Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Will Pittsburgh make this "best of " list another year?

I am browsing the local news this morning when I notice this article in the Tribune-Review: Pittsburgh fares well in commuter-cost survey” . According to its author, Rick Willis, Pittsburghers spend less time and money commuting than many other urban-dwelling Americans : An analysis of commuting costs and trends by the investment website and, a personal finance site, ranked Pittsburgh 18th-best among 90 U.S. cities. [1]

So, I did a quick on-line search and, probably because I did not put much effort in it, I did not find the exact source quoted by the Tribune-Review but I did find this list on As you note Pittsburgh is among the bottom four cities for gas expenses, i.e. Pittsburgh is the fourth cheapest big city when coming to gas expenses for driving around. Which given the projected increase in gas prices is good news for Pittsburgh commuters.
One of the reasons why Pittsburgh is such a friendly city for commuters, according to the Tribune-Review article quoted above, is “affordability of living”. Because housing is still cheaper here when compared with other major metro areas, most people can afford to purchase or build houses within the city or not that far from the city limits, and thus have lower commute times and costs [2] .
Another reason for lower fuel costs across the region is smarter suburban design [3]; the highway network connecting the suburbs around Pittsburgh helps locals take advantage of their cars better mpg fuel economy for highway driving. And it is interesting to note that Pittsburgh is not among the cheapest cities when it comes to car and car related expenses such as maintenance and parking, perhaps because to spend less on fuel, one has to spend more on the vehicle and its maintenance.
But, perhaps the most important reason why Pittsburgh made this “best of “ cities for commuters list is its public transportation network. Or what is still left of its public transportation network. Interestingly the Tribune –Review article mentions that the analysis of commuting costs it costs found that cities at the top have higher walkability rates and good public transportation networks but it does not comment on this finding . Yet walkability and public transportation are essential factors for keeping commuting costs and times down in urban areas. We had previously covered on this blog the impact that Port Authority’s projected cuts will have on commuting times here. Also considering The Carfree Census Database , we note that eight out of the ten cities mentioned by bundle .com for low gas costs are among the top 25 cities with most public transit commuters. Pittsburgh is number 8 , and according to Mike Lewyn’s “Auto Free Most Livable Cities” in the US it ranks as number one.
Now that is great news. Not only that Pittsburgh is number one in the most livable cities in US according to but it is also first on the top when it comes to Carfree Most Livable Cities in US. Unfortunately the Census Database we quoted considers 2000 data, and that was before the Port Authority reduced its services by 15 % and projected further service cuts for this year. I wonder where does Pittsburgh rank based on 2010 data. I am almost certain that Detroit, which was 25th on the previous list, will rank higher now and it will only go up once its M1 light-rail line is project will be finished and functional. I fear that Pittsburgh will rank lower.
The point I was trying to make above is quite simple. Pittsburgh worked hard on its way to recovery from the collapse of steel industry in the eighties and it is, one more time, a great place to live in. But its new status is still frail and Pittsburghers cannot afford to ignore any of the factors contributing to the recovery of the city. Yes, Pittsburgh offers more affordable housing than most major cities and growing business opportunities in those industries that fare well even through a recession: research, technology, alternative energy, secondary education and healthcare. Yes Pittsburgh has a great potential for cultural events and an active social life and among its suburban school districts are several who were nominated as best in US for the quality of education in their public high schools. However, to a certain extent, all these advantages were re-built around the accessibility of the city cultural district from its suburbs, the walkability any university has to make sure that students can get to school even though most of them do not drive or afford a car. And to attract green businesses one cannot advertise a polluted city of drivers. And we had a covered the relationship between sociability and walkability here.

So I am afraid that while Port Authority struggles to get enough funding to maintain its ongoing operations, cities such as Detroit and even Cleveland are starting to attract more capital investment and develop new projects. I fear that all the work we had put into re-building this city will not amount to much if our public transit falls to pieces…And at that point the least we would have to worry about will be that Pittsburgh will no longer rank among the top twenty cities when it comes to the average cost and time of commuting.

Notes and Sources
[1] Wills, R. - Pittsburgh fares well in commuter-cost survey” published 12.30.2010 in the Tribune-Review
[2] As we all know, what one deems as affordable is always relative ...Yes housing costs are lower , but so are incomes.
[3]As I read in the a Time Magazine's edition dedicated to the rebirth of Detroit. The featured article The Future of Detroit: How to Shrink a City is also available on-line.

Detroit: $755
Jersey City: $993
New York: $1,078
Boston: $1,111
Philadelphia: $1.207
Washington, D.C.: $1,240
Pittsburgh: $1,246
Chula Vista: $1,290
Toledo: $1,291
Honolulu: $1,378

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