On a recent Friday, longtime Oakland resident Andrea Boykowycz stood along the north end of Bates Street in the mid-afternoon — well before rush hour, but just as the quarters shifts in nearby hospitals. Already a long line of cars was queuing on the two-lane street, which has become a vital gateway to the state’s third-largest job center — and a headache for almost anyone in it. depend.
“There are a lot of traffic issues in Oakland by Bates Street,” Boykowycz said. “But those aren’t problems that releasing Bates would necessarily solve.”
Almost everyone agrees with the first half of this sentiment. Before the pandemic, more than 90,000 commuters and visitors flocked to Oakland each day, and many of them arrived through Bates, which spans three-quarters of a mile from Allied Boulevard to Second Avenue and a partial interchange with East Drive. Resolving the congestion issue on Bates “is a real need for this community moving forward,” said Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald.
“Bates was never intended to be a major connector to a freeway,” said Cheryl Moon-Sirianni, PennDOT’s District 11 Manager. “As development in Oakland has increased…traffic, obviously, using Bates Street has increased dramatically.”
But while everyone agrees that Bates is a problem, there’s far less consensus on exactly how to improve the situation.
This year, PennDOT will study how best to widen the road and, in a separate review, whether to improve connections to I-376. The agency has $2 million to study how best to overhaul Bates; whether that expansion will include one or two additional lanes will depend on the results of the study, Moon-Sirianni said.
Hope for improvement is good news for Mavis Rainey, executive director of the Oakland Transportation Management Association. But she noted that Bates is part of a vast network of critical connections, so planning for his future must be done carefully.
“It’s going to impact everyone,” she said. “We can’t just build a road and go.”
“Things About People”
The state has been trying to solve the Bates problem for years. But an infrastructure package passed by Congress and President Joe Biden last year means there is finally money for Bates and other judged work”projects of regional importance.”
But Boykowycz, an Oakland resident – who is also deputy director of the Oakland Planning and Development Corporation – fears that even if two more lanes were added to Bates, drivers would still be stranded on narrow residential streets as they travel through the center of the district. And already, the demand for parking spaces has created a lucrative cottage industry in which homeowners are opening up their backyards to sell as parking spaces.
“Oakland real estate really favors things over people,” Boykowycz said.
She fears the trend will only get worse as Oakland continues to grow. This would lead to higher emissions, more stormwater runoff, and an acceleration of the continued loss of green space in the neighborhood. Moreover, if existing in Oakland without a parking space seems untenable, future real estate developers will have to build a lot of them, which makes housing more expensive.
Still, Boykowycz isn’t opposed to widening Bates – if it means reserving a lane just for buses.
“Could we arrange meaningful public transit to Oakland from Second Avenue, from Mon Valley?” she wondered. “It would be worth it.”
Otherwise, expanding Bates doesn’t so much solve the traffic problem as it entrenches it, said Laura Chu Wiens, executive director of Pittsburghers for Public Transit.
“There is this phenomenon of induced demand that by adding lanes for single occupancy vehicles, traffic is actually increasing to fill new capacity, which means there is only an increase in broadcasts, and the same slow connection problem in the hallway.”
This is not an entirely new concern. Before the pandemic, 15,000 to 20,000 cars traveled the corridor every day, and more than 80% of them carried only one person. State and local officials recognized that congestion could limit Pittsburgh’s growth and commissioned a study to research alternatives.
Released in 2019, this report of the Southwest Pennsylvania Commission examined who travels in the corridor and provided recommendations on how to best meet current demand, as well as prepare for the future. In particular, the study presented a series of options to reduce reliance on single-occupant vehicles.
The analysis found that much of the traffic came from the city’s southern neighborhoods and the South Hills, places with fewer direct bus transportation options. While the study authors suggested a number of ways the bus service could better serve these areas, they did not identify Bates Street as a potential route, even though it is the one of the few direct north-south connections to Oakland. In fact, the only mention in the transit study on the route reads: “Buses cannot currently go up Bates”.
A number of people interviewed for this story echoed this claim, attributing it to the steepness of the road or the space required to turn onto Second Avenue and Boulevard des Allies. But buses can and do use Bates, said Amy Silbermann, director of planning and service development at the Port Authority. However, no buses are scheduled to run regularly on Bates as the congestion makes the timing so unreliable.
A ramp reserved for buses could finally solve this problem. PennDOT’s Moon-Sirianni said the effort to study and redesign Bates Street is still in its early stages, but all modes of travel will be considered.
If “the Port Authority, Allegheny County, and the City of Pittsburgh … want a lane for bus rapid transit, we will look to see how to build it.”
Transit advocates say it’s crucial to focus on this approach now.
An eye on the future
That’s because the other end of Bates is connected to Second Avenue and what County Executive Fitzgerald calls “some of the most dynamic and desirable areas in the region”: the Pittsburgh Technology Center, Hazelwood and Hazelwood Green.
Neither Hazelwood nor Hazelwood Green will likely reach full density for 10-15 years. But the latter is expected to attract thousands of people who will work, live and play on the site of the 178-acre former steelworks, and it’s always been talked about as sort of the next frontier of local development, a place where people would mostly go without cars.
But late last year, the site’s owners – a group of foundations known as Almono Partners – and developers received approval to add thousands more parking spaces. They say it is temporaryuntil there is sufficient demand to support other options.
Chu Wiens of Pittsburghers for Transit fears the expansion could permanently limit transit choices — if paired with a decision to expand Bates just for cars.
“We should plan what kind of transportation we want people to take,” she said. “If you’re planning roads that are primarily intended to serve single-occupant vehicles, that’s what you’ll get.”
Sonya Tilghman, executive director of the Hazelwood Initiative, disagrees. Even if Bates were to be expanded without a bus lane, she said, “its capacity has a limit. I don’t think its capacity limit will allow Hazelwood Green to become a super car hub.
Tilghman said one of the challenges in Hazelwood is that Second Avenue is the primary way in and out of the neighborhood. If Bates Street were to flow better, then residents would have better access to Oakland jobs and health care and educational opportunities.
Still, she hopes the traffic goes both ways, and “that people going down to Hazelwood Green can also walk down Second Avenue a bit and experience Hazelwood as we come back to life.”
Almono’s partners recognize the need for more transit options and road improvements, said Todd Stern, managing director of U3 Advisors, which works with the group.
“Improvements on Bates Street and the I-376 interchange would allow residents of the city, Hazelwood and Mon Valley greater and more equitable access to jobs, education and health care in Oakland, and could alleviate existing traffic pressures in the area,” it said in a statement.
Asked about concerns that a wider, car-only Bates would reinforce reliance on cars in the hallway, Almono partners chose not to add further comment.
The Port Authority has made building connections along Second Avenue one of its top priorities. His long-term plan, NEXTransitenvisions an “Eastern/Central Pittsburgh River to River Connection” that would run from the Strip District to the Hill District, to Oakland, then through Hazelwood, and finally to Carrick and Overbrook.
Port Authority spokesman Adam Brandolph said the connection could be made along many avenues “and Bates could definitely be the one we’re looking at.” But he added: “We haven’t defined that project yet.”
The Port Authority’s Silbermann added in an email that “more options are always a plus for us. This could be said of any hallway.
PennDOT will soon select a contractor to begin preliminary engineering and design. In the meantime, community advocates are trying to coordinate to push for a Bates that responds to current and future challenges.