Thursday, August 26, 2010

Public Transit IV: PAT

Six years ago when PAT faced a similar issue, my attitude was different - I did wrote a public comment but it was quite simpleminded and other than that I continued bickering about it as most Pittsburgh bus riders did. In all honesty, six years ago I had no MBA degree and I did not know much about America and Americans. I was fresh Pittsburgh resident who came from Europe , where public transit not only works differently but is also viewed quite differently –even when at its worse.

This year, I decided for a different attitude. I decided to do some research and use my MBA trained brain to come up with some suggestions for PAT.

But let’s start from the beginning:

Pittsburgh, PA, USA

Country GDP @purchasing power parity $14.26 trillion (2009 est.)/ per capita $46,400 (2009 est.) ( )

Pittsburgh Urban Area: 852 sq mi Population: 1, 753,000 ( ) [1]

Public Transit : Port Authority of Allegheny County (PAT)

Covers: a 775 square-mile area that includes Pittsburgh and its suburbs throughout Allegheny County
Serves: on average 228,719 riders per weekday

Among the urban areas covered by my first post on the topic –Public Transit I- two areas bear at least a geographic resemblance with Pittsburgh Urban Area: the city of Budapest and Regio-Verkehrsbund Freiburg(RVF). However if we also consider demographics ( purchase power, lifestyle etc. ) , the public transit service which PAT may consider for benchmarking remains RVF.

Now, the steps that PAT is taking, as we speak, are meant to improve  the quality of Public Transit offers as well as traffic flow, by using strategies which are somewhat similar with the ones used by RVF . For example they are introducing magnetic cards as a form of payment to ease the current system that requires most riders to carry small currency in order to purchase a transfer (yes I know, how obsolete...).

However, as they say it in my old country, one cannot bring spring with only one flower. PAT working towards improving their marketing and operations is a good start, but just a start.And PAT alone cannot change the pitiful condition of Public Transit in the Allegheny County. PAT alone cannot implement a transit system that is comparable with RVF.

Another difference , and a major issue for the US transit : Public Policies.

It is interesting to note that in Germany as in U.S, the crisis of public transit started soon after WWII following an increase in motorization and suburbanization. However, Public Transit in Germany took a very different path from the one in US, especially following the 1970s energy crisis.

An excellent article on the topic is Buehler's (2009)  comparison of passengers and policies in Germany and the U.S.
Ridership: Like in the US, the demand for public transit is higher in urban areas. However , Germans living in suburban and rural areas are more likely to use public transits than Americans in urban areas. Also, Germans living within 1km (0.62 miles) from  a bus stop are more likely to use public transit than Americans living within 400 meters (0.25 miles)  from a bus stop. American bus riders are poorer than German bus riders. And while the rate of increase in car ownership since 1976 is comparable for both Germany and America  , the share of all trips  by public transportation  remains constant in Germany but decreased from 2.6% to 1.6% in U.S . Another  German study , including a larger percentage of homemakers, shows a decrease in the share of all trips by public transportation from 12% to 8%[2] (Buehler, 2009).

Why the difference?

Different attitudes

For example, the fact that American riders are poorer indicates that in U.S. public transportation services are focused on people that are unable to drive a car -because they cannot afford one or because they are too young or too poor. Now, if we eliminate the riders under 18, and we consider the  the other market segments -the poor and the disabled - in correlation with American culture , the conclusion is striking. In the U.S. public transit is considered by the public as well as their representatives as an alternative for the society's destitute no different than public assistance services such as welfare and food stamps. Therefore, the public attitude towards public transportation is also different as many potential riders may consider riding a bus something that is not dignifying. Unlike their American counterparts, Germans are more likely to use public transit indifferent of income or car ownership and, to a much larger extent, as a viable alternative for commuters. The way that politicians and their constituents regard public transportation is also different. At the local level, it is an alternative which lowers congestion in urban area and the  pollution damage to historical buildings. At the state and federal level it is a green, sustainable alternative. And for riders it is, beyond being the  only option for the poor and disabled, a comfortable alternative to spending empty hours commuting by car [3].

 Different public policies.
For example, in Germany subsidies for operation costs are negotiated only with the local governments. A strategy which holds several advantages.
First, subsidies are comparable to demand and thus face less opposition from constituents with low access (to no access ) to public transit.[4]
Second, local communities are more involved in the success of public transportation projects. Therefore the success of integrating public transportation services at a local and regional level (Buehler, 2009). Among the consequences of  successful integration of transit services , financing and schedule are  :
  1. A better, more effective  distribution of subsidies resulting in lower subsides per rider than in U.S.
  2. Service dependability and convenience - Basically anyone living 20 miles away from an urban center is able to use the same monthly pass to take a regional train into town and commute from the railway center to his workplace by taking advantage of coordination between timetable, fares and routes.
  3. Better coordination with walking and bike riding - with special lanes for bikes and sidewalks, marked streetcrossing points and priority for pedestrians. [5]

     Germany does not subsidize personal vehicle transportation. In fact, their policies are quite restrictive when in comes to urban centers as heavy traffic does not lead only to congestion but also to pollution and damage to historical buildings. This policy encourage the use of public transportation for daily, routine commutes that do not justify the use of a personal vehicle. Especially since the time spent in traffic is not lost -one can use it to read, work, communicate with peers.Plus, the design of public transportation vehicles accommodates: wheelchairs and strollers on a lower platform in the middle of the bus and  access through all doors, reducing the time for getting passengers on and off .[6]

Land Use/Development Policies:

Another major difference between Germany and the U.S. is with respect to land use and development strategies.Ryan and Throgmorton (2003) compare the land development strategies in Freiburg, Germany and Chula Vista , California. New Developments in Germany are so designed that they are coordinated with public transportation development projects. In the Freiburg region , access to public transportation is seen as the main solution to traffic congestion. In Chula Vista , however, the strategy for new developments is to broaden the area and increase distances. The article's conclusion is somewhat surprising for a 2010 reader: both land development strategies are considered sustainable from a local point of view. However, as gas prices went up... Compared to 2006 in  2007 the Chula Vista region registered a 159.5% increase in foreclosures[7].

Now, there is still a lot for PAT to learn from RVF through benchmarking. But it is also a lot that PAT cannot do because it cannot change public policies by itself -it cannot pave sidewalks, it cannot change land use policies or decide where its subsidies come from - though it can lobby for it. This is were we, the public, can help by contacting our local and state Representatives. Or...

you may feel free to comment with other ideas, suggestions. Unless you only want to bicker about subsidies:  don't bother, you know my answer- I do resent to pay taxes too, especially if it is so you can get gas at subsidized prices or bail out GM so you can still buy your made in America car.

Special thanks to:
@bus15237 @shadow @TransitGuru @PGHtransit
Buehler R.(2009) -Promoting Public Transportation: A Comparison of Passengers and Policies in Germany and the U.S. Transportation Research Record: Journal of Transportation Research Board, No.2110, 2009, pp.60-68
Ryan, S.  Throgmorton, J. (2003) - Sustainable Transportation and Land Development on the Periphery: A Case Study of Freiburg, Germany and Chula Vista, California. Urban & Regional Planning Publications. University of Iowa retrieved from :


[1]Pittsburgh Urban includes the city (population about 316,000, area about 58.3 sq mi) as well as the surrounding administrative units with an overall density of at least 500 people per square mile –the Allegheny County and parts of Butler, Beaver, Westmoreland and Washington counties as well.
[2] the different results of the two surveys may indicate that public transit is widely used by people,  belonging  to the middle class & employed,  to  commute to and from work.
[3] Germany offers "higher levels and better quality of  public transportation supply", notes Buehler (2009, p.2). In plain English, public transportation vehicles are better maintained & equipped and services are reliable, accessible and dependable.
[4]That means no more opposition from middle PA. Constituents in those areas argue , and do it rightly that as they have to drive miles to work and even shopping it will be unfair for them to pay extra taxes on fuel to subsidize a service they cannot use. On the other side it is also unfair for urban dwellers to pay subsidies in order to keep car transportation at lower costs.
[5] accessibility is not reduced to distance. On a personal note, my question about a potential paved sidewalk from the end of my street to the bus stop on an area that is already covered by something one can hardly call "gravel" received a "will let you know" with no follow-up message from my borough. I suppose they hope I'll forget about it.
[6] If anyone is interested to find out more about the way rapid turnover can reduce costs I suggest this book :The Southwest Airlines Way
[7] on average. (

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