A lot of my friends were surprised when I told them that my family and I were willingly going to Pittsburgh over spring break. I guess that just goes to show how underrated this place is – I personally loved it, since it offers some incredibly diverse neighborhoods with fascinating topography (hills upon hills upon hills). Because my Baltimore post was pretty popular, I figured I’d talk about the various modes of transit I took while I was in Pittsburgh.
After an overnight Greyhound bus that was two hours late (go figure), I arrived in the surprisingly nice bus terminal Saturday morning. I had this day to myself, since my parents’ flight had been cancelled, so they were arriving in the evening. Hmm…a whole day to myself. I know, I’ll go ride an RTA! So I dropped my stuff off at our hotel, bought three weekly passes at a Giant Eagle supermarket, and returned to the Greyhound terminal to ride the Mid Mon Valley Transportation Authority’s Commuter A route to a town called Donora. What a mouthful.
Pittsburgh’s transit agency, the Port Authority, uses a fare system called the ConnectCard, which is actually the same technology as the MBTA’s CharlieCard (right down to the same satisfying beep when you tap). Also like Boston, Pittsburgh has a multitude of RTAs that fan out to various other counties, except here, they all run express routes into the city. Most of these agencies also use the ConnectCard, so I was able to load money on and use it for the Commuter A.
The Commuter A is the MMVTA’s principle route to and from Pittsburgh. Although they run a few peak-only express services too, this one runs all day, taking a more local route and serving most of the major towns in the MMVTA’s service area (meaning yes, the route is twisty as heck). I believe it’s also the only RTA that runs into downtown Pittsburgh on weekends, with service every two hours on Saturdays and every four hours on Sundays.
Probably the crown jewel of Pittsburgh’s transit system is its network of grade-separated busways. There are three of them, and they’re all open-ended, so buses can use the busways and then fan out to other destinations. Even RTAs get in on the fun, as I found out after we cruised through downtown on regular streets. Once we crossed the Monongahela River, we entered a transit-only tunnel cutting through Mount Washington (shared with the light rail), and we officially entered the South Busway on the other side. The South Busway is the least-used of the three, since it more or less parallels the light rail the whole time. Rather than serve destinations within itself, its main purpose is to speed up trips from the suburbs, and indeed, it was a blast to go down this thing without any interruption from cars.
Once the busway ended, we just travelled on local roads through mostly suburban sprawl. Eventually, though, we started reaching the depressed industrial towns of the Mid Mon Valley, and this is where things got interesting. A lot of people used the bus for local service at this point, and some of the passenger interactions were fascinating (including one woman who told a stranger trying to talk to her that she was a police informant and would get him arrested if he didn’t leave). The towns had definitely seen better days.
Donora is the last town the Commuter A serves, and I got off in its rather dead downtown. Luckily, there was a spark of light: the Saturday-only Donora Smog Museum. I tell ya, for what looks like a town that’s fallen on hard times, it certainly has a lot of interesting history, including what is perhaps the birth of the environmental movement (check out the website for more info). The people in the museum were wonderful, and it was a fantastic experience. So, if you’re ever in Donora, PA on a Saturday…check it out!
Enough RTA adventures, though. My next bus trip was taking a 28x out to the airport to pick up my parents. The 28x is the airport flyer route, running every half hour to the airport via most (but not all) of the west busway, plus express sections on I-376. However, it has one fatal flaw: a five-minute deviation to a collection of shopping centers. Yes, this is a huge ridership draw, but it’s still annoying! But on this ride, I also discovered something that has absolutely no excuse: week passes are only valid for a calendar week, from Sunday morning to Saturday night! Who does that???? Luckily this driver let me on for free, and my family just paid the $2.50 single fare each for the trip back. This is some truly insane fare policy, though. It’s a good thing we were here for roughly a calendar week, so we only had to pay for Saturday!
But now it’s time to tackle Pittsburgh’s one true rail service, a light rail network with a downtown subway and two branches serving the inner suburbs, which then come back together before splitting off into another two branches serving the outer suburbs. This schedule has a map in it that might be helpful. Also, hey, the system is called “The T”! Come on, that’s Boston’s thing! Yes, I know Stockholm did it first…
A relic of the Port Authority’s fare-collecting past is the downtown free-fare zone. It used to be valid on all buses (but only until 7 PM) and the light rail, but the pay-as-you-exit situation on the buses was confusing, so now it’s only for the light rail. Still, though, free service between the system’s downtown stations is pretty awesome! The light rail begins at Allegheny Station, part of a 2012 extension to the stadiums and recent development of the North Side.
The trains themselves are fine on the inside – they certainly don’t feel as dated as the ones in Baltimore. There is an odd system where two-car trains are used in the peak, but if you sit in the second one, you can only get off at certain stops that are actually long enough to hold both cars. Luckily, said stops are marked on the maps, but they still tell you that if you’re unsure of which car to board in, just do the first car. It’s pay-as-you-exit going outbound, incidentally, because of the free fare zone.
Allegheny is above ground, but the line enters a tunnel right after it. North Side Station is next, and like all the other underground stations, it’s beautiful. Also, unlike in Baltimore, which played smooth jazz at its stations, Pittsburgh plays cool classical music! It feels pretty awesome to walk out of a train station with William Tell Overture blasting over the speakers.
From the North Side, the line goes under the Allegheny River and makes underground stops at Gateway, Wood Street, and Steel Plaza. Wood Street is the main bus hub downtown, and you’ll often see trains in both directions empty out here. After Steel Plaza, the line comes above ground for a stop at First Avenue, and then it’s over the Monongahela and out of the free fare zone.
After Station Square, we entered that combined bus-rail tunnel through Mount Washington. The first stop on the other side is South Hills Junction, where the Blue and Red Lines split for the first time. We were on the Red Line, which has a great section just after the split where it hugs the side of a mountain. Eventually it reaches Broadway Ave and gets a street-running section.
The street-running enters a more residential neighborhood, but eventually Broadway Ave ends and the line later enters a short tunnel through the neighborhood. Castle Shannon has a giant free parking lot, and the stop after that, Overbrook Junction (right next to the Blue Line), is where most Red Line trains stop…except for a few, including the one we were on! So, we rejoined the Blue Line, running for three stops until Washington Junction. This is where the lines split again – our train ran along the shorter branch, which ends right next to a shopping mall called South Hills Village.
We hung out at the mall for a bit, then we got one of the half-hourly (!) trains back up to Washington Junction. From here, we boarded a southbound Blue Line towards Library (also every half hour). This longer branch basically runs through the middle of nowhere, ending in, yes, the middle of nowhere. At least the station had a moat. Coming back to the reverse branch, the Blue Line’s section is a lot more boring than the Red Line’s – it basically just follows the South Busway past not-particularly-interesting scenery.
Coming back to downtown, it was time to tackle the full West Busway on the G2. Considering that this route exclusively runs on the busway, you would think it would have rapid transit frequencies, and it does…at rush hour. But after running every 8 minutes during those times, it drops to every 20 during the day, and alternating 25-30 minute headways on weekends! Ewwwww!
The first part of the G2 is in mixed traffic along West Carson Street, which slows it down significantly at rush hour. Once it hits the busway, though, you go fast. It even has a short bus-only tunnel! This busway mostly serves suburbs, which might explain the lower ridership and frequencies along it. It ends in a town called Carnegie, where we got a nice pizza lunch.
After taking a local bus, the 31, back to downtown, it was time to tackle the unofficial “north busway”, which is just an HOV lane along I-279. Still, the routes that run along it get a designated color like the other busways (this one is orange; west is green, south is yellow, and east is purple), so I figured it counted. The I-279 routes only run at rush hour, but they tend to be frequent within those periods. We got the O1, which is exclusively meant to serve one park-and-ride, and it gets an articulated bus every 10 minutes during the peak!
For a trip very early in the rush (about 3 PM), the quarter-seated load wasn’t terrible. It was also short, at only about 20 minutes of express running. But here’s the sad part: we didn’t use the HOV lane! It completely ruined the point of setting out to ride this thing to begin with! Oh well, at least it took us to…a parking lot. Yay. In all seriousness, though, the Port Authority’s Neoplan high-floor articulated buses like the one we rode are dying out quickly, so it was lucky that we got to ride one.
We got an 8 back to the city, then it was time for one more round-trip, this time on the 11. I would say if you can only do one bus in Pittsburgh, the 11 should be it. Sure, the busways are fast and fun, but how can you top great city views and being on a bus struggling down roads like this:
When it comes to rail in Pittsburgh, the light rail isn’t the full story. The city also has two “inclines” (funiculars) that travel up to Mount Washington: the Monongahela Incline and the Duquesne Incline. We weren’t able to do the Mon Incline because it was (and is) closed for repairs, so I guess I’ll have to come back at some point to tackle that. At least the Duquesne Incline was running, though, so we took a G2 out to the base of it (which, other than driving, is more or less the only way to get out there).
The Inclines use Port Authority fares, although the Duquesne Incline is run by a non-profit. It uses these really old rickety cars, so the ride up is harrowing, but a very unique experience with an amazing view. We rode it at rush hour, so it was interesting comparing the tourists with the people actually using it to commute (the suits and ties who were on their phone without regard for the view).
From here, we walked through the fancy Duquesne Heights neighborhood along Grandview Ave, whose name is very accurate. We had dinner in Mount Washington, and then took the “Mon Incline Bus Shuttle” back down the mountain. It had to take a ridiculously roundabout route, and the ride took forever! Again, I hope the actual incline is running when I make it back to Pittsburgh.
Another important corridor to talk about is the 61/71 corridor – or, more specifically, 61A/61B/61C/61D/71A/71B/71C/71D corridor (although not the 71 without a letter, that’s a completely different route – makes perfect sense). Aside from an outbound-only busway for the 71s, these routes run in mixed traffic, but they’re quite possibly the most important ones in the city. They all run together (more or less) from Downtown to Oakland before splitting off, serving UPitt and Carnegie Mellon in the process and getting a ton of student traffic using free university passes. In fact, from my experience, these routes get far more people east of Oakland than they do on the downtown section! But most importantly, this is by far the most frequent corridor in the city: it’s eight routes running every 15-20 minutes each. Even on Sundays when they all run every half hour, it’s still less than every 4 minutes on the combined section! Pretty amazing, and they often get packed.
We ended up doing the East Busway in two parts. First, we came back to downtown from dinner in East Liberty using the P1, the “all stops” East Busway route and I believe the most frequent and busiest single bus on the system. It is very often packed, but speeding down the busway, the trip is a lot faster than driving. We tackled the outer half of the busway on the P3, a weekday-only route that begins in Oakland and travels east from there. Like the P1, it was also busy and speedy!
Alright, I think that’s it for Pittsburgh! Overall, I thought it was a great city, and its transit system definitely has good infrastructure, but some of the frequencies could be a lot better. The light rail feels like it only exists because the track was already there (there are far better places for rail to go), and for a tourist, it’s only useful downtown. It seems like the busways (particularly east) and the 61/71 corridor are Pittsburgh’s true transit powerhouses. Okay, I guess that’s the end of the post! Except…
Yes, we went to Morgantown, West Virginia for a night, and it was for all intents and purposes just to see the city’s bizarre transit system. Morgantown is a geographically tiny city that packs in 30,000 residents, plus 20,000 college students across three campus of WVU. In the 1970s, traffic was getting insane, and delays on the college shuttle buses were causing students to be late for class. The solution? The future…or at least, what might’ve been the future.
The “future” was apparently a “Personal Rapid Transit” system, or PRT. With over 70 tiny vehicles (max capacity 15, and they won’t move if you go over), this automated system travels between five stops on campus. But here’s the fun part: when you enter the system, you punch in your destination, and it will release a car to take you there! Because it has to account for trips between every pair of stations, there is a ridiculous amount of track infrastructure, including express tracks and turnaround tracks where cars line up waiting for their next assignment.
Our hotel was very conveniently located within walking distance of the northernmost stop, Health Sciences Center (or HSC). The system is free for people with WVU cards, and it supposedly costs 50 cents for the rest of the world. However, the coin slots were just…closed off. And you could just punch in a destination and the gate would open. Alright, free rides, I guess.
As soon as you step onto the platform, you start getting lectured by an automated robot voice, telling you basically every rule under the sun. It also lets you know when a train is at the gate, and when it’s ready to depart. Unfortunately, the system was running in all-stops mode when we were here, so we didn’t really get the full PRT experience.
The cars run on rubber tires along the track, which you would think would make for a smoother ride, but it’s actually super jolty. These things bounce around like there’s no tomorrow! Also, as it turns out, all-stops mode is slowwwwwwwww. If you’re going right to your destination, they just fly through each station on express tracks, but when you have to make intermediate stops, it’s about a minute of dwell time at each one. The thing makes two stops at each one: a “departure” stop where people aren’t allowed to board, and a “boarding” stop one gate over where everyone gets on. The doors stay open for 20 seconds at both. It’s excruciating.
My favorite part of the PRT was the long gap between Engineering and Beechurst Stations. The line comes down from a mountain and runs alongside a road next to the Monongahela River, offering a great view towards downtown Morgantown. Beechurst is where most passengers tend to get off, and the next and final stop, Walnut, is right in the middle of downtown. There isn’t a ton to do in downtown Morgantown, so I can see why this stop is lesser-used.
We did at least get to try out one express trip. During busy peak times, the system goes into schedule mode, where extra trips are sent out on a schedule between Beechurst and Towers, since that’s where most people are going. Those trips skip Engineering, and even after getting off of a local and waiting for the express, we were still able to beat it by a wide margin to Towers!
The Morgantown PRT feels like a strange relic of a different time. I have a hard time seeing PRT as being a technology of the future. It requires so much infrastructure (Morgantown’s went way over budget), the tiny cars regularly get packed because of their limited capacity, and in this case, the whole thing could’ve been done with conventional light rail for far cheaper. Plus, it apparently breaks down relatively often, and whenever that happens, the whole system shuts down and they literally have to drive a Jeep onto the tracks to push the broken car to the next station. The future indeed. Still, if you ever find yourself in Morgantown, give this bizarre and unique transit system a ride. It’s apparently free!