The Bridge and Tunnel Conundrum

Recently I heard that a new book store was opening on Pittsburgh’s South Side–two rivers and a tunnel (Armstrong) away. Pittsburgh is a very divided city mentally. There are rivers and tunnels, and most anyone familiar with the city can explain that if going means you have to cross a river or go through a tunnel, in most cases you decide instead to go somewhere closer or stay home.

Two rivers, an auto-only tunnel, and a slow moving asphalt artery divide my neighborhood from the South Side. Measure it by sheer distance, and it’s not that far. In fact, it wouldn’t be out of the question to walk such a distance. The quickest route between two points is of course a straight line. Good luck finding one in Pittsburgh, however.

Drawing a line from the intersection of East Street and East Ohio Street on the Northside to, say, 12th Street and Carson Street on the South Side, there are no fewer than five abutting grids. Worse, a large hill with tunnels which don’t allow for pedestrian passage blocks the route, forcing the foot traveler to take the (perhaps more interesting) roundabout route.

There are two rivers, which with the exception of the godlike among us, we must cross using a bridge. The 9th Street (over the Allegheny) and 10th Street (over the Monongahela) do conform to the straight line close enough to make the pedestrian travel practical. It’s the hill that’s the issue.

This is of course a time in human history when the bulk of us are not afforded the time to take a straight course on foot, let alone the more interesting curve, in order to get from one point to another. That usually means we opt for the automobile.

In an automobile, there’s still the issue of the bridges and the slow moving artery, Carson Street. In case you were going to suggest taking the bus, it too must travel at a snail’s pace. How long does it take? More than three quarters of an hour using the 54C. Add in times to wait for the bus and delays and most riders either drive or choose an alternate destination.

The problematic travel between parts of the city has lead to an institutionalization of fierce neighborhood pride and competition (not to mention that long ago these neighborhoods were actually separate cites, Allegheny and Birmingham). If it were easy to travel between neighborhoods, each of us could enjoy their amenities. At present, a prospective resident is forced to weigh the entertainment and retail options of the South Side against the convenience to downtown and architectural appeal of the Northside.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, let me say again that the way to connect the city is to build fixed transit, preferably extensions of the existing and inadequate light-rail system to destinations including Central Northside, South Side, Oakland, Shadyside, Bloomfield, Lawrenceville, and Squirrel Hill. If you don’t believe a bus is terribly inferior to a light-rail system, measure the time it takes to go from the Wood Street T station downtown to any destination using a city bus and any destination of equal distance using the T. Indeed, it takes less time to get from Gateway Center to South Hills Village than it does to go the much shorter distance from East Ohio Street to East Carson Street.

This is because the light-rail system has its own route and is not affected by traffic–and it does not contribute to traffic congestion.

Imagine a light-rail line connecting Allegheny General Hospital to the downtown “T”, a line running under East Carson Street, across the Hot Metal Bridge and into Oakland, a line running from the Penn Station “T” stop through the Strip District, Bloomfield, Oakland, Shadyside, and Squirrel Hill. Imagine our neighborhoods as pieces of a connected whole and our citizens anxious to delight in the amenities they offer, instead of the collection of tribal villages we have today. The fact that until now we haven’t seen the need to solve the conundrum and overcome the bridge and tunnel obstacles is beyond comprehension.

The Bigger Picture

The American Public Transportation Association (APTA) recently called for immediate passage of comprehensive long-term surface transportation funding to provide critical relief for a worsening traffic congestion crisis across the United States. APTA’s call for more funding came in response to the latest data released today by the Texas Transportation Institute (TTI) that shows how transit successfully reduces traffic delays and costs in 85 of America’s urban areas.

This year’s study reports that in 2002, regular bus and train services in America’s most congested cities saved travelers 1.1 billion hours in travel time. Without public transportation, nationwide travel delays would have increased by 32 percent, costing residents in the major urban areas studied an additional $20 billion in lost time and fuel. The cost of congestion in 85 major U.S. urban areas in 2002 totaled more than $63 billion. Between 1982 and 2002, the study found that travel time saved because of public transportation increased four fold. This report clearly documents the strong and ongoing contribution made by public transportation in lessening the congestion that exists today.

“The TTI report gives clear evidence that public transportation makes a strong contribution in easing the congestion problem,” said William W. Millar, APTA President, “but its availability is not keeping keep pace with growth in congestion.” He added, “This is why we urge Congress to increase the federal investment in transit programs as soon as possible.”

TTI’s Urban Mobility Study, the longest running independent analysis of traffic has been conducted annually since 1982. Among its conclusions, the TTI study found that the average annual delay time per peak period traveler climbed from 16 hours in 1982 to 46 hours in 2002.

“The need for more solutions to existing traffic congestion is clearly overdue,” said Millar. “The TTI report demonstrates and details for all who care about the condition of our nation’s growing transportation problems, that decisive action must be taken once and for all to expand and modernize our public transportation systems.”

Recent studies have shown that public transportation not only reduces commute times, but also promotes cleaner air, local economic development, more livable communities, and greater access and freedom for people from every walk of life. Investing in public transportation has been shown to produce a six to one economic return for communities. In many areas, like Salt Lake City, San Diego, Chicago, and Houston, public transportation has played an essential role in attracting new businesses, major events, and accommodating millions of visitors.

Despite the wealth of benefits public transportation brings to communities nationwide, many Americans still do not have access to service. In fact, APTA estimates that only half of all American households have access to readily available transit service. In small cities and rural areas, nearly two-thirds of all residents have few if any options. In places with existing transit service, systems are having difficulty keeping pace with the strain created by record-high levels of riders, aging fleets and equipment, and demands for new services. For example, the U.S. Department of Transportation estimates that $20.6 billion in capital investment is needed each year to improve current transit facilities.

To maintain and grow the public transportation network, APTA calls for passage of a new Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21) at a funding level no less than the $318 billion passed by the U.S. Senate, which includes $56.5 billion for public transportation.

About Eric Miller

Rick and I started this web magazine as The New Colonist back in 1999. I was in San Francisco, and he was in Los Angeles. We had a common interest in sustainability and city life. We're still at it. Today I am happy to have lived in both New York, San Francisco and Pittsburgh and to now reside in Dallas. Find more at