Friday, July 25, 2008


The Skybus could very easily be the greatest transit project in Pittsburgh history....that never was. The Maglev is currently running second, but any year now, this could replace the Skybus as the greatest project that never was, but I digress.

What is the Skybus you ask? Basically, if a subway, and a bus fell in love, got married, and had a baby, you would have the Skybus. If that doesn't explain it, here's a picture, and another. More specifically it was supposed to be a rubber tire mass transit system to be built in the late '60s into the early 70's in Pittsburgh and whose effects would be two-fold:

#1. Skybus would (finally) provide the city of Pittsburgh with an efficient, technologically advanced, and sensible rapid transit system.

#2. Skybus would establish Pittsburgh as the "Detroit of the transit industry", meaning that Pittsburgh would become the industrial, and research hub for the transit industry in the United States.

This post is not to debate the merits or negative aspects of the Skybus, but is more to illustrate its place as yet another Pittsburgh mass transit project that began with great hope, but became mired in political bickering, and was ultimately abandoned, or extremely bastardized. You can find a paper written on the Skybus and its fall from grace here, where you will get a much more in depth story on its history and the politics that led to its abandonment.

The initial study, which was officially termed the "Allegheny Rapid Transit Study" and was published in 1967. It addressed Pittsburgh's need (which we still have today) for a comprehensive mass transit system. The initial study did not make a recommendation on whether the rapid transit system would use traditional steel wheels (like a subway) or whether it would use a rubber tire system (the Skybus).

The study advocated the building of an "urban system" and a "suburban system". Two lines on the Urban system would extend from downtown, one to East Liberty via Oakland, and one paralleling Ohio River Boulevard.

Additional Suburban lines would extend to, Monroeville, New Kensington, Greater Pittsburgh Airport (Pittsburgh International), several lines in the south hills, and a line that would extend into the Mon Valley.

Eventhough the 1967 study didn't recommend a mode for the rapid transit project, in 1965 a 1.2 mile test loop was built in South Park to show off the Skybus. This demonstration project was designed to convince local and national decision makers that Skybus was the way to go for Pittsburgh and America. From the very beginning Skybus was the front runner, and it seemed inevitable that it would be the mode for the new transportation system.

Trouble began to arise when the political climate in Pittsburgh began to change in the late 1960's. The cooperation and unified vision that prevailed during the late 1950's and early '60's changed to an attitude of distrust towards the established powers that be in Pittsburgh. New politicians were not part of the "good ole' boy" system in Pittsburgh and began to openly challenge the Skybus as a plot by an elitist group to serve their own ends and not help the city.

Fuel was added to the fire when it was proposed that a starter system would be constructed from the South Hills to Downtown (Sound familiar..."T"). This angered the new regime in local government saying that, among other things, it was biased towards the affluent South Hills, and neglected the needs of the East End (Sound familiar..."East Busway")

There were additional arguments because certain local interests wanted to fully explore a steel wheel system (aka Subway).

What happens when you mix all this bickering up together in one big pot? NOTHING! That's absolutely what you got by the end. A project that may have revolutionized (I said may) transit, or at the very least would have given Pittsburgh the chance to have a comprehensive rapid transit system was gone.

PAT instead decided to upgrade the T in the South Hills and Downtown, and build the East and South Busways. One hell of a consolation prize for the city of Pittsburgh.

The Legacy of the Skybus: Once again, what did we all get in the end? Not a whole lot. A potentially innovative idea, alot of politics, alot of money spent, but no rapid transit system for Pittsburgh. The end result was an "upgraded T" that still only serves the South Hills and Downtown, and the continuing feeling that the East End is being slighted because it's not the rich, white suburbs of the South Hills.

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