Wednesday, October 26, 2011

How I chose my house

N.B.: This is the second in a series of posts on what got me into transit, and like I said in the first post, this is not in chronological order. What matters is that this marked an important turning point in my thinking about using transit.

By mid-1991, I had been getting back and forth by two buses daily from Robinson Township in Pittsburgh's western suburbs to Monroeville in the eastern suburbs, every day for much of a year. My wife had just graduated from nursing school, so we moved out of our rental in Robinson and back full time into our regular home in New Stanton, some 50 miles outside Pittsburgh. For me, it simply meant re-joining the carpool for a 20-mile trip instead of busing 20 miles, while she looked for a job as an R.N. The gig she found was at Passavant Hospital, in McCandless Township in Pittsburgh's North Hills, which was fine with me, but New Stanton to McCandless was a 60-mile trip each way, so house hunting began in earnest.

We had a two-year-old and figured we would have at least one more in coming years, so schools were high on the list of needs. Secondly, she wanted her trip to be as short as possible. Thirdly, we lived with an elderly aunt, actually in a house the aunt had built for her own needs, so that had to be considered as well. Fourthly, I needed to travel to Monroeville daily. It was well established that I could bus to a waiting car, as I had been doing for the past year, so I made clear that wherever we ended up needed to be well served by transit. For me, this was paramount.

A brief recap: In 1990, we took the rental to be near her nursing school, but kept the New Stanton place since we owned it and knew the Robinson thing was temporary, and New Stanton to her school (actually in nearby Kennedy Twp) was an insane 90-minute trip with two tunnels each way, not something you are going to do with a nursing baby (the other meaning of "nursing"). We had four cars: the Volvo wagon we bought new in 1984, a 1984 Toyota Corolla we bought for economical people moving, Aunt Sarah's 1971 Pontiac, and the 1972 Chevy van I got from my family back in Buffalo. We lived in Robinson during the week, returning to New Stanton on weekends to do laundry, shop, pay bills, etc. I kept one of the cars, usually the van, at a park-and-ride lot in Monroeville (work being two miles from the P&R), and bused from Robinson to Monroeville every morning, driving the van back to New Stanton on Friday. Aunt Sarah kept her car at the New Stanton house. Thus we had one car in New Stanton, one car in Monroeville, one car in Robinson, and one car in motion. There were days I drove all four for one reason or another. My transportation costs were phenomenal, outside of the $60/month bus pass.

July and August 1991, we did some serious house hunting. Through the real estate agent, we had narrowed our search to a long list of about 30 properties. The parameters were school districts, bedrooms, and price. My homework was to figure out where the buses went.

Here is the critical information: I obtained a paper timetable for every route in the system, and a map of the metro area, and on a bus ride or two, at least figured out which buses went north, and sketched them on the map. Later that night, while my wife attended a meeting at a local school, I took my map and timetables, laid them out on the floor of a large, empty room, and figured out levels of service for all these routes. I tried to figure out how much rush hour service there was, how late into the evening they ran, and how much (if any) weekend service there was.

This was not easy. I needed to take into account many variants of each route. It was not good enough to have a bus stop sign 150 yards away from the house if only one bus a day went past it. It was also not good enough to have 50 buses a day go past the door if it was not in a school district that was under consideration. Even 30 buses a day in an area was pointless if the house was a mile and a half back into a curly-cue housing tract, as many were. I also noted that the Perry Highway route had a multitude of considerations -- it split three ways north of one corner, serving none of them more than a few trips each, but south of that there was quite a bit of service.

Using this knowledge, I was able to narrow the list to fewer than 10 choices, and marked them on the map. Sarah then worked out details with our agent as to when to tour them, toting along a baby and an elderly aunt when possible from 60 miles out, while I met up with them for the tour by simply driving from Monroeville instead of carpooling. Turns out, the house we eventually moved into, and in which I still reside, I didn't even see the inside of until we had signed the papers. It was good enough for everyone else, and it would not have been looked at at all unless I'd pre-approved the location based on proximity to transit and level of service. Even at that, I personally toured six of the 10, Sarah doing the footwork on the rest.

Now that I've been in the house 20 years -- longer than I've lived anywhere -- I think I made a decent choice. I learned that the little development I am in, while much older than the nearby sprawl, was built when there was an interurban trolley which had a stop 100 yards from the house. The trolley line, which has been defunct since The Great Depression, now serves as my bicycle path into the city. That's a blog post unto itself, though.

I am still unhappy, though. Service cuts in metro Pittsburgh have cut out the Perry Highway route altogether, and severely cut back service on the other routes nearby. I have a 0.8-mile walk just to get to a bus, on a road that lacks sidewalks, lighting, and decent sight lines. Most of my neighbors think I'm nuts for hiking the road every day, but hey, at least I was able to jettison three of my four cars after I moved here, and have saved easily $100,000 in maintaining vehicles in that time, enough to pay for the house. Who's nuts here, really?


  1. =v= This is an amazing story for me. I went to middle school in this zipcode (the same middle school that Christina Aguilera said was trying to crush her musical aspirations). North Park had a bike lane, and for years I kept an eye out while riding in my Mom's car until I worked out a route that I could argue was a safe route to bike there from our house!

    The route I worked out was about 5 miles, which seemed epic at the time.

  2. I like this post and I see that by doing research one learns so much more than they first start out to learn or they learn what they expect, but new unexpected details emerge. Stu, do you believe that you and your family will sell your home and move out of your house if Port Authority Transit does not receive the needed funding? Do you feel that you will be one of those residents that leave our state as a result of the deep cuts? I enjoyed interviewing you Friday night 2-24-2012. I do hope that those who oppose funding will change their positions.