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North Corridor Rail Demonstration Project Proposed

Busways vs Light Rail in Pittsburgh
What does this mean for Charlotte?

By Bob Bischoff
Since there are proposals for a combination of light rail and busways in Charlotte’s future transit planning, we thought it might be a good idea to visit a city where both modes are presently operating. Martin Wheeler and I visited Pittsburgh in April to ride and study their transit system so that we could compare these two transit alternatives. We talked to local people who are knowledgeable about the history of transit in the Pittsburgh area, and we talked to past and present Port Authority transit employees.

There are currently three operating light rail lines in Pittsburgh, all running out of a short subway in the downtown area. All three lines serve different areas on the south side of the city. A fourth line in the Overbrook area is currently being rebuilt and is scheduled to open by the end of 2003.

There are three full-scale busways in Pittsburgh. The East Busway and the West Busway were built over the top of unused railroad right-of-way. By “full scale” we mean a busway which includes intermediate stops along its length, similar to light rail. Most busways in this country run on HOV type lanes on freeways, much the same as our busway on Independence Boulevard. They do not stop from the time they get on their special lanes until the time they get off. There has been an unfair comparison between their speed and light rail. Obviously, if you have your own lane and you don’t stop to pick up any passengers you are going to make fast time. The question is how useful they are to the communities you zoom through.

There is a third full scale busway in Pittsburgh, the South Busway, part of which has been shared with light rail. The South Busway’s original ridership estimates were for about 32,000 weekday passengers. It actually opened with about 20,000, and how handles about 14,500, according to the best figures we have been able to obtain.

The East Busways ridership was estimated to be 80,000 on weekdays. It is actually carrying about 30,000. Despite this rather disappointing performance it is being extended 2.3 miles over the opposition of local suburbs who wanted light rail.
The West Busway was estimated to carry 50,000 weekday riders but has so far managed only 7,000. In fairness, this busway may be extended further out, in which case ridership may increase. However, it is still not projected to reach the airport, which might have been the ultimate destination in this area.
Pittsburgh’s light rail system is actually the remnants of their old streetcar and interurban system, some of which has now been upgraded to light rail standards. There are approximately 23 miles of light rail lines now in operation. With the exception of one fairly short line that runs primarily on city streets, the majority of the remaining light rail in Pittsburgh is over private right-of-way in urban or suburban neighborhoods. This does not mean it is high speed however, because their light rail makes many stops that are close together. However it does appear to do an excellent job of serving the many neighborhoods it passes through and is well patronized.

Pittsburgh’s light rail ridership increased about 50 per cent, from 24,000 to 36,000 after the streetcar system was converted to light rail. This happened despite the fact that the transit authority put a premium peak fare on the light rail system. There has more recently been some reduction in the 36,000 figure due in part to the Overbrook line being temporarily out of service and a general decline in transit ridership over the entire system, probably due in part to the economy.

Another measure of the success of light rail is the recent real estate listings in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Dozens of listings mention “close to light rail” while very few mention “close to bus line” and none mentioned the busway specifically.

What does this all mean to Charlotte? Looking at the two modes of transit from the standpoint of public acceptance and ridership, it clearly appears that light rail in Pittsburgh has met with much greater success than the busway alternative. The figures seem to speak for themselves. The lessons learned in Pittsburgh should be applied in Charlotte. It is too late in Pittsburgh to change what is already built. It is not too late in Charlotte to learn from their mistakes. (See related article, Maximize the Usefulness of Transit Corridors.)

July, 2002