Everything you need to know about Pittsburgh’s bus rapid transit plan

It’s a potential game-changer for the corridor from Downtown to Oakland — if federal money comes through.

What bus rapid transit could look like in Pittsburgh

What bus rapid transit could look like in Pittsburgh

Via Port Authority presentation
Sarah Anne Hughes

After years of planning, Pittsburgh, Allegheny County and Port Authority are moving forward with a plan to implement a bus system from Downtown to Oakland that has the potential to transform the way people in that corridor travel.

But that work is at risk. Under the Trump administration’s proposed budget, millions in expected federal dollars will not be made available next year.

What would Pittsburgh be missing out on if this BRT route doesn’t come to fruition? What exactly *is* bus rapid transit? Here’s a breakdown of what you need to know.

So, what is “bus rapid transit”?

Bus rapid transit, or BRT, is like a light rail system — minus the tracks. Buses have dedicated lanes, raised platforms and distinctive stations that lead to better and faster service, making the use of public transportation more attractive.

Amy Silbermann, senior data analyst for Port Authority, said BRT has the potential to create corridors in the East End “that are livable without needing to own a vehicle.”

BRT Basics_1
Via Port Authority

Where would it go in Pittsburgh?

City and county officials recently announced their preferred route, which would have stops on dedicated lanes from Downtown to Oakland through Uptown; the dedicated lanes would be on Forbes Avenue outbound and Fifth Avenue inbound. BRT buses would connect to the Martin Luther King Jr. East Busway to travel to and from Wilkinsburg through Shadyside and Homewood.

There would also be two “branch” routes that split in Oakland: one that would go through Squirrel Hill to Greenfield and another that would go to Highland Park through East Liberty. The (significant) difference is that those branches would not utilize dedicated lanes.

Screen Shot 2017-06-15 at 3.55.42 PM
Via Port Authority presentation

Silbermann explained that the branches were included in the BRT plan to limit the number of transfers, not because there’s an existing issue with speed on the route. Even though there wouldn’t be dedicated lanes, planners would install signals prioritizing the buses and queue jumps allowing the buses to move to the front of traffic.

Stops along the dedicated lanes would be spaced about every half-mile — the standard for BRT, Silbermann said — while stops on the branches would be closer together, about a third of a mile apart. Local buses on the branches will use BRT stations, so the closer spacing is “a happy medium where everyone’s gonna be a block or so from where they currently get off,” Silbermann said. The standard for spacing average Port Authority bus stops is about one sixth of a mile.

Pittsburgh’s plan also calls for bike lanes and sidewalk improvements along the route.


In orange, the proposed BRT route and branches; in purple, the existing MLK busway

Via Port Authority

I don’t live in one of those neighborhoods. Why isn’t my neighborhood getting this?

“Oakland has been looked at as a priority corridor for a more rapid transit solution for many, many years now,” Silbermann explained.

Part of the reason is “purely the numbers,” she said: This area sees more than 30 percent of Port Authority’s daily bus riders. There are 19 routes that go through Oakland, many concentrated on Fifth and Forbes avenues.

The flip side of that are issues “with reliability and consistency of our transit in that corridor,” Silbermann said.

Popularity leads to bus bunching, which leads to overcrowded or under-crowded buses, which leads to longer wait times, which leads to unhappy riders. It’s a snowball effect that bus rapid transit could do away with.

Compared to buses on Port Authority's busways, Oakland buses are basically snails.

Compared to buses on Port Authority's busways, Oakland buses are basically snails.

Via Port Authority presentation

So how much will it cost?

The players involved estimate the cost at roughly $233 million. About $80 million of that money was supposed to come from the federal Capital Investment Grant program and is now at risk under the Trump administration’s plans, as the Washington Post first reported.

Robert Rubinstein, executive director of the Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh, told the Post losing the funding would kill the project: “We don’t have enough resources locally to undertake the larger project.”

Stakeholders plan to submit an application for federal funding this fall. Assuming the financing works out — which, again, is an assumption at this point — the project could be completed within a few years.

Is there opposition to the current plan?

You bet.

People with disabilities and grassroots advocacy group Pittsburghers for Public Transit oppose the plan in its current form, as it wouldn’t allow people who rely on paratransit to stop anywhere along the curb. Instead, these riders would use designated drop-off points.

Then there’s transfers. The same groups are concerned about the potential added costs to riders who currently have a straight shot Downtown but would be required to transfer in Oakland under the BRT system. Port Authority estimates that 3,100 additional riders would have to transfer because of route changes.

Those issues — accessibility and fare policy — are the biggest ones Port Authority still needs to work out internally, Silbermann said.

Screen Shot 2017-06-15 at 3.55.53 PM
Via Port Authority presentation

This was helpful, but I want to know more!

Great! Port Authority is holding public meetings this month in Oakland (June 19 and 28), Uptown (June 20), Squirrel Hill (June 27) and Downtown (June 28). Details about additional meetings in other neighborhoods should be announced soon, according to Port Authority spokesperson Adam Brandolph. Find more info here.

Silbermann said the meetings will focus on the proposed locations of each BRT station. Planners will seek community feedback on location, scale and amenities. They will also present more detailed street layouts that will show the proposed placement of elements like bus and bike lanes.