Pittsburgh's Port Authority of Allegheny County bus system announced last Friday (Sept. 23, 2011) that it had completed outfitting each of its buses with racks that can hold two bicycles. As one who's been trying to use the Rack-Ride-Roll system since its earliest days, I can provide some helpful perspective.
First of all, for many of us, bicycles are transportation, not recreation. Tools, not toys. Whether we own cars or not (a good many of us do not), or whether we even have driver's licenses or not (you might be surprised how many of us choose this, emphasis upon choose), the bike is an integral part of how we get around. Ignore our backstories. We bike by choice.
Occasionally we also use transit. Being able to combine the two worlds improves options for both modes of travel. Living some distance from a bus stop is less a problem when a bike can cover that distance quickly. Traversing nasty traffic, a big hill, or a long distance between work and home would be difficult on a bike but easy when the bus handles all that. The bus also proves handy on the day when the morning trip in has nice weather but the trip home is stormy.
Back in 2001, fewer than 1 in 10 buses had racks, but they tried to dispatch those that did on just a few heavily used transit routes. These routes also connected to a few of the regional trails that existed at that time. For me, since many of the rack routes ran out of the same bus garage as the non-rack-designated routes I used, it was a bit more common to see a bus with a rack, maybe 1 in 4, purely by chance. Thus I sometimes tried bringing the bike with me to the stop, and either using the rack if present, or just hiding it behind a handy bush. Needless to say, this was hardly adequate, and made a bike trip home much more likely than not.
Things began to improve in 2007 when new buses with racks began replacing old ones without. For me, odds became 3 in 5 that a bus would have a rack, leading to a lot more attempted rack usage. Several early experiments demonstrated that the idea had promise. I made bus-bike excursions to such far-flung destinations as Monroeville, Braddock and Squirrel Hill, with varying degrees of success. But even so, I got stranded routinely by having bus after bus go by sans rack, making me late and frustrated. As recently as Spring 2011, easily 1 in 6 trips system-wide lacked a rack. Racks were thus common enough to make using them attractive, but absent enough to be unreliable. Service cuts in 2007 and 2011 reduced service on many routes to only one an hour, so not being able to rack the bike often meant a very long trip home.
Now, nearly all buses are equipped. Only about a dozen out of 700 are still on the road without racks, most being old buses whose inspection expires in a few weeks, and which will then be scrapped.
The big deal is this: Even if you live or work a mile or two from a bus stop, you can use the transit system a lot easier now. You might be able to jettison a car. This can save you some serious money, perhaps thousands of dollars a year! Please try it out. The more we use it, the fewer cars are on the road, and that benefits everyone.