Ben Bear: Pittsburgh’s spirit of innovation makes it a pioneer in car-free mobility

I grew up in the East End and have penetrated Pittsburgh’s history of innovation and entrepreneurship from Carnegie Steel to Heinz Ketchup to Salk’s polio vaccine. However, I see more and more that my hometown is evolving and changing in ways that could make it a blueprint for cities around the world.

When it comes to the future of transportation, I’ve been fortunate to see these changes firsthand. As CEO of Ford Motor Co.’s Spin Micromobility division, I run a company of business leaders, community officials, traffic officials, land use experts, engineers, and philanthropists that the City of Pittsburgh has invited to help reinvent how Pittsburgh people get around the city without Automobile.

Of course, Pittsburgh has always been a forward-thinking city with adaptable and resourceful people. In the decade in which I was born, the boom in industrialization and steel production ended and entire industries closed their doors. Between 1970 and 1990, 158,000 manufacturing jobs disappeared and over 289,000 residents moved away.

But instead of breaking down closed factories and steel mills, Pittsburgh began repurposing its streets and spaces to attract people and industry in new ways. The steel city has redefined itself as a global center for “eds and meds”, driven by our first-class universities and hospitals. Slowly, factories turned into offices and museums, warehouses into local craft shops, and churches into breweries. Areas like Hazelwood, a former steel mill site, are being restored and revitalized to attract new businesses and boost the local economy.

As someone whose career has been shaped by finding ways to move people, the changes I look forward to most are of course connected to the streets. Now that the automobile has long been king, Pittsburgh is becoming a pioneer in transforming the urban landscape to encourage cycling. From 2000 to 2014, bicycle commuting increased by 408%, the largest in the country. This year, Pittsburgh was named one of the top 20 cities in the US for cyclists – hills and everything else – by the nonprofit People For Bikes.

In addition to bike paths, Pittsburgh has also considered other ways to move people in the city of the future. The city has worked with private companies, community groups and non-profit partners to develop an innovative plan to set up networked mobility centers across the city with the aim of getting people out of their personal cars in a fair and affordable way. These mobility hubs will physically connect people with shared bicycles and e-scooters, allowing them to pick up rental cars or safely meet with a rideshare. There will be hubs across the city with an app that brings all of these services together at the push of a button.

These mobility centers are part of the city’s response to the move away from cars, making it easy for people to choose less polluting, more efficient and more active modes of transport. It was not foreseen that they could help even during a pandemic. Employees who are looking for a socially distant bicycle connection on the last mile to work can get on a shared bicycle. Tourists can grab an e-scooter to explore the city in the open air. Young families can spend a day outside the city in a car sharing scheme. Some streets have also been closed to car traffic, which gives more space for people to move socially distant. Other roads are being redesigned to prioritize the safety of pedestrians and cyclists, to incorporate bike lanes and to limit the speed of vehicles.

Members of the Pittsburgh Mobility Collective make history with the introduction of the Move PGH program. Pittsburgh will be one of the first US cities to adopt Mobility as a Service (MaaS), a concept adopted by many European cities that offers its residents and tourists complementary, integrated, on-demand transportation.

In addition, the city is launching a universal basic mobility pilot using the services of Move PGH, which provides monthly transit subscriptions and shared mobility services to up to 100 local low-income residents. The Universal Basic Mobility pilot is based on the idea that transportation should be universal and accessible to all members of society, once again positioning Pittsburgh as a leader in equity and mobility.

Pittsburgh is innovating in many ways to serve its residents in the future. But the changes I’m most looking forward to are the changes that will make the city an even more enjoyable and equitable place to live. The freedom to get to work quickly and cheaply, to enjoy excellent gastronomy and culture and to get around the city comfortably without your own car are important for the city of the future.

As Silicon Valley is choking under the weight of its auto-clogged streets, Pittsburgh is creating a renaissance in mobility, moving from concrete and automobiles to brightly colored bikes and scooters, green pavilions, and communal interaction. I am proud of my hometown and look forward to it becoming a role model that other American cities are sure to follow again.

Ben Bear is the CEO of Spin owned by Ford.

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