A conversation with Pittsburgh’s new Transporation Planner, Patrick Roberts

patrickroberts

We work with various people within the City of Pittsburgh.  Patrick Roberts is one of them.  We thought you’d enjoy his personal story and take on transportation in general.  He’s one of the newer folks at City Planning, having started at the end of March.  As the Transportation Planner, he’s charged with making sure that, no matter how you choose to transport yourself, you’re able to get around our three rivers, countless hills, and spaghetti-like streets in an efficient way.

Tell us a bit about your professional background?

In the morning I am a professional coffee drinker.  I have been for about 13 years.  I’ve only been working in transportation for 12 years, so it is not my strongest skillset and coffee tastes way better.

Earlier in life I told people that I wanted to be a genetic engineer because it sounded super cool to me at the time and people generally reacted well to it.  The progression can be summarized as college, Army, back problems, civilian, odd jobs, Civil Service, cycling, PennDOT, chiropractor, backpacking, more cycling, City of Pittsburgh.  Makes sense, right?  I’m glad it turned out better than I had planned.  I ended up learning about the impacts of transportation on natural, cultural and socio-economic resources while working with the engineers to make sure the regulations were reflected in project design and the associated reams of documentation.  I had been working on the design of projects in the City for 11 years already and was intrigued by the patterns and relationships between land use and transportation.  From an environmental perspective, the more I can do to make this City better, I will have done something to help protect the green areas that I play in on the weekends.  And because some form of transportation touches everything we do, I get to learn or actively participate in everything.

What also became apparent was that perspective is driven largely by factors throughout our environment – and there are distinct social and professional environments within which we work.  Because transportation is a literal link between absolutely everything (a basic definition) the planning and development of transportation systems poses the challenge of finding common ground amongst individuals from neighboring systems.  So it makes sense to me why it seems that people come from different solar systems, but we share the same planet.  If you can understand that, let me know.  Think of how a foreign organism sets off defenses in your body – below the level of consciousness.  Sometimes people disagree with things and there is no way for them to explain why they disagree, they just do.  My job is make contact with all of these beings and to figure out a way to move people, goods and services in a way that serves everyone.

So, what does a transportation planner do?

So far as a transportation planner I have become involved with Traffic and Parking Impact studies for proposed development and zoning changes, allowances and variances.  I am participating with our Zoning office on the Contextual Design Advisory Panel group in order to make sure the Traffic and Parking studies jive with the character of the project that is being reviewed.  I am working on the gap in analysis on transportation equity and mobility on a project to project basis right now for the entire City.  But that will change over time.  I work with everybody. My homies are the entire Strategic Planning Staff, the Zoning office and Department of Public Works.  Outside of that is everyone and their brother.  They include all City offices, elected officials and their staff, all of the Authorities, the Oakland, Airport and CBD Transportation Management Associations, an incredible number of non-profits and advocacy groups, individual residents, transit providers, federal and state transportation agencies and more.  I have not had a meeting with the Ducky Tour people yet, but the way things are going it is just around the bend.  It is an opportunity to help their good works become a reality.  There has been so much planning and work at the regional, City and neighborhood level that I just need to listen, learn and look for ways to help them get it done.  I am not burdened with need to develop supernatural mental powers and save their neighborhoods.  They are just asking me to help them figure out what it takes to make their ideas a City project.  And then I just act as a facilitator with the other planners, Departments of the City and entities beyond.  It is a huge group effort.

The idea is to get caught up with addressing the current transportation demand so we can work toward mapping out our future.  And this is an exciting time, with the anticipated shift in focus that could be embodied in the next Transportation bill.  It puts some people to sleep, but I am all about it.  For instance, if we had funding for the development of fixed guide way and bus rapid transit systems we should be able to reduce the number of cars on the road.  Among the many benefits is the ability to manage that space and actually build the Complete Streets that we talk about.  From an efficiency standpoint we can help move freight, goods and services better – and from a land use perspective we can provide greater equity between modes by supporting transit and active transportation.

We know you ride a bike.  How has your experiences cycling around Pittsburgh influenced your transportation philosophy?

My “transportation philosophy”?  Sounds pretty cool.  In 1997 I couldn’t get a job in Erie changing oil filters so I got help from the VA and ended up testing for the State Civil Service.  That brought me to the Pittsburgh area (Scott Township).  Before that I had been discharged from the Army with some major back and spine problems and then wound up without a car.  My bad.  It was very painful but I had no other way to get around. So I biked until I could get the money together for a car. Skip ahead years later and my health was in decline (my bad choices).  I was actually categorized as partially disabled for a while there too before a neighbor turned me on to a great chiropractor and I got really bent over the attacks on 9-11.  After that walking and biking became the means to rebuild my literal frame and recover from the disability.  Biking was then a choice.  Skip ahead to 2005 (living in Pittsburgh) and there were already trail systems and streets where you could ride a bike.  I am not the kind of person to take time out for exercise, but I do enjoy traveling by active means.  And I realized that the City is much much safer to bike in than the South Hills.  So if you ask me why I bike now, I might tell you that it is because I like to eat – and don’t like the idea of buying bigger pants and being in a lot of pain.  So my personal transportation philosophy is based on an opportunity to better myself.  My philosophy at work centers on an opportunity to help other people.

The transportation philosophy that guides my work includes the responsibility to integrate all modes of transportation and balance them with our land use policies and initiatives.  So at work I am just as much about tractor trailers and fire trucks as I am about wheel chairs and bicycles.  They all matter and they are all part of our future.  Various combinations of these modes are not too cool, but then that is also the analysis from which arises the need for independent facilities in some areas.

Aside from the Bianchi in the picture, what other bikes do you ride?

I have a Specialized Tricross Sport Triple that is my SUV. I built up a consignment Cannondale BadBoy Ultra Disc frame and fork with mostly used parts to create my many-geared Beast. I got a sweet Cannondale cross disc off of Craigslist that I love. I have a disc brake fetish. They really do it for me.


Not a member of Bike Pittsburgh? Join today! We need you to add your voice! Bike Pittsburgh works to protect cyclist’s rights and promote the vision of making Pittsburgh a safer and more enjoyable place to live and to ride. For more info, check out: www.bike-pgh.org/membership

2 Comments

  • Natpgh says:

    Mr. Patrick wrote, “And I realized that the City is much much safer to bike in than the South Hills.” What does he consider the city neighborhoods of Carrick, Beechview, Overbrook, Brookline? These neighborhoods are also called the “South Hills.” I’ve often thought this term is too ambiguous, however we have to remember that areas like Scott border our Southern city neighborhoods as well. We need to think more holistically about our city, and work to make our entire city (and region) are more bike friendly.

  • Patrick says:

    Thanks for commenting. My frame of reference was relative to riding on Route 50 previously. Route 60 from the West End into the South Hills and Greentree road were good once I got used to the climb. I still ride on West Carson every day, which is interesting at times. Overall, there are more specific bike facilities that can be used for transportation in the CBD and eastern neighborhoods. Not including the roadways, the trail system in town gets me more places than the Montour and Panhandle systems for my day to day. I still use the Montour trail to go to Robinson from Esplen. Recreation is another matter. I noticed the difference in options for traveling that they offered. The portions of the City in the South Hills area have not yet experienced the same pattern of system development on road or trail for a variety of reasons that we can all explore together. There are some unique challenges with Route 51 and the Mt Washington ridgeline between the South Hills neighborhoods and the Monongahela and Ohio Rivers. We will also be looking at how we partner with our neighbors to bring folks in from the Baldwin and County Airport areas. It will be exciting to increase their connectivity and provide opportunities for active and multimodal transportation. Two of the areas we will be looking at next are Beechview and South Hills Junction on the T for increased connectivity and flexibility between modes.

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