(Photos and video by Beth Hollerich)
“Where is the purple curb?”
Yeah. Strange question. But one that Sean Conley hears often during his 10-hour work days at Pittsburgh International Airport.
The purple curb is not an airport tribute to Prince. It is, however, where travelers can find their Uber and Lyft rides. Just outside baggage claim are the airport’s commercial curbs – where Z-Trip (taxis), Uber and Lyft, public buses, hotel shuttles, Super Shuttle, private limousine companies, and parking shuttles all pick up passengers at their designated colored part of the sidewalk.
Conley is the airport’s ground transportation supervisor, and if trends continue, he’ll be getting that question a lot more. In 2018 at PIT, Transportation Network Companies, or TNCs, picked up 750,000 rides, a 43 percent increase from the 525,000 rides in 2017. TNCs Uber and Lyft began serving the airport in 2015.
“There has been a great deal of change in the way people take transportation now,” said Conley, who joined the ground transportation team about two years ago. “With the expansion of Uber and Lyft … the demand is astronomical. There have been days where Uber and Lyft vehicles have been backed up to the Hyatt.”
That half-mile distance from the Hyatt to the purple curb doesn’t make passengers wait too long, but the added congestion slows pickups for other companies trying to find their small spot of the curb.
Managing that congestion is “daunting,” Conley says, but the crew of four manage it well, and without having to use moves reminiscent of local icon Vic Cianca, the Pittsburgh traffic cop who gained fame in the 60s and 70s and had a cameo in Flashdance.
“On a Friday night around the holidays there was a Steelers game, two Penguins games, a concert and normal holiday travel,” said Conley. “I couldn’t leave the middle of the road from about 11 p.m. until 1 a.m. And then it turned into a ghost town. It was like no one was ever here.”
The crew works four, 10-hour shifts to make sure they cover even the busiest times of the week – usually Sunday nights through Monday morning.
They’re handling a lot more than car traffic. Working the curb means helping passengers who wander outside but aren’t looking for a ride, providing restaurant recommendations and answering questions about who the Steelers, Penguins or Pirates playing.
So they need to be prepared for all seasons and all weather as well. This winter, the crew has a new booth – fully heated, by the way — to shield them from the elements when they’re not out in the road. The booth is “a Godsend,” Conley said.
“From spring and into early summer – late May, June, to early July, we have some of the best weather in the country. But I don’t know how the guys did it every winter before.”