Business leaders and residents of Lawrenceville discuss ways to improve local transport. Photo Courtesy of Maya Designs.

Once, Pittsburgh was known for its inclines. Today, it’s self-driving cars.

As the city pushes to become a leader in advanced manufacturing and technology, many are asking how the benefits of these cutting-edge innovations can be spread to the rest of the city.

Speaking to NEXTpittsburgh, Forbes Funds President and CEO Fred Brown said that far too many people in the city, especially minority groups, have been excluded from lucrative jobs supporting the city’s tech boom. Innovative approaches to public transport could be a critical first step in addressing the disparity: “How do we start on a fundamental level, just getting to and from work?” he asked.

As Brown noted, many experts in the region are already sounding alarms about the region’s growing “skills gap” — a problem that will only be compounded if potential workers struggle to commute across town. Those living under the poverty line often lack access to a car, and public transit is inconsistent. In a city of hills and narrow streets, not to mention inclement weather, biking is not always an option.

A recent study from the non-profit 412 Food Rescue emphasized that “immobility could prevent families from accessing vital resources that may be relatively nearby, and lack of transit is known to compound the difficulties of poverty.”

Whether it’s access to jobs, food, health services or voting rights, “transportation is at the crux of most of the problems we have today,” says Adam Paulisick, chief product officer at MAYA Design. With this as a starting philosophy, Paulisick and his team gathered technologists, civil society groups and citizens together for the first-ever Mobiliti conference to look at solving the “transit gap” between hungry employers and the region’s untapped talent.

The event, nearly a year in the making, was designed to bring outside experts and all the city’s relevant stakeholders together to talk about the changing face of transit in Pittsburgh. It is running October 4 – 5 and with the hope that it becomes an annual event.

Beyond just networking, the goal of the two-day event is to create workable designs for tech-based pilot programs which could then be eligible for grants and other foundational support. In particular, Paulisick says that he will steer participants toward the City of Tomorrow Challenge, which supports innovative approaches to urban planning.

In addition, attendees will hear from visiting experts from Portland and San Francisco on the successes and failures of new transit policies and technologies in their rapidly gentrifying communities.

This, says Brown, is “an opportunity to attack some of the nascent issues around transportation.”

Paulisick noted that many of the event’s large corporate partners, such as PNC and Uber, “are now seeing transit the same as health benefits. It’s not just seen as altruism but something with a real economic return.” And the organizations are willing to invest in civic-minded approaches to improving it.

The event should be an eye-opener for employers, says Karina Ricks, the City of Pittsburgh’s director of mobility and infrastructure.

“It’s clear,” she says, “that mobility is an inseparable component of economic development.”

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