Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Northern Allegheny County offers a transit lover's treat

Driving. I drove more than 300 miles in the last 3 ½ days. I was also in cars and buses, not driving, for maybe another 60 miles. And on airplanes for more than 4,000 miles worth of travel. If a GPS tracking unit had been attached to me and some weird FBI agent was looking at my movements from a distance, he or she would wonder what I was up to. At least one bus driver did.

Of course the flying was linear. I got on a plane in one place and got off in another.

The more than 300 miles was not linear. And much of it was at speeds of 25 to 30 miles per hour. My GPS path would look like a bowl of tossed noodles because I didn’t really go anywhere. I just drove all over the northern half of Allegheny County, Pennsylvania.

I actually drove all over the northern part of the county numerous times, taking turns at intersection after intersection and then retracing my steps down the same streets and the parallel avenues and through parking lots. I wove back and forth over bridges and drove around some blocks two or three times.

Learning the roads. Obviously, there was a purpose to this. In planner lingo, we can call it fieldwork. My objective: to learn as much as I could about the existing transit routes operated by the Port Authority of Allegheny County, the public transit system serving the greater Pittsburgh area.

I think I’ve got it. In preparation for the fieldwork, I spent a good bit of time reviewing transit schedules and maps, and looking at street views on Google Maps and at birds’ eye views on Microsoft Live Maps. Then I got on the plane to see them for myself.

It was wonderful to take a drive up Troy Hill and already know what to expect before I even got there: where the school was, what the “loop” where the bus turns around would look like, what grocery store I should expect to see before making a right turn. For the routes that I’d had the chance to preview, it was very easy to understand what was going on -- how those buses navigated the narrow roads, ran over the hill crests and the valleys, made tight turns and launched up grades that rival those in my hometown. For the routes I hadn’t had the opportunity to fully explore online, driving around was invaluable.

Some routes are very confusing. Pittsburgh’s street network is more complex that that of almost any other major North American City. For those routes that completely confounded me, I either rode the bus or followed behind in my rented minivan. This morning as I was following a bus operating along Route 11D, about 15 minutes into my excursion, the bus picked up a passenger at one stop and then pulled forward. Then it stopped again. And it sat there for 30 seconds. The next thing I saw was a very angry looking bus driver who walked behind the bus and headed right toward my van.

“What are you doing following me?” she demanded.

I had already rolled down my window in anticipation of this confrontation and greeted her with a smile.

I assured her I was trying to understand the route and complimented her excellent driving ability. She asked for "some sort of ID" and I promised her I wasn’t trying to freak her out.

She said it made her uncomfortable, having me following her everywhere she went.

"I'm really just trying to understand the route. From what I can tell, you're on schedule and doing a great job, " I told her.

Then she warmed a bit and headed back to the bus.

I followed her for another block and then turned to explore a variation the route sometimes follows. When I got back on the main road, she was long gone. I bet she sped the hell out of there or turned down another street so she wouldn't have to have me on her ass.

I wouldn't blame her.

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