And So Goes Pittsburgh

The Port Authority and Allegheny County have announced massives cuts in public transportation services for Pittsburgh. This, of course, has prompted wailing and gnashing of teeth, and much of the reaction is warranted. It is, however, important to realize that this is not the first time such cutbacks and rate hikes have been proposed. Generally, when the decisions are made, the cutbacks themselves are scaled back, and all is not lost. That said, even if the cutbacks are halved, the city can expect some hard times. I’m a bit stunned at the coverage the Post Gazette has provided regarding the reaction of regular transit users–why focus on folks in Squirrel Hill and Regent Square and Swissvale? Organizations such as nursing homes will be the hardest hit, as many of their employees rely on public transportation for their commute (it is worth noting that one of the most effective forces against rate hikes and route cuts in the past are churches in less affluent neighborhoods and nursing homes).

If you want to see where the city and county’s priorities are, watch the Plan B arena funding story unfold. The city, county, and state, who cannot find the money to fund public transportation, will magically have the ability to help the Pittsburgh Penguins replace the aging Civic Mellon Arena. This after diverting public money over the past decade to build a baseball stadium and a football stadium (one of which contains a product that hasn’t been successful in over 15 years).

It is worth noting that Bike Pittsburgh is offering help for commuters affected by the cuts by providing low cost self powered transportation (bicycles) and route planning. The cynical side of me says no one will take them up on this, but if even twenty people ask for their assistance, I would count that as a success.

Where do I stand on this? I’m still working out where public transportation fits into my vision of Things. I have, however, been reading Ivan Illich’s Energy and Equity, in which he examines the relationship of transportation and equality.

Liberation from the radical monopoly of the transportation industry is possible only through the institution of a political process that demystifies and disestablishes speed and limits traffic-related public expenditures of money, time, and space to the pursuit of equal mutual access. Such a process amounts to public guardianship over a means of production to keep this means from turning into a fetish for the majority and an end for the few. The political process, in turn, will never engage the support of a vast majority unless its goals are set with reference to a standard that can be publicly and operationally verified. The recognition of a socially critical threshold of the energy quantum incorporated in a commodity, such as a passenger mile, provides such a standard. A society that tolerates the transgression of this threshold inevitably diverts its resources from the production of means that can be shared equitably and transforms them into fuel for a sacrificial flame that victimizes the majority. On the other hand, a society that limits the top speed of its vehicles in accordance with this threshold fulfills a necessary-though by no means a sufficient-condition for the political pursuit of equity.