By Eric Boerer, BikePGH Advocacy Director
I do most of my thinking while riding my bike, as the pace allows me to better take in my surroundings. My typical four-mile ride, from Pittsburgh’s Lawrenceville neighborhood to its Downtown, takes me through a snapshot of this rapidly-changing city and the challenges we face as we attempt to balance our population and tech sector growth while maintaining our affordability and identity. Affordable transportation combined with affordable housing will no doubt determine what Pittsburgh will look like in five to 10 years.
Immediately after leaving my office at Bike Pittsburgh, the region’s bicycle and pedestrian advocacy organization, I see a former industrial site that is nearing the completion of luxury apartments.
Much of the new housing in Pittsburgh is high-end, located in areas with great transit, biking and walking options. However, housing costs in these neighborhoods have skyrocketed, leaving many long-term residents with little choice but to move on, often to places with higher transportation costs and fewer amenities. In a city where 25 percent of households have no access to a vehicle, people are being pushed to areas without quality transit or safe biking and walking options, decimating their quality of life.
“In a city where 25 percent of households have no access to a vehicle, people are being pushed to areas without quality transit, biking or walking options.”
While Pittsburgh is still one of the most affordable cities across the country, there is an intense push to bring high-paying tech jobs to town. As we’ve seen in other U.S. cities where tech reigns supreme, the realities of displacement are already shattering Pittsburgh’s community strongholds.
In Pittsburgh, between the arrival of autonomous vehicles (AVs) and the excitement about a futurist vision involving the hyperloop, many people are looking toward technological fixes to deal with transportation issues. While not as sexy as jumping in a tube to grab a quick lunch in Chicago, Pittsburgh already has the tools to solve our transportation problems, namely transit, biking and walking. However, every few years, Pennsylvania’s urban residents need to fight in order to prevent legislators from cutting these funds under the guise of balancing the budget.
As I continue to pedal, I come upon a stretch of the city that some would like to call “robotics row,” where on any given day I’ll be sharing the road with several autonomous or “self-driving” cars.
Entering the Strip District, an area known for fresh produce, ethnic foods and bootleg sports gear, an impatient suburban driver honks and passes too close. I think to myself how I can’t wait for him to be replaced by a robot car that, after a year driving on Pittsburgh’s streets, has yet to honk at me or pass too close. But then I’m reminded of the job loss that this automation will bring and how much AVs are being touted as the panacea that will solve all of our transportation needs. If they end up disrupting our transit system as many predict, it’s unclear how all of these cars will be able to fit into the confines of our dense downtown.
Now pedaling through downtown Pittsburgh, I enter the 3-year-old Penn Avenue protected bike lanes, a controversial project when they went in but now an integral part of the city’s transportation landscape.
To me, these lanes are a reminder of how much our cities have the power to ensure affordable housing, safe transportation and living wages as well as pushing back against those who believe that climate change is a hoax. To others, they may represent this “New Pittsburgh.” As we wrestle with these contradictions, we need to remember that as Pittsburgh grows, that growth needs to be shared with everyone.
As I arrive at my destination on 19th century technology without spending a dime on gas or parking, it highlights how sometimes the best solutions for the future lie in the past.