Pittsburgh's commuters are walking the walk

Suzy Waldo can never call off work with the excuse that her car won't start. And she can't really justify showing up late for her shifts, either.

Ms. Waldo lives five blocks from the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh South Side where she is the branch manager, and is among the relatively small but growing number of Pittsburghers who make their daily commutes by foot.

A new Census report looking at data from the past five years ranks Pittsburgh third among large cities with commuters who walk to work.

Five years of data from the American Community Survey show 11.3 percent of Pittsburghers commute by walking -- ahead of New York City's 10.3 percent, and just behind Boston, at 15.1 percent, and Washington, D.C., at 12.1 percent.

"Especially as a public librarian, it's great for me to be able to really know the neighborhood," Ms. Waldo said. "There's not really a downside. It can be a little awkward when people recognize me at the swimming pool, or ask me at the Giant Eagle whether we have a certain book."

She does own a car and she drives her husband to his job at Carnegie Mellon University in the mornings. But Ms. Waldo finds herself walking to more places than just work, to the surprise of some of her friends.

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"I teach at the Allegheny County Jail and that walk takes me about 25 minutes, which people really seem to think is a long walk," she said. "When we want to go to a ball game, we walk to Station Square and take the T. My parents, who live in the suburbs, think that's crazy. I think people who drive all the time have a different perception of how far apart things are."

Christopher Briem, regional economist at the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Social and Urban Research, said the nature of Pittsburgh's population and its workforce make it a logical place for walking commuters. "The city has retained a large number of jobs within its core, unlike other urban areas where jobs have migrated out to suburban locations," Mr. Briem said.

The Census report showed that densely populated cities in the Northeast had the highest percentages of walking commuters, while the western part of the country had the highest percentages of bicycle commuters. The greatest concentration of walking commuters was found in small "college towns" like Ithaca, N.Y., and Athens, Ohio, both of which have about 40 percent of commuters on foot.

The average commute time for walking commuters was about 11.5 minutes, the survey showed, compared to about a 19-minute average for bicycling commuters and more than 25 minutes for motorized vehicle commutes.

The experience of commuting from Pittsburgh's suburbs is a powerful motivator for those considering living in the city and closer to work.

Shane Culgan's commute from his Downtown apartment to his job in the IT department at PPG takes him five minutes, including time spent in the elevator. His commute from the Murrysville area used to take him upwards of two hours.

"My commute is, essentially, crossing the street," said Mr. Culgan, who has lived Downtown for about two years. "My job used to have alternating shifts, so my commute at that time would take anywhere from 35 minutes to almost two hours."

That lasted three months. Now, not only does he not have to fight the Parkway East traffic every day, but his quality of life has improved. "It's so awesome to have gotten two to three hours of my life back to get more sleep in the morning and have more time to do the things I want to do in the evenings," he said.

But Mr. Culgan, 26, said if the city wants to encourage more young people to live close to their Downtown jobs, more affordable housing options would be a big draw. "There is kind of an inconsistency in terms of the city trying to push this younger culture in the city, but it is hard to find affordable places Downtown," he said. "I think I got really lucky."

Scott Bricker, executive director of advocacy group Bike Pittsburgh, said even though the five-year Census data don't rank Pittsburgh in the top 15 cities with bicycle commuters, he said the survey annually shows Pittsburgh holding steady at about 1.5 percent of commuters who bike to work.

The "Modes Less Traveled" report found 6.1 percent of commuters in Portland, Ore., ride their bikes to work, putting it No. 1 on the list.

Stuart Strickland has chronicled his bicycle commute on his Twitter account for the past five years. He lives in McCandless and works Downtown, and usually can ride the 10 miles faster than it would take on a bus.

"I just wanted to show people how easy it is, how it's reasonable," he said. The cost savings of being a one-car household allowed the Stricklands to pay off their mortgage early, he added.

"I do use the bus sometimes but, when it's possible, I get back and forth on my bike because it's cheapest and most convenient in terms of scheduling," he said. "It's been great for me."

Mr. Bricker noted that making Pittsburgh safer for walkers also is part of BikePGH's mission statement. "There is no silver bullet. You can't just regulate walk signals and expect it to make a difference," he said. "It has to be easy for people to choose walking, so that means economic development and infrastructure improvements."

It's much nicer, he said, for instance, to walk past active storefronts on the way to work, as opposed to empty lots. And no one wants to try to walk on streets that don't have sidewalks, Mr. Bricker said.

Katie Harrison said now that she commutes from her home on the North Side to her job on Grant Street, she decided she wants to live within walking distance of her work forever.

"When I was in law school, I commuted from my parents' house in Butler County, and it was when Route 28 was under construction. It was a trek," Ms. Harrison said.

She now saves money on gas and parking, and ends up putting very few miles on her car. And, Ms. Harrison said, walking to work has opened up the city for her in a whole new way.

"I always had this perception that Pittsburgh wasn't walkable, but when I started walking to work, then I started walking all over the place as well," she said. "You miss so much of the city when you're driving."

Kim Lyons: klyons@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1241 or on Twitter @SocialKimly.

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