City of Pittsburgh: Mobility tied to social and economic justice

By: Clarke Knight
August 11, 2019
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Est. Reading Time: 5 minutes
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Early in her career, while working in international development, Karina Ricks kept noticing the profound role of transportation in shaping lives. Ricks’ time in Latvia in the mid-1990s, for example, illustrated the freedoms afforded by an efficient rail system, particularly during the country’s democratic transition in 1991. Trains allowed families to move easily between an urban apartment and a country home where they could grow vegetables, which offset the food shortages that were common under Soviet rule. These experiences gave Ricks a lasting appreciation for transportation’s role in economic prosperity and social equity. Since 2017, she has applied these lessons at the local level within the U.S., overseeing transportation in Pittsburgh as the Director of Mobility and Infrastructure.

CK: What is Pittsburgh’s approach to mobility and infrastructure?

Ricks: Pittsburgh is in the Appalachian Mountains, and that topography has done two things. One, it has not allowed the kind of sprawl and decentralization that has happened in other cities, such as the plain states in the Midwest. Even out west, you can just lay your grid down and spread for as far as the eye can see. Second, on the microscale, the topography created clearly identifiable neighborhoods even within the city. So we really had 90 town centers that were the natural gathering place for the neighborhoods and they persist to this day. The exercise here is to connect those centers, because there is a level of isolation even within the city. Some neighborhoods are immensely rich in jobs and opportunity, like quality health care and higher-performing schools, but there are also neighborhoods that are completely without a grocery store and where schools have closed down. These neighborhoods might be physically close, but with our roadway networks they may require two transfers on a bus. You could stand in your neighborhood and see this other place of robust opportunity, but you can’t get there. And that's part of what we’re working on: how do we bridge that gap so that the access opportunity is more equal?

CK: What are the most urgent challenges faced by the city?

Ricks: All across the country, the infrastructure investment is not even remotely where it needs to be. The level of deferred maintenance is breathtaking. So infrastructure that might not be at the top of its game, combined with global climate change and unprecedented weather events, is a recipe for some really challenging times. Part of what we're focused on, and what we need to think more smartly about, is how we catch up on that deferred maintenance. We need to be significantly more efficient than we have been in the past. We need to make our dollars go as far as they can go and we need to accelerate the delivery of those projects. Competing countries are, at the national level, finding the resources to make these very, very important infrastructure investments. Our country can't quite seem to get it together to do that. So we need to think more creatively, whether it's state or local resources or public-private partnerships.

CK: The mission of the Department is “To provide the physical mobility necessary for the economic mobility of all Pittsburghers.” Can you elaborate on how you’re trying to accomplish that goal?

Ricks: One piece is having the public appreciate the urgency of the climate challenge that's in front of us. While they might not see the underlying condition of the infrastructure, they certainly will feel its effect when the road slides or a bridge needs to be closed. We've tinkered around the edges too much. We need to start doing things that are radically different, not just giving transit a tiny leg up or making it seem not quite as sad. Public transport shouldn’t be a mobility of last resort. We need to actually favor it very overtly and say, you know, this is the best way to move. We need to seriously and rapidly rethink our street design so that it’s safe for bikes and that it's inviting for pedestrians. We're putting the finishing touches on a “Bike+” plan so that we can have a network for bikes. We are completing a transportation vision plan for the next 50 years. There are a huge number of actual infrastructure projects underway too. We have probably a hundred million dollars of projects in the pipeline right now in various stages of design or construction. There's a lot going on.

CK: Can you elaborate on the role of transit in economic prosperity and social equity?

Ricks: I think they're the same thing. Cities that provide limited transportation services only provide economic development for a small segment of their population. This is not sustainable because at some point the burdens of those that are left behind will undermine the successes of the others. And so how we get to a vibrant, robust, sustainable city?  Everybody has to have an opportunity to thrive, to get to the daily necessities of life, and to have the means to get to the places to better themselves, if that's where they want to go. Shortly after I started at Pittsburgh, I was talking with an older African American gentleman. His son had just graduated from college, the first person in their family to get a bachelor's degree. He got a great job at a financial firm, but it was in Cranberry, which is outside the city by quite a distance. He didn't have a car and there's no transit. The young man was going to turn down the job offer. The father said absolutely not. They just had one car in the family, but the father insisted the son take the car for this job and that the father would figure out transit to continue to do his job. Here's a bright young person at the beginning of his career, ready to go. What if he didn't have a father that could give him that car? What are his life outcomes if he couldn’t take that job? It could lead to a cycle of cynicism and resentment and a lifetime of highly depressed earnings. All for lack of mobility and access. But, I'm optimistic. I think these problems arise because we get tied up in policies and bureaucratic reports and financials rather than listening to people’s actual lived experiences.

CK: You’ve tweeted about transportation options in other major urban areas, such as Singapore’s congestion pricing and aerial ropeways. What can we learn from other cities?

Ricks: Singapore is a rapidly growing city of roughly six million people and yet no one is waiting more than one signal cycle to get through a traffic light in the downtown area. Since the 1980’s they have used mathematical models to determine just how many vehicles the system can process efficiently without gridlock. It is simple geometry - everything takes up space not only standing but when in movement. Pricing is all about efficiency and managing the system so that it doesn't reach a point of breakdown and collapse. Private vehicles pay a fluctuating fee to enter the system, meantime very high quality public transit is provided for those who wish not to pay, and everyone gets where they need to go smoothly and reliably. Congestion pricing is not about raising money, it is about ensuring efficiency of movement.

CK: And what challenges do we face in adopting other mass transit or pricing approaches in American cities?

Ricks: I just read a great article written by an attorney relaying how many elements of our legal and regulatory system, from the very early days, were designed to favor and accommodate the automobile. Driving is ingrained in policy, law, zoning, and public investment. People worry about social manipulation, but what that article points out is that we've been living a socially engineered existence around the automobile for the last 50 or 60 years. We've done this to ourselves; we are the frog in the boiling pot. We've been sitting here for so long, allowing ourselves to get boiled and we did not realize it

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Engineers & Scientists Acting Locally (ESAL) is a non-advocacy, non-political organization. The information in this post is for general informational purposes and does not imply an endorsement by ESAL for any political candidates, businesses, or organizations mentioned herein.
Published: 08/11/19
Updated: 08/16/22
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