Transit Tales tells of plight of busing poor

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A rush hour bus jammed with backpacks and bags poking shoulders and legs, folded strollers, and swaying strap hangers is also a bus filled with stories about rush hour buses; buses that are late, buses that jobs depend on, jobs lost when routes are cut.

Then the stories get deeper.

Transit Tales, a multimedia storytelling program, has collected hundreds of audio experiences since last year. The project culminated Thursday night, when planners, activists, city officials, designers, transit employees and about 50 others met to discuss transit at the Hill House Association's Blakey Program Center.

Among five panelists, Port Authority driver Tom Conroy said the future of transit would improve if drivers were consulted.

"We're the ones who know where the blind rider gets on, where the wheelchair riders are and how busy each stop is," he said. "This system belongs to the public. They deserve to get to their job, or both jobs. All of us haul people from one low-paying job to another."

Breen Masciotra, regional outreach manager for the Pittsburgh Community Reinvestment Group, said PCRG's transportation initiative, GoBurgh, campaigned for state funding that will commit $500 million per year statewide by 2017, 90 percent for mass transit in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

"We recognize the opportunity to have a conversation now about what we want," she said, "and it should be driven from the bottom up."

PCRG asked Pittsburghers for Public Transit and the Bricolage Production Co. to partner on a Sprout Fund grant to collect and present the stories. The goal was to merge storytelling with current events, humanize the transit experience and portray ridership as universal.

Panelist Bonnie Young Laing of the Hill District Consensus Group said that in community talks with transit officials over the years, "we have articulated our concerns and had the answer be 'That's not feasible.' As a social worker, I know a competent official should be able to listen and figure out how to make things happen."

There's always money "when some corporation wants something," she said, "but for the working class and poor, it's not feasible."

Mr. Conroy related the disparity as a driver: "When there's a game and a transit problem, they go into full-blown panic mode. They will pay overtime, do anything it takes so people from the South Hills can have a nice smooth ride to the game or casino while there are communities that have no buses."

Panelist Paul O'Hanlon, of the Committee for Accessible Transportation, cited the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990 as a catalyst for change. The Port Authority had to become accessible, he said, "and public input was critical in that process."

Regarding a proposal from 2013 to keep buses out of the center of Downtown with perimeter stops, Grant Ervin, the city's sustainability manager, said Mayor Bill Peduto "wants an intense civic process on that. No decision will get made without it. We want to reignite the conversation about mobility in general regarding land use, development and energy. Not just transit but bicycles and pedestrians."

Panelist Ben Samson, an architect-to-be, designed for his master's thesis a transit map based on 30 years of transit planning and on rights of way dating to the early 1900s. It outlines a transit system based on light rail.

"It has 114 stations, 233 miles of track, six end-to-end lines and a loop," he said. "I think we do things piecemeal in this city, like half a billion dollars to tunnel under a river for two stations" without a plan for where it will lead. Meanwhile, old rights of way remain.

Based on investments in other cities, he said, his map would cost about $35 million per mile to implement. "It's a lot but it's not," he said, citing reports of revenue generated by rapid transit in Cleveland. "I'm proposing a system 200 times that. Imagine the revenues we could generate."

Diana Nelson Jones: or 412-263-1626. Read her blog City Walkabout at

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