Collier’s Weekly: Journey Beyond the Rivers and Tunnels, Please
The traffic in Pittsburgh is, on the whole, not even worth mentioning. Stop sticking to your corner of the county.
Last weekend, I attempted to drive from Brooklyn to Midtown Manhattan.
It took more than two hours.
Aside from the normal, unavoidable traffic that makes driving a car through New York City feel like piloting a speedboat through the aisles of Target, several roads and many key intersections were closed due to a half-marathon — a fact no one had told the tiny navigator who lives inside Google Maps. As a result, I left my hotel at about 12:15 and pulled into a garage on 44th street at 2:25, having covered a distance of about 9 miles.
Somewhere in there, I thought to myself, “You know, we really shouldn’t complain about traffic in Pittsburgh.”
We like to gripe about backups on the parkway, particularly those approaching tunnels — the result of a unique quirk of regional paranoia that causes drivers to slow to a crawl anytime walls and a ceiling are present near a roadway. But that same tiny Google navigator that couldn’t help me in New York frequently informs us of the scope of delays on Pittsburgh roads. Usually, when faced with significant tunnel traffic, it’ll say something such as, “There’s a 15 minute slowdown ahead.”
Now, I don’t like losing 15 minutes; I’d rather breeze from destination to destination as if riding on the Disney World Monorail. But the difference between a 10-minute journey and a 25-minute journey is not exactly enough to ruin your day — nor should it be enough to ruin your mood.
Manhattan is obviously an extreme example; it’s a place that should only be approached by a motorist if something has gone terribly wrong or plans have been made very poorly (such as, in my case, choosing a Broadway matinee at a time after you need to check out of your Brooklyn hotel, forcing you to find a garage in the vicinity of a Times Square like an utter rube). But plenty of other cities have routine traffic that makes getting around Pittsburgh seem like a breeze.
In fact, this thought popped into my head before my Manhattan misadventure. I was chatting with a colleague from Philadelphia, explaining that people in our area don’t like to venture “all the way” to a certain destination because it is … 25 minutes from Downtown. As I spoke, I realized the absurdity of the sentence; in Philadelphia, everything is an hour away from everything. If you live in the suburbs of Philly — a geographic area roughly the size of a small planet — it’ll usually take you an hour-plus to get to the Liberty Bell.
Baltimore? Gridlock. D.C.? A nightmare maze of traffic, landmarks and aggravation. Chicago? Who the hell designed streets this winding and narrow in a city where it’s always winter?
Go farther afield. Major cities in Texas are laid out with miles of space in between (everything’s bigger), so a routine journey takes 45 minutes of driving at full speed. Los Angeles is pretty much nothing but traffic. Getting anywhere in Florida feels like it should take half an hour, yet it always creeps to about 90 minutes for no clear reason.
Therein lies the absurdity of the whole “we don’t cross bridges and tunnels” thing. Yes, there are plenty of Pittsburgh intersections laid out without regard for traffic flow, logic or basic physics. Yes, there are plenty of places where traffic can back up a bit. But the delays are minor — and most everything is no more than a half hour drive from wherever you are. I can’t count the number of times someone in Pittsburgh has described something as “really far” that’s actually a 20-minute drive away.
I know we joke about not leaving our side of the nearest river, but it’s not actually cute; it’s a stubborn affectation that causes us to nest and not actually enjoy the things around us. You will get more out of the city than you will lose by the non-existent indignity of having to spend half an hour in your car, I promise.
Okay, okay: Unless you’re going to, say, Bethel Park. That does take forever.