Bethani Cameron & Olivia Perfetti | December 19, 2023
Pitt’s Benedum Hall buzzed with diverse and dynamic conversations as more than 100 government officials, consultants, non-profit leaders, students, engineers, and plain old transit nerds gathered last month to discuss the future of mobility at the 4th annual Transportation Camp in Pittsburgh produced by Mobilify.
This un-conference started with breakfast and informal chatting in the lobby of Pitt’s Swanson School of Engineering, followed by opening remarks from the host committee. Then the “sessioneering” began: instead of picking topics and herding guests, our attendees–aged 13 (Mind. Blown.) to 65+–submitted dozens of discussion topics through sli.do. Those receiving the highest number of “upvotes” were chosen for breakout rooms throughout the day. The polar opposite of our current political (and social media) cultural conversations, this format and leadership creates an environment of constructive discourse, with widely varied perspectives thoughtfully discussed.
One breakout room delved into how to encourage transit-oriented development in a car-dependent city. The conversation jumped between regional needs and ideas: we need transit routes that don’t just go into Downtown and back out again; we need better data; we need infrastructure investments; and we need lifestyle change. Participants proposed ideas like congestion pricing, transfer points, changes to building height requirements, zoning for affordable housing close to transit options, and “high equity” transit routes. Several folks emphasized the importance of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and prioritizing historically disadvantaged communities.
Another group tackled how to connect Pittsburgh’s suburban communities with great transit and mobility options. The problem: many suburban residents experience long wait times, lack of options, and slow routes. Pittsburgh Regional Transit (PRT) used to have more routes connecting suburbs to suburbs, but these routes were subject to major funding cuts. Consequently, the question shifted to: how can we restore funding to create high-quality routes where they’re really needed? The group identified some bottlenecks to providing better services: disagreement among suburban residents as to where to site bus stops, lack of ridership data supporting suburban transit needs, a shortage of drivers, missing sidewalks, and auto-dependent development.
A third discussion focused on how to redeem past failings of our infrastructure and enable greater access and equity for transport in disadvantaged communities. To participants, that looked like making sure the region delivers on transit, density, jobs and a clean environment in the communities our region has failed in the past. The key: good public engagement that allows regional investments to meet the needs of communities, advance equity and reduce disparities between lower and higher income neighborhoods. Participants called for advocacy at local government meetings, requirements that a proportion of grant funding goes to support impacted neighborhoods, and decision matrices that incorporate equity factors.
In the late afternoon we filed out onto the patio to play the “Spectrum Game.” Our Host Committee shared a statement, and participants physically moved to the left if they agreed with the statement, and to the right if they did not (as if they were a dot on a graph). This exercise revealed truly insightful views on everything from whether carbonated beverages are called soda or pop, to critical and emerging issues in transportation like shared micromobility and the potential of artificial intelligence to improve safety. Some noted the critical role of electric vehicles in reducing climate-warming emissions, while others shared concerns about electric vehicle subsidies potentially widening the yawning gap of American income inequality.
The day ended with a “town hall” where participants shared their takeaways from the day—especially if any discussions prompted a change in perspective. Some were surprised to have seen so much enthusiasm for non-car transportation options. Some wanted more talk of climate change. Some left with more hope for the future of transportation after seeing so many people with such varied perspectives working hard to improve it.
And this conversation didn’t stay in Benedum Hall–Channel 4 (WTAE) sent a camera crew to cover this awesome convening and then aired their report seven times, reaching an audience of around 260,000 Pennsylvanians!
We are grateful to our steering committee who planned and executed the day: Taraneh Ardalan, Breen Masciotra, Ashley Cox, Peter Quintanilla, Slavic Gavric, Elijah Hughes, Ryan Warsing, Korawich Kavee, and Mark Magalotti! And we can’t thank our amazing sponsors enough for their support in making TCampPGH 2023 possible!
- Transit-Oriented Community ($1000+) Pittsburgh Regional Transit (PRT)
- Universal Basic Mobility level ($500+) Pitt Swanson School of Engineering, HDR, Duquesne Light Company, Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission
- E-Bike ($250+) Carnegie Mellon University School of Civil & Environmental Engineering, Michael Baker International, and
- Scooter ($100+) HRG
Improving mobility in Southwestern Pennsylvania is a complex endeavor, but seeing over a hundred people spend a Saturday in November sharing their perspectives, expertise, their work, and limitations–hashing out how to move forward—was truly inspiring. It serves as a reminder to us all that no matter how complicated our mobility problem, we are surrounded by people who care deeply, think critically, and fight tirelessly to make it easier and safer to move around our region.