Pittsburgh has a rich mass transit history; inclines, trolleys, buses, light rail, etc. It was also home town to one of twentieth century’s largest electronics and appliance makers – the Westinghouse Electric Corporation. These two interests merged in the mid-1960’s to introduce an innovative new form of mass transit – the Pittsburgh “Skybus”. But good fortune wouldn’t smile on the Skybus, and after an eternity of studies, panels, and commissions, it died a quiet death…let’s take a quick look at this large-scale, driverless “people-mover”…
By the early 1960’s, Pittsburgh was well into its “Renaissance Plan”, with goals to improve housing, cultural facilities, economic diversification and mass transportation. For the latter, the city hoped to accomplish three objectives; build an innovative rapid transportation system for Allegheny County, use it as a showcase for testing and marketing rapid transit hardware developed by Pittsburgh-based corporations, and promote the city as a leader in the rapid transportation industry.
Evaluating several proposals, city transportation officials favored one submitted by Pittsburgh-based Westinghouse – the company had developed an automated, driverless, rubber-tired coach that traveled on an elevated guideway – a mixture of monorail and bus – the forerunner of the wheeled carriages that we ride between concourses at almost all major airports today.
An initial demonstration section was planned, but transportation officials were ultimately looking at building a 92 mile system fanning out in four directions from city center, and linking to the Pittsburgh International Airport.
Moving forward, in 1963, Port Authority Allegheny County (PAAC – the consolidated transport authority in the Pittsburgh area and surrounding counties) secured matching funds from the federal government for the initial demonstration of the Westinghouse Transit Expressway System (locally dubbed Skybus, though that name already belonged to a regional airline). In August 1965, a 1.77 mile loop in the South Park section of the city near the Allegheny County Fairgrounds was opened to the public.
The Skybus vehicles could operate as single coaches or linked together as multi-coach trains. Top speed on the elevated concrete guideways was 50 mph. Each coach was 30 feet long and could seat 26 passengers, with an additional 28 standing. Power was from two 60 hp (45 kw) electric motors – with AC current being supplied by a center rail. During the ten month demonstration period, the system traveled over 21K miles, with few safety, maintenance or reliability issues.
But cracks starting developing in the coalition supporting Skybus – several new, incoming political leaders were not fans, and started a review of alternatives; more commissions, more studies, more panels. This opening gave a competing consortium, aligned with the steel industry, the opportunity to present their proposal, a light rail option that ran on steel wheels and steel rails.
Another nail in the coffin was a result of the social turmoil and racial friction in the late ‘60s. Similar to other large metropolitan areas, Pittsburgh had its violent riots in 1968 after the assassination of Dr Martin Luther King. The proposed route for Skybus had it going from the mostly white suburbs to downtown. Political leaders were open to alternatives that would broaden transportation opportunities for the city’s black neighborhoods.
It soon became clear that these newly elected officials were not going to support Skybus, and in 1976, after a planning period of over 10 years, a transportation consultant’s report recommended cancellation, and using the less expensive option of exclusive bus lanes, upgrading of the trolley lines to light rail, and construction of a downtown subway. Those options were adopted and are currently in use today.
Miami Metro-Mover – older Westinghouse C-100 model
But it wasn’t all for naught – using Skybus technology Westinghouse went on to participate in building the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system in California, the Miami Metro-Mover, and automated people movers at several major U.S. airports, including Tampa, Dallas-Ft. Worth, and Orlando.
So what became of Skybus? The public could continue to take rides on the demonstrator loop until the early ‘70s, when it was closed. In 1980, the entire overhead guideway system was torn down and scrapped. Fortunately, one Skybus coach has been preserved and is open to the public at the Bombardier facility in Pittsburgh – which had purchased the transit division of Westinghouse in 2001.
I hate to say it since its almost a cliché, but its clear from their looks that these vehicles were built by a company most famous for its household electrical appliances…
Very cool, never heard of this. Sort of reminds me of Morgantown, WV’s still operational PRT.
Berlin had something very similar to ‘Personal Rapid Transit’, using the magnetic levitation technology. Magnetbahn or M-Bahn was utilised to fill in the gap between the subway stations.
While the idea was practical, the Magnetbahn lasted only two years and was decommissioned and dismantled in 1991.
British Rail Research developed a Maglev system for Birmingham Airport that ran from 1984-1995. Again the cars looked similar, though smaller, except for having windows in the end (not for driving as it was fully automated, easy on such a simple system).
Jim, this was a fascinating read. I found it especially interesting that the SkyBus coach(es) ran on rubber tires instead of on steel wheels.
I have been to Pittsburgh once about four years ago, and I love that city! Cabs get scarce around a certain time, though, and many streets go every which direction (not at all like Chicago’s geometric grid), so if you choose not to drive, knowledge of the public transit system there would be extremely useful.
I’m glad the system that was ultimately adopted was able to benefit more people. Again, great read!
Joe, I had to laugh about your comment about Pittsburgh’s layout. I believe because of the confluence of the rivers, it’s more like a spoke and hub layout (like Paris) and less like a grid, like Chicago or Cleveland.
When my wife and I travel, I remark that her sense of direction is terrible, due to her growing up in Pittsburgh. We never got lost there, but anywhere else, oh boy!
Detroit Metro Area has north and south, east and west, diagonal (Grand River Ave.), and “loops” – like Middle Belt Rd.
I never got 100% used to it and I lived there for 2 years.
One thing I realized once I left Pittsburgh is that people actually give compass directions. Never heard them once growing up.
Many communites back then tried these ‘pie-in-the-sky’ transportation experiments. Then wound up settling for more flexible and economical solutions.
So where is Westinghouse today?
Happy Motoring, Mark
I really don’t remember much of this, as I grew up an hour away from Pittsburgh and I was very young when all of this was going on. However, I found it amusing that the one publicity photo is from South Park, near where my wife lived as child. I mostly remember her stories about she and her cousins taking the trolley around the ‘burbs as kids and even downtown sometimes.
I guess many urban transportation ideas in the US were shot down after the 1968 riots, folks just didn’t have the same sense of security as they did in previous years. Of course, the hollowing out of every major metropolitan area had begun long before the events of the 1960’s.
Where I live now, we have just gotten around to implementing BRT, bus rapid transit, with one north-south line that spans the whole city of Grand Rapids, Michigan. A friend of mine uses it to commute to work downtown. She seems to like it, but even with the dedicated traffic lane, the seven mile journey from her job to the bus station where she gets picked up doesn’t seem to be much quicker than the previous bus service.
I would have liked to see the local transit authority build a light rail line instead of BRT, but they had an uphill battle to even get that established. Residents of six cities in and around Grand Rapids fund the bus system with a tax levy, but after the Great Recession, funding was difficult to find and folks were leery of funding a big project. In other cities I’ve lived in, I found the rail system (like MARTA in Atlanta) was a great way around town. But I guess folks around here didn’t agree.
I have never heard of this. Fascinating, to say the least!
I know public transportation on rails or guideways is never popular politically for some reason, this would have been a great idea had it been built.
I suppose the car lobby (whoever they are) had influence in the decision to scrap the proposed system.
Funny how the surviving coach resembles a refrigerator!
I think this point of view is pretty out of date these days. Now, it’s buses that have an image problem (in the eyes of many, they’re for “poor people”) while light rail is what folks want to ride.
Or maybe that’s just how it’s viewed here in SoCal, with everyone going gaga over the Expo line. I know I personally can’t wait for them to break ground on the West Santa Ana Branch (of the old Pacific Electric Santa Ana line – much of the right of way is still clear), as its expected to terminate in Artesia, pretty close to my home in Cypress, in 2020. Of course, I wish they’d extend it further east as the old right of way continues just a block north of my home, and property near the Metro rail lines has been shooting up in value!
I grew up in eastern PA, and then spent two years in Pittsburgh. I have a soft spot for the city, and would probably live there if it weren’t for the weather. SoCal is unbeatable in that department.
“I think this point of view is pretty out of date these days. Now, it’s buses that have an image problem (in the eyes of many, they’re for “poor people”) while light rail is what folks want to ride.”
You’d better believe buses have an image problem. In the Cincinnati area, we do have a “park & ride” system that originates generally along the highways to downtown with only 1 additional stop, after that it’s the highway all the way.
As far as the regular bus routes go – yeah – pretty much college students and city residents only.
Me? The only mode of transport I like more than cars is rail, and SoCal as well as the rest of the state “gets it”. I love riding trains when Wifey and I are out there on vacation.
We do have the beginnings of a decent streetcar system, but it needs to be extended farther uptown to be effective, but they had to start somewhere.
It’s interesting how long LA’s (in particular) stretch goal for public transit has been “get back what we had before the ’50s”.
Here’s an infamous photo and description from my neck of the woods. Even today there are places around St. Paul in which the trolley tracks come poking out of the street as they never removed them, but simply paved over them.
From the Hennepin County Library:
The city has decided to invest millions to build new streetcar lines. Which beggars the question, what happened to our old streetcar system? It met its demise in June of 1954, when this sinister-looking photo was taken. This image records the celebration organized by the Twin City Rapid Transit Company, when it declared streetcars to be relics of the past. On this early summer day, the company actually burned streetcars –like the one in the background–to demonstrate its commitment to progress and innovation. The men in this photo were celebrating the purchase of 525 buses, which had been financed with liberal terms from General Motors. This allowed them to discard the streetcars and dispose of assets necessary to maintain the rail network. This image shows TCRT treasurer James Towey handing a check (from NSP for the company’s Main Steam Station) to company president Fred Ossanna, who was later investigated for shady business dealings and political bribes.
Photograph Credit: Minneapolis collection, Hennepin County Central Library.
I lived in Pittsburgh in the fall of 1969 and was wondering why I had never heard of/seen any evidence of this Skybus…very interesting read about a city that I really like.
I was also curious to read this piece because Jacksonville (my current home) has one of these elevated transit systems, too. Oddly(?), ours was built in the late 80s/early 90s, about the time most cities in the U. S. we’re abandoning plans for this type of mass transit. Ours was also touted as being a potential county-wide people moving system…but has never gone past being a means of moving people around the downtown area.
I may be wrong but the system is so “popular” that even with free rides it is vastly underutilized.
And not to be outdone by other major cities, Jacksonville has turned it’s mass transit sights back to more roads. The latest wrinkle is express lanes on the interstate beltway that require drivers to pay a toll to use (no free HOV lanes here) while a toll also being charged to use the outermost “ring road”.
I can see the evolution of this to the BART. I remember when BART was new, reading about it in LIFE, and thinking how cool and modern it looked. And the BART cars were a lot less appliance-like, at least the first generation.
I completely agree. I’m still surprised BART was actually built but having used it off and on for several years around the turn of the century it worked fairly well. The big upside is that it was cheap and faster than driving across a bridge during commute hours. The big downside was that there were not enough trains the farther out from the center that you lived and they took way too long to connect it to SFO (and the bus link to Oakland Airport is still a joke that didn’t need to be, it could have been built to be way more convenient.). But if you were within the “hub” where all the different routes passed through trains came fairly often (still way less than any modern European city). And BART definitely passes through some “rougher” areas as well.
What’s surprising is that there are SO many competing systems in the Bay Area, many of which overlap to significant degrees but don’t really complement each other – BART, CalTrans (Train), the Ferry System (crossing the bay), obviously cars, several bus systems including AC Transit that crosses the Bay into SF, streetcar lightrail in SF, And then Casual Carpool of course.
As with any Public Transit system that is “fixed” (i.e. rails) the last mile thing is always a conundrum. At least the climate in the Bay Area is conducive to walking, in Pittsburgh I can see why one would want to drive their car in the winter months, which I would assume leads to big spikes and valleys in ridership numbers.
Anyway, back to the subject of the post, this was great and very interesting to read about. Westinghouse was certainly a huge company involved in many very different aspects of daily life. Not involving steel rails does seem to be a politically wrong move to make in a city like Pittsburgh. It’d probably be the other way around in Akron though!
‘What’s surprising is that there are SO many competing systems in the Bay Area, many of which overlap to significant degrees but don’t really complement each other…’
I concur since I have lived in San Francisco for a year and half. I remembered the most vexing thing is having to use many different passes and tickets that aren’t mutually interchangable. I couldn’t use the MUNI pass to take the bus in San Mateo County or Berkeley, for instance. I had to pay separate ticket to use Caltrain to San Jose, which is most expensive way to commute.
I keep wondering how would it be if Bay Area has one or two unified public transportation system like it does in Munich or Berlin. That would eliminate the fierce competition for the skeletal MTA funding. I experienced lot of consequences from numerous deferred maintenance on Caltrain, which made the train service one of the most terrifying in the world. The conductor cheerifully explained to me while we hurtled at 70mph, ‘no money. That’s why the wagons shake so badly.’
I got stuck in the Dallas airport thing, in August, no way to open the windows, I tried, it went well past 100° in there and several Women fainted, we were stuck for close to an hour, no communications etc .
I like rapid transit bit driver less is never going to be popular with those who actually _use_ it .
I grew up riding rattly old PCC cars, no AC, not often clean but they were cheap and fast and whenever they stalled out (once a year or so) they always either got going again ASAP or a bus was dispatched to take us on .
Ah, Skybus! Thanks, Jim, for bringing this bit of my hometown to life. Never rode the test loop, but I remember seeing it deteriorating in South Park in the late 70s. Ironically, nearby was Pittsburgh’s last remaining horsecar, which also slowiy rotted until it was rescued by the Pennsylvania Trolley Museum in Arden.
One other big concern about Skybus I remember clearly was the lack of an operator – there was an exaggerated fear of rampant crime. This was at a time when all streetcar operators, and many bus drivers in Pittsburgh carried and prominently displayed the heavy metal switch levers as a deterrent.
Worth noting that while Westinghouse was best known for its consumer products, it was also a leader in electrtcal systems for transit, including motors and controllers, as well as power generations and distribution.
Jim, thanks for this fascinating peek back into Pittsburgh transit history.
Today, the best-known feature of South Park is an annual charity haunted house called Hundred Acres Manor. You’d never knew there was once a Skybus track there.
The civic pride that drove the Renaissances and cleared the skies has evolved to other areas…almost as if the era depicted in this story never existed, IMO.
Nowadays it seems the philosophy can be described as “Welcome to Pittsburgh, got a bike?” And I get it. Of course we want to be bicycle-friendly. But those who visit a lot of other metropolitan areas and then come HERE will be shocked to find the main east-west arteries in and out of the city remain four lanes – two lanes in each direction, with limited exceptions. I-279 was built long after the Parkways East and West (today I-376) and has more lanes for a few miles, but too much of it is four lanes as well so it’s often congested up into Butler County, where lower taxes and regulations have created a boomtown to the north.
The Turnpike Commission is finally getting into the 1970s by building a kinda-loop that dips south from the Airport, goes to Southpointe (boomtown south, Washington County, again with lower taxes/regulations) and will eventually – maybe in another ten years – end up between Monroeville and Murrysville, east of the city, and connect to the Turnpike…which, too, is undergoing a statewide expansion to six lanes.
It’s true, the same topography that gives Pittsburgh its beauty also presents daunting challenges to infrastructure improvement, but sometimes I feel like it’s as much an excuse as it is a reason for not adding lanes and improving the flow of what’s already here. But this is an opinion borne of frustration from having to sit in the kind of stopped traffic that leads yinzers like me to go “well we DO call them PARKways, after all!”
There was talk about a Maglev system several years ago but that seemed to disappear faster than a leisure suit. Seems nobody has been able to dream Skybus big since the 70s. If they only built four lines east/west/north/south out of downtown to connect to a parking lot at each destination, it may relieve congestion…maybe.
Yesterday’s Westinghouse bought CBS twenty years ago. People my age (I’m 60) and older remember Westinghouse refrigerators, washers and dryers, TVs and of course radios, since Westinghouse created KDKA nearly a century ago. Everyone who lived back then remember how Westinghouse divested all those consumer lines in the 70s and 80s. When they bought CBS, they decided to change the name to CBS Corporation and sold off anything else not related to broadcast/cable media. The one Westinghouse thing they held onto…was the trademark/logo, which is licensed to different entities worldwide. Toshiba, for example, bought Westinghouse’s nuclear division and builds nuclear electric generation plants all over the planet under the Westinghouse brand, although that may be changing shortly according to people I know working there.
And KDKA is part of the CBS Radio sale to Entercom, which is due to close by the holidays, and will sever one of the oldest and most visible connections to what everyone once knew as Westinghouse.
About ten years ago, my wife and I traveled to Costa Rica and switched flights in Dallas, which meant riding one of these Skybuses between terminals. Fascinating to learn the connection to my hometown.
“Welcome to Pittsburgh, got a bike?”
I have to chuckle at that one, as Pittsburgh’s (and Johnstown’s) topography has got to be as bicycle unfriendly as you can get in the city. Back in the 70’s when I was doing college in Erie and attempting to become a bicycle racer, I used to spend weekends in either town, just to get some serious climbing training in, as Erie was almost completely flat unless you headed south of 18th street towards I-90.
KDKA is closing down? You’ve got to be kidding? That’s only the first commercial radio station in the US, started out by broadcasting the returns from the 1920 presidential election.
This past August I did a road trip to the area for the MotoAmerica Superbike races at the Pittsburgh track (about 35 miles north west of the city), and, as it was my first visit to the area since 1998, I spent a lot of time on the bike ranging over as much territory as I could. I’m amazed to see the Parkways East and West are still the same roads I remember from the 70’s, so I can only imagine what the backups must be like to get thru the Squirrel Hill and Ft. Pitt tunnels.
Coming into town eastbound thru the Ft. Pitt tunnel is still the grandest cityscape in the world, however. It was jarring though to not see Three Rivers Stadium anymore, but rather the two newer stadiums.
Then again, I should talk. Only was ever in Three Rivers once, for the Metallica/Guns ‘n Roses/Faith No More concert, and the last time I saw the Pirates play live was in Forbes Field.
I grew up in Bethel Park, one of the communities adjacent to Sourh Park. I rode the Skybus at a County Fair probably in 1966. Back then it looked like a spaceship and rode very smoothly like nothing before. Even before riding when you drove into the park and saw them rolling overhead it was quite a sight. When boarding that very hot day the AC was awesome since we didn’t have it at home or in the car. As I grew up I remember the elevated structure decaying for lack of maintenance…. it was sad.
When I bought my house in ’89, it had a ‘coppertone’ brown Westinghouse refrigerator from a 1970 remodel that was on it’s last legs.
I still own a few other vintage Westinghouse consumer products – a couple of battery open-reel tape-recorders, a pocket transistor radio, and a neat-looking table-fan that looks like a metal softball suspended in a chrome cage. Only the fan was US-made. The radio and recorders came from Japan.
My only experience with public transportation in Pittsburgh began with an uncomfortable overnight stay in the downtown Greyhound bus terminal 24 years ago, due to a delay that made me miss my bus connection!
Not knocking Pittsburgh. I did enjoy the views of the city the next morning as the bus was leaving town.
Happy Motoring, Mark
Great read- I love the occasional public transit articles on here!
That ranks right up there with the Detroit People Mover
Here is a Westinghouse Produced Video
Nobody addresses all the crime on public transportation today especially on Portland’s Max. You wouldn’t get me on one today. I would love for someone to do a comparative study of crime rates on public transportation vs private automobiles. But they won’t because it would scare the h*** of everyone. Also I think the overhead catenary wire system looks bad and is a lot more prone to weather based service interruptions than a third third rail system. You can only put so much lipstick on a pig.The rail bus system being elevated does not have as big a footprint in tightly compacted urban areas as light rail or trolley systems
I ride both commuter rail and the subway five days a week, for the past seven years, and have never been mugged or assaulted.
Driving my car, I am constantly being cut-off, have been rear-ended, and have had people throw their cigarettes out of their window and into mine. Then I get robbed by the insurance company.
Get out and talk to people sometime, and don’t be so afraid.
Agreed, Walter. How is a bus or train any less safe than walking on the street, anyway? Do you avoid walking on streets too?
It’s a class perception. Those of us in the suburbs consider ourselves ‘too good’ to be riding the bus, thus ensuring it’s always filled with ‘those people’.
Thanx Guys ;
Here in Los Angeles I ride the bus every year or so, usually when someone’s in from out of town so we’re not too rushed and want to gab and sight see .
When I vacation I always try to ride the local bus to get a feel of how the normal folks like me, get around .
I was on the Dot. Av. Ghetto Bus in Boston a few years back when a lady got on with a big live turkey ~ no one blinked .
In the Caribbean I like to ride the clapped out jitney vans, always fun and interesting cross section of the populace too .
Thanks to this article, I now know the history of the people mover I rode in at Tampa Airport a couple of years ago.
One important correction to an interesting story — the Pittsburgh area actually does not have a regional transit agency.
Port Authority of Allegheny County really only serves Allegheny County. (It touches neighboring counties, but is not allowed to provide any significant service.) Westmoreland County to the east has its own transit agency which runs some buses into Pittsburgh, as do Butler and Beaver counties to the north, and Washington County to the south is actually served by two!
One possible legacy of the Skybus experiment: Pittsburgh is one of the few cities to have “busways” — not just dedicated bus lanes, but limited-access highways made only for buses. There has long been hope that the light-rail system serving the South Hills might some day be extended using those busways, but there seems to be little political will (and certainly no money) to make that happen.
As an aside, Westinghouse marketed the first color TV in early 1954, beating RCA by a couple of weeks. Of course it used the RCA color picture tube, and sold for $1500. There weren’t many takers, and it took over a decade for color television to become established in the US.
Jim, fascinating article! While I loathe buses and thus have little interest in them (I’ve always lived very close to a bus stop yet have always walked or driven to take a train instead), I absolutely love reading about light-rail and other mass transit systems. I’d love to read about some more!
Fascinating indeed. I always thought elevated public transport systems made perfect sense for cities where no underground train routes were designed and built at an early stage. They are digging up half of Tel Aviv for the city’s 1st underground line whereas – in my view – elevated rails would have been far quicker and cheaper to build. Here in Vienna we have the U6 which basic layout has been in existence since the 19th century; the spaces under the arches have been used to create room for cafés, shops and workshops.
as a youngster, getting a ride on this was one of the highlights of going to the county fair in S. Park. we lived very close. so “Jetsons” like and a portent of the bright and shiny future i would live to see.
In the late 1950s my family visited my uncle’s family in Pittsburgh. I’d never set foot in a city that had streetcars, and I was hung-ho to get a ride in one. I got my wish. Probably among the easier of my wishes for the adults to grant!
Ad another poster noted, Detroit has the “Peoplemover”. Built with a Federal subsidy in the 80s, it was supposed to be the core of a larger system, but expansion never happened. The Peoplemover travels a roughly circular track around downtown in one direction, so if you want go to where the Peoplemover has already been, you have to ride around the circle, but then, the circle is only 3 miles long.
Being built in the late 80s, it doesn’t serve much of anything that has been built since then. It goes to the Greektown casino, because Greektown’s collection of restaurants made it a destination before the casino was built. If you want to go to the football stadium, or the baseball stadium, or the new hockey/basketball arena, you are out of luck. Want to get to the Motor City or MGM casinos and hotels? Not on the Peoplemover. It doesn’t serve the Fox theater either, but it wasn’t until 88 that the Ilitch organization bought the Fox and restored it. It does go to the Joe Lewis Arena, which will shortly be torn down because the new arena on Woodward has replaced it.
The Peoplemover runs a deficit and depends on subsidies from the city and state. The subsidies are a constant source of complaints because people don’t want to pay any tax unless they personally benefit.
The Peoplemover does provide a nice way for tourists to get a look at downtown Motown. This video covers the entire loop, a 17 minute ride. It starts and ends at the Renaissance Center, which is the location of GM’s HQ.
The study that resulted in the demise of Skybus was not just another study. Representatives of the County Commissioners, the Port Authority of Allegheny County, City council, the Mayor’s Office and organized labor met and unanimously recommended the nationally known consultant that did the study. The results recommending against the Skybus technology were unanimously accepted by the parties who appointed the consultant.