Unlike a lot of people, my new roommate Lauren Coil does not think the bus is only for those Dickensian unfortunates without cars. She came to Pittsburgh last year -- having lived previously in Cleveland, Chicago and St. Louis -- believing that transit could, at times, have practical advantages over driving.
Yeah, right, and the earth revolves around the sun, too!
Actually, since Coil is a high school science teacher, she probably would try to take Galileo's side, then sneak in some of her usual blasphemies about evolution being more than "just a theory." Even though she owns a car, her instinct is often to try transit: Why pay for parking in Downtown or Oakland? And when heading somewhere new, why try to navigate Pittsburgh's spiderwebby streets yourself?
Coil, 25, has been willing to meet transit halfway. But it's seemed as if the Port Authority has been playing hard to get; it once took her 40 minutes and several computer printouts to figure out one 71A trip. Should she give up on PAT?
No: Because on Sat., Oct. 1, Port Authority unveiled its long-awaited online Trip Planner.
Coil and I, who both have a history of frustrating encounters with PAT's old Web scheduler, clicked to the planner (from www.ridegold.com). "OK, you can put in the intersection. Oh, search for landmarks, very nice!" she commented, noting that both were features she liked about the Chicago Transit Authority's trip planner. "Not too shabby!" she said. "So far."
Port Authority spokesman Bob Grove says their planner was developed in-house, because the commercial software that other agencies have used really only works for cities with street grids; Pittsburgh's twists and turns were too confounding.
We gave it a test run, to see how to get Downtown to the driver's license office. The first results were bizarre, but then, Coil noticed that you could say how far you wanted to walk. When we switched from "1/4 mile" to one-half or even a whole mile, and requested "fewest transfers" we got the common-sense answers any seasoned rider would suggest.
A couple nits to pick: Once you get your results, you can't modify your search without starting over. And two or three screens' worth of information -- especially in the "Bus Stop Finder" section -- could be combined into one to save time spent loading new pages, especially since this Trip Planner, like PAT's overall Web site, is pretty slow.
Although the planner did OK with most of my testing tricks, I did get one insane peregrination. For instance, I entered "Liberty and Millvale" in Bloomfield as a starting point, heading Downtown. The first suggested itinerary took the 54C all the way to the South Side, then transferred to the 51A at Carson Street. Fifty minutes! In reality, a direct, 15-minute trip Downtown is available from four nearby bus stops at any time of day or evening.
But Coil urged indulgence. "It's a computer; it doesn't know everything," she said.
Bugs aside, the trip planner is a step in the right direction. The biggest obstacle before was guessing which buses went where you needed to go. Sure, on PAT's regular Web site you could get a list of bus routes going to a certain neighborhood, but what good is it to know that there are a dozen buses somewhere passing through the vast domain of Squirrel Hill? The old PAT maps are pretty bad, too: the Adobe PDF files have been scanned in too poorly to be zoomable. Coil suggests that Port Authority can fix this problem by synching up their new planner with Google Maps.
It's a relief that the Port Authority is now conspiring to unlock the city's secrets. In Pittsburgh, it's often seemed that the real answer to a newcomer's question has been an incredulous, "What, you want to leave your neighborhood?" Or, worse, "Can't you just ask your cousin?"
As Coil says, "I can walk to the corner and see what bus comes near my house, but where do they go?" Now, it's a little easier to find out.