Ideology: A Look at Pittsburgh’s Future with Regard to Sustainability, Bicycling and Public Transportation

The chill of an early November morning reminds Pittsburgh’s residents that Autumn in this neck of the woods comes in more varieties than just the blue skies and burnt leaves variety. I’m sipping a coffee and reading about future development plans for an area being dubbed Bakery Row which borders my own Shadyside neighborhood. I’ve spent a good deal of time in other cities over the past few years, studying their infrastructure, how they handle public transportation and what emphasis is given to pedestrians and cyclists moving throughout the streets.

In Pittsburgh I see a rising population of young, environmentally-minded people who are actually sticking around for once, even while the city’s public transportation struggles to get them around our city and cycling advocation, though higher than perhaps ever, moves forward slowly, if surely. New developments are being built on a seemingly daily basis. This is a key moment for the city and will determine whether we triumph forward as one of the next big progressive cities like Austin or Portland, OR, or if we become just another city-turned-strip mall.

Two examples of new development are the Waterfront and East Side. Both are stuffed full of chain stores, with rarely a glimpse of the local guy getting to show his face. The Waterfront is primarily a strip mall and so serves its purpose as such, with Target and Michaels and Best Buy types shoveling products en mass to the people. There is an interesting area between the strip mall section and the giant theater that is for all intents and purposes a traditional mall, sans ceiling. The adjacent group of blocks between Dave & Buster’s and the Loew’s Theatre are full of mall favorites: the Gap, American Eagle, a few chain restaurants thrown in for good measure and a Starbucks to round out the experience. Wide sidewalks help you get from one store to the other and a park in the middle invites anyone to sit down for a spell while the old lady takes the kids to Macy’s to try out some new school supplies. Of course, no one is actually sitting in the park and few are walking on the sidewalks, because the planners not only added an endless sea of parking around the Waterfront, but also stuffed as many spots between this outdoor mall as they could. You can stand on a corner and watch someone drive the 30 yards from American Eagle to the Gap because they simply can’t be bothered to walk. Obesity at its source.

East Side is another example of excessive parking, though the fact that its actually buried right into the city makes it more pedestrian populated by nature. Those of us who don’t own cars or can see the ridiculousness of driving only a few blocks just to stop at the bank make our way into its stores, with big box names like Borders and Walgreens providing an anchor for vital businesses like Starbucks (borders also serves coffee, and a much better variety of the stuff is available across the tracks on Ellsworth at Crazy Mocha) and a T-Mobile store (WTF? Even if you’re a T-Mobile customer, how many times do you need to go into an actual T-Mobile store? Once a year or two to get a new phone because your old one can’t play the latest mp4s, I’d surmise. Such a waste of space.) The saving grace of East Side is its seeming ability to bring Shadysiders and the ‘Slibertines together where we were formerly separated by train track. A few more foot paths to make the transition even easier and we might just see one big happy neighborhood.

But this dissertation isn’t meant as an exploration of development or a pitting of local business vs. national retailers, but rather an exploration of why these new developments aren’t taking pedestrians and cyclists into account. I would wager it’s because pedestrians are all too far and few between, and this is, in my opinion, a direct result of the city’s planner’s, government official’s and citizen’s attitude towards the “recreational” activities of walking or riding a bike. Driving your car to work is the responsible, grown up thing to do. Riding a bike to work is still considered some type of “alternative” concept, best left to punk rockers trying to get to their tattoo jobs. And walking is much too inefficient in our modern, hectic, speed-exacerbated lifestyle. All the while our belts need to be loosened, our skies get cloudy and somewhere a polar bear is floating on the sole remaining ice chunk instead of sipping a Coke with Santa like he should be.

My Proposal, A Solution for Now and All Time

Well, perhaps not. I am, admittedly, no city planning professional. I am but a mere mortal blessed with super intelligence and a healthy share of better-looking-than-most, and so my suggestions should be taken with the grain of salt that they are worthy of. A tasty, tasty grain of salt on an otherwise unflavorful pile of green beans grown in the gutters of Pittsburgh’s decay.

Solution 1: Concentrated Parking

Instead of having on street parking on every side of every single street, simply build parking garages a few stories high (depending on parking needs) every few blocks or so. Walnut Street might warrant a three story parking garage while a few residential blocks could share a smaller lot.


  • A healthier Pittsburgh. “I walk from my house to my car, from my car to my office, and back again.” How many Americans claim that as their daily exercise? Walking an extra half a block or so to get to your car wouldn’t be the death of you.
  • Wider Streets. Take a look around you. God, cars take up a lot of space. Seriously, if you think about the size of a city, picture a top view of a city map say, and then eliminate all of the area that is private land (housing, etc.) and then all of the area that is dedicated to cars, all you’re left with are a handful of parks and the sidewalks. As human beings, walking by nature, we’ve eliminated the vast majority of our city space that we can access by foot. Now imagine if we removed all of the cars from the streets. Suddenly plenty of space opens up for expanding sidewalks and striping bike lanes.
  • Promoting Public Transportation. Once people get used to walking to the corner for their car, they might see that just grabbing a bus on the same corner is a better, cheaper option. And now that the streets have been opened up and more people are cycling (it’s easier to park a bike than it is to park a car, if only there were dedicated bike lanes to get you somewhere to park your bike), it’s easier to get around by bus/bike or bus/pedestrian combo.

It’s a catalyst that all starts by making it less convenient to drive. That’s the big problem with America: everything has become so convenient that anything that takes a little work doesn’t seem worth doing. Make a healthy snack? Why when I can pop over to McDonalds and get a whole cheeseburger faster and probably even cheaper? Take a walk to the park? Why when the Nature Channel is just a few clicks away?

Once we eliminate the super-convenience of driving and start seeing it for what it is – an amazing power that allows us to live in a much smaller world, go on fabulous trips across continents and visit loved ones in far away places relatively quickly rather than a complete replacement for all movement within our own neighborhoods – everything else will follow.

Less parking space means more bike lanes. More bike lanes mean healthier people. Healthier people feel like walking more often. More streets could be completely dedicated to walking; a more European approach to movement which I guestimate stems largely from old, slim streets that can’t afford to have SUVs parked on both sides. The more people are moving about on their own and less dependent on their vehicles, the more of them will hop on a bus to get from neighborhood to neighborhood. The more ridership on public transit the more cash they would have to develop more service.

In the future, polar bears will ride the bus alongside Santa Claus, and the current racial tension between the elves and penguins can be eliminated. A brighter future for all awaits…

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