Looking at an Urban Transportation System With Fresh Eyes

This summer we had the pleasure of hosting Abhishikta Pal at evolveEA for a project internship in partnership with PCRG. Abby is a graduate student pursuing a Master of Urban Design at Carnegie Mellon University. She also holds a Bachelor of Architecture from Sinhgad College of Architecture, Pune, India. As her internship came to a close, we had a chat with Abby and asked her to reflect on the work she has been doing on the city’s transportation system. As an international student, a world traveler and a designer, she also had some interesting thoughts about living in Pittsburgh!


Abhishikta Pal

1. How would you describe the project you are working on this summer?
I was working on the MLK East Busway Project this summer, started by PCRG—the Pittsburgh Community Reinvestment Group. PCRG started in 1988 as a coalition of community leaders focusing on advocacy for economic justice and neighborhood resources. They had a project called “GoBurgh” for sustainable transit infrastructure and creating more efficient uses for transit assets. Through that came the Better Busway Project, which focused on identifying opportunities for Transit Oriented Development along the MLK East Busway. I worked on this at CMU during the last spring semester, and continued this work through the summer as an intern with PCRG, stationed at evolveEA to coordinate between the two on carrying the project forward.
2. Can you explain the relationship between evolveEA and PCRG, and your role in this?
My role was important as someone who has been involved in the whole process and act as a bridge between efforts and project phases. The CMU projects on the stations along the busway helped PCRG realize stations with most potential and strategically focus on stations to be presented to ULI-TAP for attracting developers and funding. ULI-TAP or the Urban Land Institute Technical Assistance Panel is a program centered on pulic-private partnerships and it provides members with an outlet to give back to the community. As part of the CMU group that went through an in-depth design process, I was well versed in the possibilities for each site. We looked at every station and at all of the systems involved, where development potential was strong and what might be possible. We worked out a pro forma for different types of development, including estimates of project costs and returns. So I helped to identify assets and was able to help evolveEA create diagrams and analyses while communicating back and forth between our office and PCRG and referencing the work completed at CMU.
3. What are your thoughts on Pittsburgh’s transportation system, as a visitor and a designer working on this project?
As a student I think it’s great—you have all these feeder lines connecting to various places. Even if some routes have long waits between buses, at least there is a way to get where you need to go. Other places I have been, like Lowell (Massachusetts), don’t have a good transportation system and you always have to use cars. That’s a plus about Pittsburgh.
Something that needs to be improved is “bus bunching”. This is when buses that share a route should be timed evenly to arrive every ten minutes or so, but you can end up waiting for twenty or thirty minutes and then having three or four buses all arrive at the same time. This happens a lot, and people complain about it a lot. There needs to be some logistical improvement that can make sure timing is convenient for riders and guides drivers so that they are spaced apart more evenly. The Better Busway Project didn’t look at system logistics, but we gathered that system improvements like this should be developed and that there are technologies available to do this in Pittsburgh.
4. What other unique assets do you think Pittsburgh’s urban environment has to offer?
Apart from the busways and bike lanes, what is most important here is the rivers. You can only see the rivers when you’re downtown, and I think most people don’t think about the fact that we are surrounded by rivers in this city. This is an asset that has been neglected, in comparison to a place like the Netherlands, where canal systems integrate water with the urban environment. If I talk about Amsterdam I think about its rivers and canals—the water, but while talking about Pittsburgh we think more about the bridges and not the actual rivers. Urban designers need to start looking at Pittsburgh in a different light, focusing on the riverfronts in all the neighborhoods outside of the Downtown area. The Green Boulevard project is one way of doing this, but this focus needs to come to all of the urban edges and not just a few areas.
5. What will Pittsburgh look like in the year 2050?
This is haunting, and maybe not haunting, but with all of the artificial intelligence stuff happening you can imagine autonomous vehicles taking over. You might have, starting in like 2025, changes to infrastructure that are based on AI technologies. Storefronts could change because there might be cyborgs working there—you might have very different infrastructure from what we see now by 2050.
My hope for Pittsburgh is to see more infrastructure around natural resources like the rivers. It would be nice to have infrastructure that enhances Pittsburgh’s unique topography, making vertical connections in ways that turn challenges into assets. The Duquesne Incline is an asset; a similar connection in the Hill District would become a major asset as well. Our universities are also important to consider—they keep new people coming to the city, so we should invest in new infrastructure to serve them. For example, when we looked at Penn Station during the Better Busway Project, we thought about creating a connection to it from the Hill District that would serve residents while also bringing more students and professionals to those neighborhoods. The student population here is able to keep things fresh and to sustain projects like these.
6. What can we do now to make Pittsburgh a better place to live, learn, and work?
If you look at Pittsburgh, it is a very silent city. The rivers and busways are not attracting attention. We need to improve the marketing around our assets—things to encourage use of the busways, or something pointing people to the rivers. These things need to be louder, so that Pittsburgh’s association with rivers and bridges is more prominent. Too many of the city’s resources are overlooked, and many students do not even know they exist. Most students don’t know about the East Busway, which is something we should be proud of. There are only about eleven US cities that have dedicated busways, so we should celebrate ours. We should continue the work on our riverfronts as well, because this will always be an attractive part of the city.

Evolve EA