Two cities separated by a common everything: Pittsburgh and Philadelphia

Part 1 of a 3 part series.

Philadelphia and Pittsburgh would probably be inextricably linked together even if history hadn’t lumped them together into the same state. As it stands, though, we have a lot more than an ugly blue flag and a bunch of corrupted mountebanks in Harrisburg in common. Both cities fell hard from the heights of their industrial power. And today, both are experiencing rebirths as centers of health care and education, and attracting young adults hand-over fist as leaders in the national urban renaissance, and heavily leveraging their legacy industrial assets to do it. There’s certainly plenty of demand for cross-Pennsylvania travel.

So why is it so hard to get there from here?

The Pennsylvania Turnpike is America’s oldest superhighway, and wasn’t built first because Pennsylvania’s government was any more enterprising or innovative in 1940 than it is today. Over the last decade, toll rates have more than doubled, but traffic counts and VMT are flat (PDF, page 125/140), just as VMT has remained steady nationwide on mostly free-at-point-of-use roads. Driving from Center City to the Golden Triangle (or vice versa) via the Parkway East, the Turnpike, and the Schuylkill Expressway, is about 5 hours with minimal traffic, which of course there never is. Also, only the hardiest road warrior would ever drive such a distance non-stop; most have to take a break somewhere on the way for gasoline, food and drink, or avoiding deep vein thrombosis. That adds an indeterminate amount of time to the drive; the various intercity bus services generally put the trip at around 7 hours, including traffic and intermediate stops. And once you’ve finished the drive, you’re still stuck with a car in the middle of a dense major city. Even if you’re fine with that, the city shouldn’t be.

In the last decade, Southwest challenged the incumbent US Airways on the route between its Philadelphia hub and its Pittsburgh focus city — and lost. If anybody could offer a cheap flight from PIT to PHL, it was the short-haul specialists at Southwest, but no dice. Plane tickets on US Airways remain expensive, and the casual flyer spends just as much time in line for security screening at the airport as in the air. And PHL airport is congested, and airport and airlines both would much rather add flights to Glasgow and Doha than the short-haul market of Pittsburgh, even as a commercial air monopoly.

And meanwhile, the Amtrak Pennsylvanian, is the last passenger train on the NS (ex-PRR) Main Line west of Harrisburg. After the the rises in Turnpike tolls and the price of gasoline, Amtrak’s coach fares are actually very competitive with driving. Many people would love to take the train, but it’s slow (7 hours 23 minutes, vs. about 5 hours driving and 7 hours by bus), and terribly infrequent. The Corbett Administration, the Legislature, and PennDOT had to be strong-armed into accepting responsibility for sponsoring the Pennsylvanian in March 2013, under the new Federal rules regarding short corridor Amtrak services, but they did do so, and the state is now underwriting the train to the tune of about $3.8M per year (more accurate figures will be available next winter).

So we have a state of affairs where it’s either expensive or abominably slow to travel between the two largest cities in the Commonwealth, despite the fact that they are very similar cities, with identical major service industries, and longstanding political, economic, and cultural ties. The road isn’t getting any faster or cheaper, and flying is a profligate expense. Someone is clearly falling down on the job, and the fact that we share a common state government means we can point the finger straight at PennDOT. If there’s going to be improvement in getting there from here, it’s going to have to come from the rails. Fortunately, while the Pennsylvania Railroad is no more, its legacy remains. Part II tomorrow will cover the options for how to take better advantage of that legacy.

This post has been crossposted to This Old City.

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10 thoughts on “Two cities separated by a common everything: Pittsburgh and Philadelphia”

  1. A promising start!
    Though, in our federalist era I’m not really sure why just being in the same state should make Phila feel connected to Pgh. I’d conjecture that Boston, which is only slightly farther away — and twice as populous as Pittsburgh — has more reason for Philadelphia to build ties to.

    1. New York City seems to be pretty well-connected to its upstate cities, some of which are even farther away. Why is Pennsylvania different? Boston doesn’t need Philadelphia like Pittsburgh needs Philadelphia (or like Buffalo needs NYC).

      1. Pittsburgh can be thought of as one of the easternmost Midwest cities as well–it can (and ought to) build ties with Buffalo, Morgantown, WV, Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati, Detroit, and Chicago, as well as Philadelphia (and by proxy the rest of the Northeast).

        Of course, passenger rail connections to these places are even worse than they are to Philadelphia, with trains leaving or arriving in the dead of night or too early in the morning, when they exist at all.

    2. Jim, when somebody from Boston asks me to write about Philly-Boston, I’ll write about Philly-Boston. ^_^

      In all seriousness, when listing the cities that are the most similar to Philadelphia, Boston is first, but Pittsburgh is second. (I don’t even know who’s third, but whoever they are, they’re way down there. Chicago?) And there’s actually very little to say in the way of Philly-Boston transportation planning, since it’s completely dwarfed as a market by Boston-New York and Philadelphia-New York. Sometimes that works out for us, sometimes it doesn’t.

      1. I always thought of Baltimore being kind of similar to Philly? Also, and I know this is weird to say, but the MD suburbs feel like Philly suburbs.

        Pittsburgh just doesn’t ‘feel’ like Philly to me. It feels like the capital of West Virginia.

        1. Oops, posted too soon.

          Anyway, I don’t mean that last comment pejoratively. Pgh has a lot going for it. But I mean the mindset of the place is different than in Philly. People out there are very polite and unassuming, and also seem (just a gut feel) a little less ambitious, somehow? Less of the east coast, type A feel (not a bad thing!).

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