Transportation Choices for Downtown Commuters

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What is this?

The overall results of the Make My Trip Count survey show us an uncommonly high transit ridership for downtown workers: 45% of commuters choose public transit, while only 38% drive alone. But the geographic distribution of these responses can tell us a lot more about the effectiveness of public transportation than just the raw numbers can. We embarked on this project with the idea of mapping out exactly where transit riders, drivers, and walkers coming into the Golden Triangle (NOT Greater Downtown) were coming from, and found a striking split in the ways particular groups of neighbors commute into downtown. Above, we have put together a map of these results, showing the most popular ways people choose to get to work and back: the darker the color, the more dominant that mode is. Click on any zip code in the map viewer for more detailed information.

What can we learn?

Note: The term 'Fixed Guideways' refers to roads and tracks that are exclusively reserved for the use of public transit; this includes the "T" light rail lines that extend through Downtown and into the South Hills, and also the West, East, and South Busways that run bus rapid transit through the city.

Most noticeably in the map above there is a clear divide between the choices of northern and southern zip codes, with many areas in the South Hills and to the East having a higher proportion of transit riders than any other mode. After adding information for the locations of fixed guideway transit routes a clear pattern emerged, a correlation between the location of these guideways and transit ridership. The most popular East End neighborhoods for transit are all located on or near the East Busway, and Downtown workers who live in the South Hills neighborhoods along the "T" and South Busway overwhelmingly prefer transit. Our definition of transit ridership also includes Park & Ride commuters, the impact of which can be seen in the numbers for the zip code around Carnegie, which is situated at the terminus of the West Busway and includes two popular Park & Ride stations available free of charge.

These numbers speak to the success of the fixed guideway services as rapid transit systems, says Lucinda Beattie, Vice President of Transportation for the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership, "The high transit ridership following the light rail and busway routes shows the importance of reliable, predictable service for getting people to work."  Note in the chart below that only two of the top four most popular transit-riding neighborhoods are within the City of Pittsburgh. Of the other two zip codes, both Carnegie and Wilkinsburg are notable for having Park & Ride access to bus rapid transit via the West and East Busways, respectively.

As for biking and walking, it comes as not much of a surprise to see that those who live in adjacent Downtown neighborhoods are more likely to take people-powered modes to work, based on proximity to their jobs. 

these numbers reflect the percentage of respondents from that zip Code who choose that particular mode OVER OTHERS to commute on a typical weekday

these numbers reflect the percentage of respondents from that zip Code who choose that particular mode OVER OTHERS to commute on a typical weekday

So we know that a significant amount of the southern neighborhoods shown above choose transit to get to work Downtown, presumably because of better access. But what motivates the majority-blue zip codes to choose single-occupancy vehicles? According to Mrs Beattie, transit-- or the lack thereof-- plays a role here as well,  "[In the North Hills neighborhoods] we see the impact of the system-wide service cuts to the bus network that occurred in 2011 and earlier. These cuts were not just trimming excess fat, but cut into the vital parts of the bus system itself." It is not necessarily the advantage of driving, but the scarcity of other options that may guide a commuter to choose a car.

There are other variables that can influence varying choice of commute between zip codes, including a higher-capacity highway network that extends northward, differing land use types that encourage vehicular travel, and changes in demographics that may contribute to different lifestyle choices. Proximity is also a factor: of the 19 zip codes that almost fully lie within the City of Pittsburgh boundary, all of them except for the three CBD-adjacent neighborhoods prefer commuting Downtown using public transit over all other modes. This means that the majority of drivers live outside the city limits, with a few located further than Allegheny County.

According to our analysis, two factors predict this simplified mode choice for downtown commuters: the existence of good transit service and close physical proximity to work. Alternative commute patterns can be a more attractive and effective option for many, but only when made freely available.

Editors Note: With the conclusion of her fellowship, this is Sarah Kontos' final blog post. She has been a tremendous asset to Envision Downtown's data development efforts and we are very thankful for all her hard work.