Monday, April 11, 2005

The Dark Side of the Daily Commute

The Tribune-Review publishes a lively article in this morning's paper about how road construction no longer has the same negative impact on Pittsburgh area commuters as it has in past years. This is good news, right? The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation must be doing something right to reduce or eliminate traffic hold-ups.

"We're encouraged by the reduction in commuting time," said Todd Kravits, a PennDOT district traffic engineer. "I think it's really because of the initiatives that we're trying to do here in the district in reducing congestion."
Sure, PennDOT has planned much more efficiently in recent years. The word "PennDOT" is no longer punctuated with a wad of saliva when spoken by the locals. Is anything else responsible? For that answer, about halfway into the article, the Trib turns to a non-local academic:

A drop in population and companies closing or moving also might have lowered commute times, said David Schrank, a transportation researcher at Texas A&M University.

"A lot of Pittsburgh's transportation system ... was developed and designed back when Pittsburgh's economy was still rolling along and really strong," Schrank said. "That system is still in place despite the population of Pittsburgh redistributing itself and going into different sectors of work. Because of that, you may not have the traffic congestion that you had in the central city 20 to 30 years ago."

Statistics show that Pittsburgh's drive time has rapidly decreased in just the last two years. By sheer coincidence, during that same two-year span, Port Authority buses have been festooned with giant slogans like "Movin'", "Rockin Rollin", several foreign language phrases, and dancing triangle artwork that makes one embarrassed to get on and ride. Eventually, I expect PAT to wake up to reality and replace existing slogans with less silly, more reality-based phrases like "Your Federal Tax Dollars At Work", "You're Wasting Your Time", and "Pittsburgh Sucks". On the other hand, PAT may be benefiting from a number of factors not directly related to construction. One commuter chimes in:
"I see a lot more people on bikes and walking and car-pooling ... More people are also taking the buses."
Another one says:
"The population is declining... People are moving on. Companies are moving on."
"I think Pittsburgh's lost a lot of ridership and people, period... The opportunities in Pittsburgh are not as good as they used to be. There's not a lot to do in Pittsburgh anymore."
Still another:
"I anticipate the commute time is going to be even higher because of the increase in gas price... The cheapest mode of transportation will be the Port Authority."
And finally:
"In town, there's not as many people working, so traffic doesn't seem as bad as it used to be... It's just not as backed up."
Can you see where this is going? While I do not doubt that PennDOT has improved planning and services over the last thirty years, the real story is buried in the second half of this article. None of the above quotes includes any reference to PennDOT. It is all about gas prices, businesses moving out of town, and the relatively low expense of riding the bus. They might well have mentioned city bankruptcy and the county reassessment. No matter how well the commonwealth manages the daily commute, people are getting disgusted and either leaving or working in the suburbs and exurbs. The only way that PennDOT could have contributed to any of this is if they had planned the development of the local infrastructure so that it could facilitate the mass exodus that has been taking place here for the last 20 to 30 years.

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