There's been lots of chatter lately about the Pittsburgh's college corridor and connecting Oakland and Downtown via mass transit. The new chief executive of the Allegheny Conference (the new Wizard of Oz as it were) lists the connection as one of the conferences highest priorities.
"In addition to linking the two business centers, a transit link also would provide students access to Downtown, which would make the area more vibrant after dark." But will it?
Temporarily living in Arequipa, Peru, a city known for its urban crime, has given me a new perspective on downtown Pittsburgh. Last night, I ate dinner in a crowded hopping restaurant with purse "leashes" on every seat. The idea is you hook your purse to your seat so that random bag-snatchers have a harder time filching your valuables while you're relaxing over a meal. You'd think that this threat would deter the nightlife. However, central Arequipa is a very bustling shopping and socializing destination. Just this week they installed walk signals on the intersections where their ridiculously long walk-street crosses traffic streets - really an innovative compromise to traffic concerns. Alongside these throngs of people are also lots of police officers. Arequipa appears to be sparing no expense on security.
Reasons crime-ridden central Arequipa is more popular than downtown Pittsburgh?
Lots of events, attractions, and shopping. People need a reason to come downtown.
Lots of cops (without billy clubs). People need to feel safe (but not threatened.)
Lots of public transportation. Peru doesn't have mass transit, but it does have a gazillion taxis and mini-buses.
If a magic subway showed up between Downtown and Oakland tomorrow, do you really think that Downtown would become a great destination? No. Downtown needs a coordinated effort between the theaters, the universities, the restaurants, the bars, the police and public transportation. I head to downtown Pittsburgh regularly for movies at the Harris and plays. But on a weeknight or weekend, almost all the stores and restaurants are closed. Downtown feels like a ghost-town because of all the shuttered storefronts not because of the lack of people. The first time I visited downtown on a weekday afternoon (courtesy of jury duty), I was utterly amazed at how alive and happening the city was and how difficult it was to find parking.
Of course, Pittsburgh does have sure-fire ways to get people Downtown after work. The crowds flock to the city for special downtown events - from Gallery Crawls to First Night to Light Up Night to St Patrick's Day to the Thanksgiving Day Parade. But the saddest thing I noticed? Macy's didn't open up their store on the day of the Thanksgiving Day Parade until after the parade started and the crowds had been milling around for an hour. The day after the busiest shopping day of the year, and my family was waiting for Macy's to open in order to go shopping. They certainly don't stay open late for the quarterly gallery crawls. Where did my family eat the day of the parade? Sammy's Famous Corned Beef. Why? They're good and they're always open.
How about this simple idea? The next time the URA helps fund some new retail development downtown, they can add in a caveat, you must be open on the weekends and on weeknights. That's how to get people staying and coming Downtown.
So, in summation, do I want mass transit between Oakland and Downtown? YES! Do I think it will solve all our problems? NO! Do I think there are steps we can take in the meantime to help solve our problems? YES! What do you think?