Profiles of American BRT: Pittsburgh’s South Busway and East Busway

Pittsburgh's East Busway serves 15 bus routes and more than 25,000 riders daily. Photo: ITDP

Last month the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy released its report, “Recapturing Global Leadership in Bus Rapid Transit” [PDF], which proposed a LEED-like rating system for bus rapid transit projects and laid out a strategy for American cities to build systems as good as the world’s best BRT. While more than 20 American bus projects have claimed the BRT mantle at various times, the ITDP report named just five American cities with bus corridors that made the grade and earned the title “True BRT.” Streetsblog is pleased to publish a series of case studies from ITDP examining these innovative transit projects, starting with the country’s first BRT routes, in Pittsburgh.

In recent years, Pittsburgh’s reputation has been rejuvenated. The former industrial hub is becoming an innovative model for urban re-development, and an attractive place to live and work.

Pittsburgh’s leadership on the urban sustainability front is not a recent phenomenon – in fact, it was the first city in the United States to implement elements of bus rapid transit, and it paved the way for more robust U.S. BRT systems.

In 1977, only three years after Curitiba, Brazil implemented the world’s first BRT system, Pittsburgh opened the South Busway, 4.3 miles of exclusive bus lanes, running though previously underserved areas of the city, from the western suburbs to the downtown. The city was concerned about worsening traffic congestion, and, lacking the funds to rehabilitate the city’s streetcar lines, took inspiration from Curitiba and created the South Busway. Funding for the system came from U.S. DOT, the state of Pennsylvania and Allegheny County. The Port Authority of Allegheny County, a county-owned, state-funded agency, operates the system.

The success of the South Busway helped the city leverage funding for the expansion of the network, and in 1983, the Martin Luther King, Jr. East Busway opened. The East Busway began as a 6.8 mile network, with an additional 2.3 miles added in 2003, connecting the eastern suburbs with downtown. Fifteen bus routes run along its corridor. Its current weekday ridership is 25,600, with annual ridership close to 7 million.

The East Busway built on the success of its predecessor and offered fundamental BRT features including a dedicated busway, service as frequent as every two minutes during peak period, signal prioritization, and direct service operations (more on that soon). However, there is no off-board fare collection. Instead, passengers pay upon entrance for in-bound trips and upon exit for outbound trips, which helps reduce delays in service because of fare collection.

Pittsburgh is currently the only BRT system in the United States that operates a direct service model, meaning that local, limited and express services share the East Busway, accommodating a wide variety of transit needs. As the  buses serving suburban routes enter the main corridors, they transfer onto the dedicated bus lanes via connection ramps, making transfer-free trips for passengers. The BRT buses can also exit the busway and use city streets to deliver passengers to destinations.

Today Pittsburgh is moving ahead with expansions and improvements to its BRT network. A new proposed route – downtown to Oakland – is a dense corridor packed with housing, employment centers, universities and businesses. All told, 110,000 people work along the route. The city’s transit agency estimates 68,000 riders a day will use the new route, or 24 percent of the Port Authority’s current total ridership.

In creating its existing busways, the Port Authority did not have to re-purpose car lanes for the BRT, an issue that has generated anti-BRT sentiment among residents in cities like Eugene and Los Angeles. Plans to re-purpose on-street lanes to grow the BRT system in Pittsburgh will almost certainly encounter similar resistance, but the public’s familiarity with the East Busway and South Busway should help overcome such obstacles.

Stephanie Lotshaw is a program associate at ITDP. You can read more about the future of BRT in the United States at www.itdp.org.

  • trainluvr

    PAT 1968 radio ads just posted to YouTube

  • Clarence Eckerson Jr.

    I got to ride this from airport into Pittsburgh downtown on my trip last year.  I had no idea it existed and was pleasantly amazed.  I would have tried to do a Streetfilm on it had I had some more time.

  • Anonymous

    From the airport you would have traveled on the West Busway, a third right-of-way that isn’t even mentioned in this article

    http://www.portauthority.org/PAAC/CustomerInfo/BuswaysandT/WestBusway/tabid/217/Default.aspx

  • capt subway

    Pittsburgh created its own third rate transit system. Until the middle to late 1960s it had the largest streetcar/light rail network in the USA, with over 600 PCC cars running over numerous lines. And many of those lines were on private-right-of-way. GM sold the PTA a bill of goods on a concept called “skybus”, BRT avant la lettre, which didn’t work out, but the PTA had already started trashing its huge streetcar system, including most of the lines on PROW. So basically what we have here is too little too late. It’s a sad story because it all happened just a few years before the mass transit/streetcar/light rail renaissance got under way by virtue of the first oil crisis in 1973.

  • jon

    Does anyone know anything about some bus lanes installed in Chicago in the late 1930s by Chicago Surface Lines, credited as the first in the world?

    According to the American Public Transportation Association (APTA)[3] and the National Transit Database (NTD),[4] the world’s first designated bus lane was created in Chicago in 1939.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bus_lane

    Can’t find anymore than this. Do they even still exist?

    I’m amazed other than these Chicago bus lanes (and the Providence, RI Bus Tunnel converted from a former streetcar tunnel in the late 1940s), it took decades for busways/bus lanes to begin to catch on.

  • Nat Hayes

    The success of BRT in Pittsburgh is as much luck as it is an engineering success.
    The Port Authority combined a myriad of boom and bust private bus, furnicular and trolley services in the mid-sixties. Since that time, the Authority has attempted BRT, commuter diesel rail, electric rail and rail to bus route conversions. Some have worked, others not; some were costly, others not.

    From living in Pittsburgh, my bias is to the BRT system. Compared to the light rail in the southern communities, BRT wins: it’s operational costs are less than revenues collected from fares, the reconstruction of the corridor was nearly 40 times less than the reconstruction of light rail line, and it has never closed (to my recollection) due to weather while the light rail line is often delayed from icing, wind storms and heavy snows.

    It is too costly to construct light rail for Allegheny County’s hills, geology, weather extremes and politics. The only reason it remains and skybus was attempted is/was the infrastructure is built here. Bombardier/Adtrans makes the existing rail cars not far from were the old GM plant would have constructed the skybuses.

  • Nat Hayes

    The success of BRT in Pittsburgh is as much luck as it is an engineering success.
    The Port Authority combined a myriad of boom and bust private bus, furnicular and trolley services in the mid-sixties. Since that time, the Authority has attempted BRT, commuter diesel rail, electric rail and rail to bus route conversions. Some have worked, others not; some were costly, others not.

    From living in Pittsburgh, my bias is to the BRT system. Compared to the light rail in the southern communities, BRT wins: it’s operational costs are less than revenues collected from fares, the reconstruction of the corridor was nearly 40 times less than the reconstruction of light rail line, and it has never closed (to my recollection) due to weather while the light rail line is often delayed from icing, wind storms and heavy snows.

    It is too costly to construct light rail for Allegheny County’s hills, geology, weather extremes and politics. The only reason it remains and skybus was attempted is/was the infrastructure is built here. Bombardier/Adtrans makes the existing rail cars not far from were the old GM plant would have constructed the skybuses.

  • Nathanael

     The Port Authority DID, however, steal valuable railroad lines for the East Busway (though not the South one) — sabotaging future rail transportation until the East Busway is retrfitted with rail or torn down.  Not a good idea.

  • Nat Hayes

    Steal!? They paid through the nose for that corridor. How are the adjacent lines not sufficient for local commerce? There’s plenty of commuter and commercial rail capacity for the size and location of Pittsburgh.

  • Nathanael

     There are two tracks left on the Pennsylvania RR corridor.  That means either long-distance service or local commuter service, but *not both* — probably not either, with freight traffic continuing.  There are many other railroad corridors, but most of them are suitable ONLY for freight.  This is now the major ROW bottleneck along the entire Pittsburgh to Philadelphia route.

  • you build a highway through a bunch of poor neighborhoods, and instead of calling it “a weapon of mass destruction masquerading as a highway”, you call it a rapid transit line ‘serving’ under-served communities? nice.

    the Port Authority did not have to re-purpose car lanes for the BRT? did not have to? at least we’re clear on ITDP being a pro-road building organization.

    that bus highway is an urban disaster and environmental catastrophe. it was a great way to build another highway and keep buses from clogging up the existing highways. it was a great way to prioritize motorized transport over non-motorized, and a great way to keep people striving to stay in their cars.

  • @700636beda4a72a9e565011576c6c550:disqus – I remember the skybus hype, plus every other wacky idea from maglevs to monorail, all proposed for the south of the city.  We have lived on the north just had our streetcar lines ripped up in favor of diesel buses.

  • @619ad8af8ffef8f0d89b888fd8670113:disqus – Like most BRT success stories in the U.S., this one owes it success to an existing LRT right-of-way and the land use that arose along its route.

  • @6c5c5c27b2d41d6a4003bb4b4267ecb7:disqus – Too bad the East Busway buses have to mix it up with traffic downtown, as is the fate of buses.  I can generally get all the way out to the East End by bike before the bus can.

  • AJ

    I’m surprised this article doesn’t mention the West Busway, the newest and most advanced of PGH’s Busways. Not only did they tunnel through a mountain for it, but they got it to seamlessly connect to the highway to the airport.

    I just got back from a week of riding the entire T and Busway network and I can easily say that the Busways are far superior to the T. It really bothered me because I run under the “never send a bus to do the job of a train” tenet, but seeing how the buses seamlessly weave in an out of the busway from local neighborhoods to connect with the frequent busway service and also seeing how it’s helped for mobility of emergency vehicles, it’s a pretty solid network for Pittsburgh. Call me impressed.

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