While it has been speculated upon for some time, it seems official that the warm afterglow between the City of Pittsburgh and Uber has cooled. When Uber showed up in the Steel City in late 2014, it was to peddle the ride-sharing service, but it soon morphed into considering Pittsburgh as a prime candidate for a testing ground of their vision for self-driving cars.
The reasoning for Pittsburgh is two-fold: First, the challenging topography and irregular streets would function as a proving ground for the technology under adverse conditions. Second, and just as importantly if not more, Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University was a fertile farm to pluck talent in the engineering and robotics fields. So much so that Uber raided the cupboard to the tune of 40 CMU faculty, researchers, and techs to bootstrap their Pittsburgh operation in the Strip District at their Advanced Technologies Center on 32nd Street.
In a series of emails obtained by PennLive.com, it was apparent that Mayor Peduto envisioned a more symbiotic relationship with the Silicon Valley upstart. The real turning point in the relationship, though, was the Smart City competition bid in 2016. Pittsburgh hoped that with Uber as a true partner they could obtain the $50M grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation to whatever city demonstrated a commitment to new technologies to enhance their transportation network. After going to bat for Uber against the record-setting fine handed down by the Pennsylvania Utilities Commission, Peduto and the City assumed that Uber would be a willing partner.
Mayor Peduto’s hopeful signature project of Almono got a tenant in the form of Uber for their self-driving testing warehouse, but Peduto wanted them to invest $25M to create a track between Hazelwood (Almono’s location) and Oakland (CMU) to act as a ‘brain highway’ of sorts to connect housing and jobs for the high-tech sector. Uber balked repeatedly at this.
The last straw occurred earlier this year when local cab companies boycotted going to airports in support of the protest against the flawed immigration ban rollout. Uber, by the direction of CEO Travis Kalanick, broke the protest lines and picked up customers, causing the #deleteUber to trend on Twitter. This caused the Mayor to question the nature of the public-private partnership, as it didn’t really feel like one.
Pittsburgh never truly placed all their transportation eggs in one basket, but they’ve definitely been active in recent months showing that there are other fish in the sea. Recently, Ford announced they are investing $1B over the next five years into a Pittsburgh-based company called Argo AI to develop self-driving car technology. And, surprise, they’re doing it because Argo AI was founded by two CMU grads and they want access to the neural farm in the region.
And just last week, Pittsburgh held a series of public meetings on the Bus Rapid Transit system they are pursuing between Oakland and Pittsburgh. The $240M project would connect the region’s two largest job centers and improve mass transit in the Fifth Avenue corridor. As a hopeful by-product, it would spur re-development in the Uptown/Hill District area along the proposed path. The low-tech solution is to use buses in dedicated lanes that had just a few stops, which is how the term ‘light rail on wheels’ gets its name. Bus Rapid Transit doesn’t need the start-up infrastructure of new rail lines like true Light Rail does, but it is not a forward-thinking form of mass transit like a Light Rail line would be.
In full disclosure, Steve and I are huge proponents of Light Rail. We pitched our Light Rail north to both County Executive Fitzgerald himself and to then-Councilman Peduto’s staff in separate meetings. The reason we didn’t meet with Peduto personally is that it was the day in March 2013 when Mayor Ravenstahl announced he would not run for re-election, so Peduto was a tad busy that day. We have spoken offline to him about it. While they liked the concept, they both blanched at the significant costs of Light Rail as compared to Bus Rapid Transit, even though BRT has its own set of limitations.
Whether Pittsburgh’s mass transit is improved by low-tech or high-tech means, TPOP just hopes it is improved. For Pittsburgh to progress beyond their current standing in American cities, the mass transit system has to take a quantum leap forward. Current generations are losing their appetite for car culture and want a more earth-friendly form of transportation, rather than being chained to their own cars all the time. Will it be Silicon Valley, Motor City, or our own Steel City that delivers the solution?