A crowd gathered outside of Sixth and Wood early Friday morning on January 26 despite the blustery winter chill. People from all walks of life were present to rally against the Port Authority’s proposed cuts to the 61 and 71 bus lines, part of Port Authority’s proposed Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) project. Among the chants at the demonstration on Friday was one that succinctly articulated the concerns of the communities most vulnerable to cuts in service: “Bus lines are lifelines!”
Those who doubt that the reliability and accessibility of public transit are an important social justice issue often fail to recognize how much people rely on their buses to take them to work, to buy groceries, to go to doctor’s appointments, to receive social assistance, to attend recreational events, and to just live an independent and mobile life. The changes in service accompanying the BRT proposal as it stands is not just an inconvenience to the Mon Valley neighborhoods it would most directly impact; rather, it is a dire threat to the livelihood and future of these communities. As shown time and again, the failings of public transit present a serious toll on the resources of its riders and disproportionately affect those with the least means: the poor, the disabled, and minorities.
At the heart of the Port Authority project is the creation of electric buses that travel from Oakland inbound to Downtown or outbound to other neighborhoods. Where formerly riders could take one of the three 61 lines or one of the three 71 lines directly into downtown (referred to as a one-seat ride), they would now have to transfer to the BRT in Oakland. As part of the planning of this project Port Authority is also considering reducing the frequency of service for lines where they say there are fewer riders.
The proposed 45% reduction in bus frequency on the 61 A, B, and C and 25% reduction on the 71 A, C, and D lines mostly affect communities which are near the current ends of the bus lines, particularly the suburbs of Braddock, Duquesne, Swissvale, and McKeesport. The suburbs in Pittsburgh suffer from poverty at a disproportionately high rate with 61 percent of the people living in poverty in Allegheny County in the suburbs. This is often the result of poor families moving to the suburbs where housing is more affordable but jobs more scarce. These poor families, displaced by the growing cost of living within the city, heavily depend on the bus system to take them where they need to go. Cutting the frequency of these buses only harms these working class and often predominantly African-American communities. It becomes a vicious cycle where those who need access the most are left bereft, unable to get the services and supplies they need in order to live independently.
The fare for the transfer onto the BRT in Oakland has yet to be determined, which is worrying for the many working class riders of public transit who already operate on razor-thin margins. Even if the first transfer in Oakland were at a reduced fare, riders who take the bus into Downtown to connect to anywhere else like the Northside would have to pay full fare for another transfer. And this is to say nothing of the increase in time accompanying each of these transfers. A bus from, say, Braddock to Downtown Pittsburgh already takes close to an hour. Someone going to work in the morning realistically budgets at least an extra half an hour to account for the frequent delays and inconsistent service. If the frequency is cut and another transfer is added to the trip, the time commitment needed could conceivably double.
The Port Authority claims that the BRT proposal will ultimately lead to increased ridership. This project is dubious at best given that the Oakland to Downtown corridor is already one of the best if not the best-served transit channel in the system. The 61s and 71s represent the most heavily used lines, so the issue there is not a lack of ridership. Even if the BRT were improve the service from Oakland to Downtown, it cannot be at the expense of the communities in the Mon Valley.
The Bus Rapid Transit proposal is not, despite the grim consequences in its current implementation, an inherently negative prospect. Public transit within the city is woefully outdated and would benefit greatly from a restructuring and an increase in efficiency. However these improvements cannot come at the expense of the people who rely on our buses the most. As we look towards the future and look to seize upon the potential of what Pittsburgh can become, we must not be willing to sacrifice the well-being of our vulnerable Mon Valley communities. These are the steel towns that once cast the die on which the region and the city built its legacy, and their people deserve to thrive and and be buoyed up by Pittsburgh’s renaissance, not left behind.
For more information, visit Pittsburghers for Public Transit’s (PPT) website regarding the campaign. PPT which is a project of the Thomas Merton Center: https://www.pittsburghforpublictransit.org/campaigns/ongoing-campaigns/bus-rapid-transit/
Stephen Lin is a poet and currently attending the University of Pittsburgh. As a Pittsburgh native and first generation American citizen, he has always been drawn to questions of the role of communication in the cause for social justice. He is a writing intern for Three Rivers Community Foundation.