Every time I come home from Europe, I'm struck with wonder at the public transportation infrastructure that Europeans enjoy and that the United States so utterly lacks. I'm hardly alone, and for once the current energy crisis is prompting some serious-sounding rumbles about doing things differently on this side of the pond. Will any of this go anywhere? Locally:

Brian O'Neill wrote recently about efforts to study both high-speed intercity and commuter rail in Western PA.

The CityLive series recently sponsored a community forum on regional transportation called "Getting There From Here." A related wiki launched at the same time.

Recent PR surrounding economic development for smaller post-industrial cities likewise focuses on infrastructure renewal. (That link goes to a Post-Gazette op-ed that in turn links to this consultant's report.)

This is all good stuff, and there should be more of it, but every time I come home from Europe I remember, eventually, the vast differences between American and European socio-geography. Pittsburgh is as good an example as any region in the U.S.: This area could have been developed around rail transportation (of course, at one point in time, it was!), but instead it was developed around the automobile. And I mean this not just in the sense that we have lots of highways and few rail lines, but also in the sense that the distribution of commerce and residential areas, of schools and hospitals and churches and stadiums, reflects decades' worth of preferences for automobiles. Cheap gas + cheap land + cheap housing = auto-based sprawl.

What to do?

On the one hand, we can imagine building real public transit systems: We can build high-speed rail to Cleveland and Philadephia and Washington DC, and we can imagine commuter lines running out McNight Road and along Routes 28 and 22. There are a number of things can coud be done to improve air travel, and to reorganize the workplace to make less business-related travel necessary. But those things alone -- while helpful -- can't get more than a handful of people out of their cars. And are those things do-able in themselves? If the money can be found, will local politicians have the stomach to force takings of the rights-of-way that will be needed to realize these systems?

The other half of this coin is transit- and rail-oriented development. More on that in a separate post.


2 Responses to "Transported"

Schultz said... 7/28/2008 6:15 PM

I encourage anyone who has ideas for improving transportation here to visit the wiki that Mike posted. I will be posting updates about the progress of the CitiLive initiative often over at "Green is Good."

Drew said... 7/28/2008 10:25 PM

Great to see some research and blogging about this topic. I would love to see this city develop its public transit.

From an earlier comment you made about high tax/low econ growth... the european cities and countries that mention have much higher tax rates than the US, which is also a large contributor to the great public transit (and other benefits) that they enjoy.

But I do agree with you about the developmental policy that has driven America for the past century. We're 20 years too late to the party, but environmental policies and social habits need to start changing.

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Pittsblog 2.0 is written by Mike Madison, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh. Send email to michael.j.madison[at] Mike also blogs at, on law and technology. Chris Briem of Null Space drops by from time to time.

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