Paul O’Hanlon is a public-transit super user. The 63-year-old Squirrel Hill resident takes the Allegheny County Port Authority’s buses seven days a week. And he is an active member of the Committee for Accessible Transportation (or CAT) — a Pittsburgh community group that advocates for access to the city’s transit system for people with disabilities and low mobility.
Pittsburgh’s proposed Bus Rapid Transit, or BRT, is what was on CAT’s agenda Wednesday evening. The BRT is a combined plan between the city, county and the Port Authority to connect Downtown with Oakland by taking a traffic lane on Forbes or Fifth avenues away from private vehicles to create a dedicated lane for new electric buses.
The Port Authority estimates the plan would cut buses’ travel times from Oakland to Downtown by eight minutes in normal traffic and 15 minutes in rush hour traffic.
What may seem like a convenience to some spells trouble for O’Hanlon.
“I have enormous concerns about the process,” O’Hanlon said, citing the price of additional transfers and potential service reductions on local routes.
After a brief presentation by city and Port Authority representatives on Wednesday at the Western Pennsylvania School for Blind Children in Oakland, around a dozen Pittsburgh residents took two hours to question and comment on the proposed changes.
The Port Authority has also put together plans to extend the lanes to the East Busway, and add branches to Highland Park and Squirrel Hill without dedicated lanes, depending on the public response over the next week.
One major concern for the attendees, especially O’Hanlon, was the need for transfers. Under the plan, non-BRT bus routes like the 61 and 71 series would stop in eastern Oakland, and travelers would have to transfer to a BRT route there.
Considering the inconvenience of a transfer, and the possible additional cost — transfers currently cost an additional dollar — O’Hanlon thought the bus switching could be a deal breaker.
“It’s the transfer that’s going to kill it,” he said.
While switching buses is going to be the new reality for sure, Amy Silberman, a Port Authority analyst speaking at the event, said the transfer fee is still under discussion.
The attendees, many who use wheelchairs or other walking assistance, were also concerned that the bus lanes in Oakland would disrupt access to the curb for paratransit — Port Authority vans specifically designed to carry passengers with disabilities. O’Hanlon contends that would be a violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act by “creating an obstacle” to access.
Under the current plan, instead of offering access to any spot on the curb, the city would add and enforce paratransit-only drop-off spaces around every block to not disrupt the flow of bus traffic.
Some attendees, like Alisa Grishman, who was calmly knitting throughout the meeting, criticized the plan for what she saw as wishful thinking. She referenced her deceased grandmother when commenting on the plan’s suggestion for paratransit stops every block.
“She would not be able to even walk three houses away,” Grishman said.
Since the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act in 1990, public transit systems have been required to ensure equal access to their buses, trains and stations by adding ramps, straps and handles to their facilities and vehicles.
After the event, Port Authority spokesman Jim Ritchie said he was confident that BRT upgrades could be changed to meet the ADA’s standard.
“We’ve recognized for a long time these very specific concerns exist for people with disabilities that we have to take a very close look at,” Ritchie said.
Besides the separate bus lanes, the plan would include cutting in half the number of bus stops along the Downtown-Oakland corridor, from one every one-sixth of a mile to one every one-third of a mile. The existing stops, however, would be have more amenities — including shelters, ticket machines and low-level platforms with ramps for access.
The proposed cuts in bus stops drew the ire of some attendees, who thought frequent stops created better accessibility. The potential cuts to local service on the 71 and 61 series were specifically mentioned. They also didn’t like some proposed route changes, such as moving the 69 bus to the Boulevard of the Allies.
Many questioned why the changes were necessary at all, when certain aspects — such as lax enforcement of parking near bus stops — already made commuting as a disabled American a hassle.
Analyst Silberman said changes are needed because the authority “does not think its service to and through Oakland is up to snuff.”
The period for public comment on BRT will end on April 11, after which the Port Authority, county and city will use the existing input to decide upon the right route for the system. After that,the authority would start to consider many of the CAT members’ concerns over the summer in design workshops.
“All of the details are a little further down the road,” Ritchie said.
Jeff Parker has been an active participant since CAT was founded in 1992 to improve paratransit and accessibility on the Port Authority.
He’s proud of the history of cooperation between CAT and the Port Authority, and feels they’ve overcome quite a few hurdles, by encouraging bus use among people with disabilities with the addition of ramps, among other changes.
But looking at the new BRT plan, he’s worried about the “competition for the curb” it will create with the authority’s existing accessibility services.
“BRT and paratransit are like oil and water,” Parker said.
Stephen Caruso is an intern for PublicSource. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on twitter @StephenJ_Caruso.