Busway Futures: Penn Station Transit Plaza, earned a Certificate of Merit for evolve environment :: architecture in the Design Pittsburgh competition's Regional and Urban Design category. (Image: evolve environment :: architecture)

As Karina Ricks works to improve mobility and transit for the people of Pittsburgh, she’s often reminded of her time in Washington, D.C. in the early aughts.

Prior to taking the lead at Pittsburgh’s Department of Mobility and Infrastructure (DOMI) in 2017, Ricks spent more than a decade managing transport in Washington, D.C. She began in 2000 at the Office of City Planning and finished her tenure in 2011 as the associate director for the Department of Transportation.

“That city was coming out of its own period of disinvestment, of population loss,” Ricks remembers.  It was “starting to see some renewal, starting to see some growth.”

That growth brought inevitable challenges: As the population grew and federal investment rolled in, Ricks saw that the newfound prosperity was not being equally shared. Most troubling for a transit professional, citizens in lower-income neighborhoods were even losing transportation options while their more affluent neighbors had plenty of access.

“That just really impressed on me a lot how it was important to pay attention to all the different neighborhoods,” she says, “not just the squeaky wheel.”

It’s the guiding philosophy behind several of the transit plans her office is currently drafting and will be rolling out over the next several months.

The plans focus on different areas of public transit — things like improving pedestrian safety, connecting the city’s bike lanes and implementing the Bus Rapid Transit project. But Ricks says they add up to a cohesive, connected vision for the city.

Karina Ricks speaking at the MOBILITI conference in October. Courtesy of Christopher Young.

Of course, Pittsburgh presents its own particular challenges. For one thing, there’s the issue of money.

While infrastructure improvements are nominally a bipartisan issue, “we really have not seen a healthy new injection of investment in transit for a long time in this area,” Ricks tells NEXTpittsburgh.

For another thing, there’s the geography.

“Unlike many other cities, where you have at least some amount of grid that you can spread demand over many different streets, here in Pittsburgh there just aren’t too many parallel routes to get to the same destinations,” Ricks explains. “And the ones that we do have are not very wide.”

To help clear up our streets, Ricks says the city should look at new and innovative policy approaches as well as infrastructure improvements. In particular, she says it’s time for an honest debate about congestion pricing, an approach where a city charges tolls and other fees to single-occupancy vehicles in busy areas during peak traffic hours.

Ricks is quick to point out that for Pittsburgh, the actual areas that would need to be covered by the policy would be small, half-square-mile sections of Oakland and Downtown.

“I know it’s controversial in Pittsburgh, but I think its something that has to be on the table,” she says. “There’s a finite capacity for vehicles, but there’s a lot of untapped capacity for moving people.”

While other cities offer plenty of examples of innovative transit plans, Ricks says she gets much of her inspiration from looking at Pittsburgh itself — Pittsburgh in the mid-20th century, that is, when the city was a booming economic powerhouse with an iconic network of trolleys, buses and funiculars.

“The city used to be more than twice as populated as it is now,” she says. “A lot of the answer to ‘How do we grow? How do we move people?’ is to look back at those means of transport we had before.”

Bill O'Toole

Bill O'Toole was a full-time reporter for NEXTpittsburgh until October, 2019. He previously reported in Myanmar.