Transit Equity in Pittsburgh

Laura Greenberg (MAUD ’20)

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Few city agencies are as fortunate as the Port Authority of Allegheny County (PAAC). As the public transit system authority for Pittsburgh, they are the stewards of two of the cites most iconic elements: the Duquesne and the Monongahela inclines. Built in the 1870s to enable steel workers to get from their houses atop the hill to the mills that once lined the rivers, the two inclines are still a part of the public transit system and are beloved by locals and visitors alike. More than just an utterly charming part of the city, the inclines are a physical reminder of the lengths we were once willing to go to get people to work.

In the modern era, the projects undertaken by the PAAC indicate a massive shift in priorities. The biggest project in recent memory is the expansion of the T (that’s right Boston, you’re not the only ones with a T) from Downtown to the North Shore. The T is a light rail system that primarily brings in commuters from neighboring towns, and does not serve most of the residential neighborhoods in city limits. The 2012 project extended the T beneath the Allegheny River to the site of the football and baseball stadiums in an effort to spur development in the area and make it easier for fans to get to-and-from games. This effort took 6 years and cost $500 million to complete, at a time when the PAAC was in a full-blown budget crisis (Metro). The bus service that constitutes the primary mode of public transportation for the entire city was cut en masse, primarily to low-income neighborhoods that rely on them the most. To add insult to injury, in the midst of this budget crisis, rides to the shiny new North Shore T stop were completely subsidized by the Steelers and the North Shore Casino for the first three years upon completion in order to establish ridership, as there was so little demand (Schmitz). There is no end in sight: the current top mass transit priority is building a $200 million Bus Rapid Transit system between Downtown and Oakland, a neighborhood home to our top colleges and medical facilities (Clift).

In the face of economic development priorities and flashy projects that attract federal funding, it seems to be difficult to justify spending money on bus route expansions and maintenance that would help the people who rely on it the most. What is the responsibility of the urban designer in all of this? I attended a symposium at Northeastern last semester on the topic of addressing Racial and Economic Inequalities through transit. This featured a wide range of speakers from the head of the BPDA to a local Reverend to former Governor Michael Dukakis (Closing the Gaps). Out of 20 speakers, there was not a single urban designer. I interpret this as a failure on our part to demonstrate our relevance in addressing a “planning” issue.

As a first-year Urban Design student at the MAUD program here at GSD, I am cautious of overstating our field of influence, but in this case, it is vital there be a role for us. If our realm includes the physical experience of the public realm, then surely this includes creating dignified spaces for public transit riders to await their chariots. Surely this includes illustrating design scenarios that convey the benefits of creating a more robust transit system for lower income neighborhoods. And surely, this includes advocating for transit expansion that addresses social inequity, not simply real estate development desires. If we were once willing to conquer mountains to move the working class, couldn’t (and shouldn’t) we do it again?


  1. Clift, Theresa.  “Pittsburgh International CEO: “We’ll be ready” if light rail to airport ever happens.”  Tribune Live, 4 Apr. 2018, www.  Accessed 24 October 2018.

  2. Closing the Gaps in a Just City – Addressing Racial and Economic Inequalities in Greater Boston – Transportation.  Northeastern University, 19 Oct. 2018.  Accessed 22 October 2018.

  3. Metro of Pittsburgh, Mapa Metro, 2010.  Accessed 23 October 2018. 

  4. Schmitz, Jon.  “Trips to North Shore T section will be free.”  Pittsburgh Post Gazette, 23 Feb. 2012,  Accessed 23 October 2018.