Moving Cities: Pittsburgh

Unique Public Transportation Infrastructure

Among major American cities, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania finishes in the top ten for transit ridership. Impressively, Pittsburgh’s public transit system achieved this success without a single heavy rail line: all but one of the major cities with higher transit ridership than Pittsburgh feature at least one heavy rail line (Seattle is the only exception).

Pittsburgh’s most iconic mode of public transportation is today used primarily as a tourist attraction: the Monongahela and Duquesne Inclines. These funiculars were originally built to transport workers residing at the top of the hill known as “Mount Washington” (located directly across the river from Downtown Pittsburgh) to industrial jobs along the banks of the Monongahela River, one of Pittsburgh’s three intersecting rivers. Today, while some may still use these inclines for transportation (after all, public transportation cards are accepted as payment), the inclines are best known as one of the city’s top tourist attractions, allowing visitors to access breathtaking views from Mount Washington.

Today, Pittsburgh features two light rail lines connecting the South Hills neighborhoods and Allegheny County suburbs to downtown and the city’s North Shore, an entertainment district. Free transit access is available if traveling between downtown and the North Shore.

Still, these light rail lines do not run through the city’s densest area, the East End neighborhoods including Oakland, Shadyside, and East Liberty. Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, the light rail lines are not the highest-ridership lines in Pittsburgh’s Port Authority system. That honor instead falls to the innovative mode of rapid transit that does serve these neighborhoods — the Martin Luther King, Jr. East Busway.

The East Busway is a bus-only highway that begins in downtown Pittsburgh and runs through the densest neighborhoods of Pittsburgh, as well as a few of its eastern suburbs. It was actually the city’s second busway – the South Busway, developed in 1977, was the first Bus Rapid Transit development in the United States. It was followed by the East Busway in 1983. In a city like Pittsburgh, the busway allows for transit service that is both dependable – operating on a dedicated road – and flexible – allowing for routes that begin and terminate in different locations.

                                               Source: Port Authority of Allegheny County

The East Busway’s primary buses are seen above — routes “P1”, “P2” and “P3”, with the “P” name matching the route’s purple color on the system map. Routes P1 and P2 are the most popular in the Port Authority system. Some East Busway routes (such as P1 and P2) begin in the city’s downtown, while others (including P2) begin in Oakland, a college neighborhood in the East End that serves as the city’s “second downtown”. All pass through the East End of the city. While routes P1-P3 stop at the end of the busway in the city’s east suburbs, more than ten other routes (identified by route names beginning with “P”) speed through the city on the East Busway, then merge into regular traffic to serve far-flung suburbs and towns in eastern Allegheny County with rapid service to the East End and Downtown Pittsburgh.

There are now three busways in Pittsburgh, including the West Busway which serves both local travelers and allows rapid transportation to Pittsburgh’s airport, located in the city’s western suburbs. The city is investigating an extension of the busway to serve more of its eastern suburbs.


Moving Cities is a series of posts dedicated to exploring the vast diversity of cities and how their transit systems shape them. Moving Cities examines the organizational structure of transit in relation to the city, the economics of the transit system, and the role of the transit system in the economics of the city, and last, but certainly not least, the experience of the city from the perspective of the transit user. 


John LaVaccare | [email protected]

John LaVaccare is an senior analyst at ESI. As a graduate of the Master’s in Public Policy and Management program at Carnegie Mellon University’s Heinz College, where he concentrated in Urban Development, John LaVaccare has academic knowledge in urban economic development, urban design, urban ecology, and real estate development. Prior to ESI, Mr. LaVaccare gained work experience in local government, housing policy, and stormwater management. Mr. LaVaccare also has extensive experience in academic communications research, journalism, and professional writing.

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