I was stuck on the wrong side of a divided four lane as my bus approached and the driver stopped and waited for the light to change so I could catch my bus.
But I’ve also had bus drivers look me in the face, close the door and pull away as I was trying to climb on board. One bus I rely on to get to school has a driver who treats their route like a race and is often 5-10 minutes early on a route that only runs once every 30 minutes or so. All the other drivers on the route keep to the schedule, so I end up going to the stop 10 minutes just in case Lead Foot is behind the wheel. (When it’s 10F outside or raining this is no fun at all, as there’s no shelter at my stop.) Drivers often let their friends ride for free or have long chats on their mobiles while driving in heavy traffic. I’ve complained to the Port Authority, but really, why should they care? There’s simply no incentive for their drivers to provide a good service so to paraphrase Ernestine, “We don’t have to care, we’re the Port Authority.”
Sadly, there’s not much of an alternative to the bus system if you can’t, won’t or simply don’t drive a car. Amazingly enough for a city of this size, there’s nothing like a functioning taxi system. If you want to go out somewhere and come home after midnight, or simply go somewhere there isn’t a bus route, be prepared to drive or have a friend drive you or possibly wait hours on a taxi after you’ve called dispatch. This isn’t San Francisco or New York or Chicago where you can just walk to a busy street corner and hope to catch a taxi. No, you’re going to call dispatch, and you’re going to wait. I was surprised to discover that a couple of people I know have mobile numbers of specific cab drivers that they call when they want a taxi.
It’s possible to get by without a car here in Pittsburgh, but it’s not easy. I know people who manage to live using public transit throughout the year, but I’ve also given plenty of people rides to concerts or other outings that simply aren’t served properly by public transit. If you’re part of a working couple or have roommates you can probably get by with one car if you share shopping trips and whatnot. (If you’re living in the dorms at CMU or Pitt, owning a car will be very difficult due to parking costs, but you won’t have time to drive anywhere anyway.)
So my advice: if you’re thinking of moving to Pittsburgh and living anywhere outside of Squirrel Hill, Oakland or Shadyside, plan on owning or having easy access to a car. Even if you live in one of the aforementioned neighborhoods, you’ll probably end up wanting a car for those times when you want to leave your neighborhood. If you’re looking at a suburb like Mt. Leb or Murraysville and are going to work downtown you’ll probably be well served by the T and the luxury commuter buses (individual, high-backed seats with individual reading lights!) that run to and from the suburbs.
[tags]advice, Pittsburgh, public transit[/tags]