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From the 'Burgh to the Beltway

MtWashingtonPittsburgh
Statues of Guyasuta and George Washington stare each other down on Mt. Washington. Photo by meironke.

I make no apologies for being from the greatest metropolitan area in the country. Living in Pittsburgh absolutely infuses every part of my thought process, and I am incredibly proud of all the success my city has had this year (this and this are obviously the big ones, not to mention this or this). But I am also a part-time member of what is likely the most famous domestic diaspora community in the country. If the proliferation of Steeler’s bars is any indication, my region has sent its sons and daughters all across the country and across the world in numbers very few other places can rival. My own parents left the region briefly in the late ’80s, which explains why I was born in Columbus, Ohio.

Population has been the story of the Pittsburgh region for decades. At first, it was the standard “urban doughnut” of people moving from the city and towns on the rivers to suburban enclaves. But after the shutdown of many steel mills and related businesses, the whole region began losing population (what I refer to as the “urban deflated soufflé.”) The Pittsburgh MSA (metropolitan statistical area) is one of just five of the 50 largest MSAs to lose population between 2000 and 2008 (the others being our fellow Rust Belters Detroit, Cleveland, and Buffalo, as well as post-hurricane New Orleans).

So it was a bit of a culture shock to move into a city where not only the metropolitan region is growing, but the central city itself is gaining population (albeit after several decades of population loss.) The trend of population in the DC region means you are asking many different questions about sustainable development. In Pittsburgh, the question is “How do we attract/retain talent and keep them from going to Charlotte or San Jose or a host of other places?” In Washington, the question seems to be “What are we going to do with all of these people?”

Talent attraction doesn’t appear to be an issue in DC, or if it is, the region is asking the question on a global, not domestic scale. Pittsburgh and DC ask different questions about land use and transportation, as well. In Pittsburgh, the challenge is to improve transit service to a growing land footprint with a smaller population. While the topography severely limits growth (we have the steepest street in the country at 37 degrees, not to mention the largest number of bridges in the world based on one count), we are beginning to see the urbanized area cast a wider shadow.

In Washington, on the other hand, the challenge is to serve a population and a land area that are both growing. It’s an important distinction, particularly when one begins talking about service improvements. While the “Silver Line” is a few years away in DC, Pittsburgh is still trying to put together an underground rapid transit line that has been discussed for nearly a century, a difficult expense to justify politically as our population shrinks. That being said, I do think there is something for growing cities such as Washington to learn from our efficient use of busways and contra-flow bus lanes that do a reasonable job of transporting people in the densely developed central business district and university district. While not exactly a BRT system, Pittsburgh’s system does manage to do a pretty efficient job of cycling people into and out of the Golden Triangle, and is something worth at least considering in Washington.

Ultimately, Pittsburgh and Washington have a fairly close bond, perhaps second only to our love/hate relationship to the Metropolis of the Western Reserve. DC boasts one of the largest ‘Burgh Diaspora communities, and is our closest connection on the Eastern Seaboard, and by extension, the global talent pool. DC is one of just a few cities still available by direct train from Pittsburgh (the Capitol Limited). The Great Allegheny Passage is complete up to McKeesport, PA (about seven miles away from the city) and a person will be able to ride his or her bike from the convergence of the three rivers in Downtown Pittsburgh into Georgetown soon. All told, I really think that there is a healthy dialogue between the Steel City and the Capital. The ‘Burgh certainly gets a lot out of our relationship, and I think that DC can certainly learn a lot from Pittsburgh as well.

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  • Nice post. Funny, I’m writing an article right now comparing DC with my native city, Philadelphia.