From Steel City to Smart City: How Pittsburgh is Implementing a Bold Transit Plan

By Marty Graham, Contributor

Pittsburgh may be known as the Steel City, but bold transportation technology plans are propelling it into a new digital era. Dubbed SmartPGH, the strategy prioritizes Pittsburgh residents front and center by increasing city safety, enhancing mobility, addressing climate change, and improving ladders of opportunity.

“We’re prioritizing technology interventions that will improve the lives of those most in need in our communities.”

—Pittsburgh officials

“We’re prioritizing technology interventions that will improve the lives of those most in need in our communities,” Pittsburgh officials say. The western Pennsylvania metropolis will join the ranks of Columbus, Denver, San Francisco, and Dallas as it moves to become a smart transportation city.

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Surtrac: Using AI to Close Opportunity Gaps

An essential part of SmartPGH will expand Surtrac, the city’s system of smart traffic lights that adapt to changing traffic patterns and reduce travel times. Developed at the Carnegie Mellon University Robotics Institute, Surtrac is comprised of artificial intelligence (AI)—trained on traffic theory—and sensors that monitor key commuting routes and adjust traffic controls in real time. The system can respond to crashes or lane closures, for instance, while they’re happening. As a result, commuting drivers spend 40 percent less time idling at stoplights and jams and have seen commute times trimmed by as much as 25 percent.

In December 2018, Pittsburgh won a $29 million U.S. Department of Transportation Smart Cities Challenge grant to expand the program to 150 intersections by 2022, a significant increase from the 50 installed between 2012 and 2018.

By identifying the city’s job centers and streamlining traffic—and giving priority to buses—the grant allows Pittsburgh to broaden transit to areas where people can reside, work, and go to school.

More widespread use of Surtrac—speeding up travel and easing congestion—can help close the gap in opportunity for different segments of the population, Pittsburgh officials argued in the grant application. Introducing Surtrac’s traffic management system to more low and moderate income neighborhoods miles from the bustling city center will make it easier and quicker for residents in the city’s most disadvantaged neighborhoods to travel into downtown job centers.

But it shouldn’t take car ownership to reach opportunity, city officials believe. The city is linking bus service to Surtrac, recognizing that most of Pittsburgh’s public housing, Section 8, and low income housing are clustered within a quarter mile of heavily used transit stops.

By identifying the city’s job centers and streamlining traffic—and giving priority to buses—the grant allows Pittsburgh to broaden transit to areas where people can reside, work, and go to school. The city is also developing ways for cyclists and pedestrians to be able to benefit from the automated system in this wave of funding.

Pittsburghers for Public Transit Executive Director Laura Wiens likes to point to a Harvard University study that found that commute times are the single biggest indicator of a household’s ability to rise out of poverty.

“When you think about transit in that context, you find that whole communities have been engineered to fail,” Wiens says. “Though the city is taking the lead on improving transportation, transit is controlled by the Port Authority [of Allegheny County] and some of the efforts to improve transit are being done without considering the neighborhoods where improved transit would be transformative.”

Many of the challenges are not complicated, she continues. “The vast majority of those barriers can be addressed with funding and political will.”

Like many cities, the dearth of data from those underserved areas contributes to the gaps in service, which leads to deepening the lack of data from those neighborhoods. Pittsburghers for Public Transit has led several successful campaigns to restore and prioritize service in low income areas.

Pittsburgh is also launching two micro-programs in 2020 to provide transportation for homeless people seeking services including housing, healthcare, and job counseling; and to begin incorporating transportation to and from medical appointments. Getting to their appointments improves outcomes for those seeking both social services and medical care, studies show.

Solve Transit Issues and Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions with Autonomous Vehicles

Pittsburgh is currently using federal grant money to prepare the city for autonomous vehicles (AVs), which many cities hope will become a prevalent mobility solution. Surtrac’s network of sensors and robot-controlled stoplights will also provide existing infrastructure for AVs that are already being tested on Pittsburgh streets.

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Whether or not autonomous cars will benefit everyone remains to be seen, though many cities look to shared AVs to solve transit issues and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. However, Wiens says the benefits seem to be overstated—and may not be available to people who can’t afford them.

“We’re concerned that shifting transportation focus to AVs may mean less money for public transit,” she says. “It’s important to remember that public transit is a social utility and is deeply subsidized because of the enormous social good it provides. Shifting focus to pay-to-play transportation like Uber and AVs may mean that lower income people are left out.”

Whose Data Is It?

But, as in other cities, concerns about how the data will be used—and by whom—have emerged. Issues of privacy, the potential for monetization, and the malicious use of data via hacking remain key concerns.

“We’ve seen success with our public transit campaigns and we are delighted that the city is investing in fighting poverty by improving access.”

—Laura Wiens, executive director, Pittsburghers for Public Transit

“It’s important to understand that these efforts are about privatizing mobility,” Wiens says. “Innovations in public transportation are increasingly coming from the private sector, so there are real concerns about what will be done with people’s data.”

Despite the privacy concerns, the grass roots group applauds the city’s efforts to get transit to work better for people in neighborhoods that have been held back by poor, sparse, or sporadic service.

“Bus lines are lifelines, and public transit is a social utility that can improve people’s lives,” Wiens says. “We’ve seen success with our public transit campaigns and we are delighted that the city is investing in fighting poverty by improving access.”