Bike-sharing is just the start: Pittsburgh must continue to provide more and better transportation alternatives

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Earlier this month, the city of Pittsburgh unveiled plans for a system that will allow residents and visitors to share hundreds of bicycles between at least 50 points throughout the area.

This initiative is admirable in its own right, as such a program will promote healthy habits, strengthen tourism, reduce pollution and improve social bonds. But when also viewed in the context of a sophisticated and comprehensive approach to transportation, it is a harbinger of other measures that will benefit economic development, tourism and quality of life.

The bike program was made public the same week as other transportation initiatives were publicly discussed by the city. Many were consistent with a study conducted by IBM. Our company spent nearly one month here last year performing a pro bono Smarter Cities Challenge consulting engagement for the city, during which we analyzed Pittsburgh's transportation needs. IBM then submitted detailed recommendations for implementing innovative transportation-related programs. The city recently posted our suggested blueprint.

When my IBM colleagues were in town, they were struck by the degree of commitment by public, private, academic and not-for-profit stakeholders, and by the experiments already under way by such institutions as Carnegie Mellon University. The willingness to collaborate will be an important predictor of success for the area's progressive transportation plans.

Our team of consultants was addressing a challenge that is a problem nearly everywhere. We all know intuitively that many cities around the world are grappling with the challenge of traffic congestion and understand its ramifications for the environment, our psyches and even business productivity. And the statistics confirm our worst fears. For example, Americans wasted 500,000 years in 2007 -- almost 4.2 billion hours -- just sitting in traffic, according to the Urban Mobility Report 2009 authored by the Texas Transportation Institute.

Aside from the obvious inconveniences, traffic jams in 2009 wasted $87.2 billion in fuel and productivity -- about $750 for every traveler. That cost was only $290 per traveler in 1982.

We shouldn't be surprised that the problem has ballooned, as there are now 1 billion vehicles on the road worldwide, a number predicted to double by 2020, says Ward, an automobile trade magazine.

Here's the good news for Pittsburgh, though: 52 percent of us do our commuting via public transportation. This stands in stark contrast to other cities where public transportation ranks as a distant second as the preferred way to get to work or school, according to an IBM Commuter Pain Study. Our reliance on public transportation is the kind of progressivism that gives our city a head start in taming the transportation beast.

Many of IBM's other recommendations are compatible with Pittsburgh's plans. For instance, the IBM team recommended that the city continue working with partners like Carnegie Mellon University to develop a way of remotely managing roadway infrastructure, such as traffic lights, and to continue exploring how to tap into social media to determine potential roadway trouble spots. We also suggested the dissemination of timely traffic information to motorists to help plan and manage their trips. We advised that public transportation be further promoted as an attractive and self-sustaining alternative to automobile travel.

To make this all work, large amounts of quantifiable information -- known as "Big Data," in tech parlance -- will have to be analyzed for key insights to guide whatever the city decides to do. According to a report co-authored by IBM and the University of Oxford, using data for one's advantage begins by focusing on measurable and meaningful outcomes, developing the right analytical skills and analyzing data that has already been collected.

Pittsburgh is well on its way to implementing these measures, as its 25-year MOVEPGH transportation plan continues to be solidified, as it hires a coordinator among stakeholders, and as those parties endeavor to put Big Data to work. Data the city can continue gathering, sharing and analyzing might include everything from traffic patterns, travel times, auto accidents and air quality, to economic activity, citizen feedback and on-time performance of public transportation. It's all there for the taking.

In that context, it's clear that this month's bicycle-sharing announcement wasn't just another interesting plan to improve the quality of life in Pittsburgh. Instead, we should view the initiative as part of a more comprehensive transportation plan, and as a sign that the city is getting traction and momentum in its bid to move forward.

opinion_commentary

Wayne S. Balta is IBM senior location executive for Pittsburgh.


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