Does Pittsburgh Really Have More Bridges Than Any Other City?
The myth persists — even when the President comes to town.
Standing near the collapsed Fern Hollow Bridge for an impromptu press conference in Regent Square in January, President Joe Biden seemed genuinely surprised by a bit of information he had only just learned.
“I didn’t realize there are literally more bridges in Pittsburgh than any other city in the world,” Biden told reporters. “Did you know that? More than in Venice.”
Pittsburgh’s popular claim to fame hardly qualifies as news to locals. Mayor Ed Gainey’s communications manager, Sam Wasserman, had even tweeted it the day before the collapse, in anticipation of Biden’s planned visit to pitch his infrastructure plan.
But just because a President says something doesn’t make it so.
Despite the persistence of this much-loved myth, Pittsburgh does not have more bridges within its city limits than any other city in the world.
“If you go by straight numbers, that’s just simply not true,” says Todd Wilson, a civil engineer for GAI Consultants of Homestead. Wilson is the author of the book “Pittsburgh’s Bridges” as well as a chapter about them in another book, “Engineering Pittsburgh.” He has been a bridge aficionado since childhood, when his father, a commercial photographer, brought the boy along on some bridge jobs, and Wilson estimates he personally has photographed about 5,000 of them on five continents since then. “Functionally, from the engineering definition for publicly owned bridges, Pittsburgh’s not even close,” he says.
According to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Bridge Inventory, which counts raised public road spans of 20 feet or more, the city of Pittsburgh has (make that had) 297 bridges. Houston has almost eight times as many, with 2,325. Four other Texas cities have more than a thousand, as do Los Angeles and New York. Chicago, Boston, Baltimore and Cleveland each have more than Pittsburgh.
Pittsburgh doesn’t even have the most bridges of any city in Pennsylvania. That distinction goes to Philadelphia, with 591.
Federal records in the database come from state transportation departments, and their main purpose is not to pick a bridge count winner but to track safety inspections and prevent catastrophes like the one that befell the Fern Hollow span on Jan. 28. The database includes only public road bridges and overpasses designed for automobile traffic. It has quirks, such as counting each deck of a double-decker bridge separately, as well as the elevated ramps leading to a bridge. That means the Fort Pitt and Fort Duquesne bridges each have not one but 14 records in the National Bridge Inventory. Nevertheless, since it is based on clear and standardized definitions derived from federal regulations, and in the absence of anything better, it is a widely used basis for comparison.
One can go deeper, of course. The 446 bridges frequently touted as Pittsburgh’s total come from “The Bridges of Pittsburgh,” a 2006 book by Bob Regan. He added footbridges and railroad spans to local government records of road bridges that basically mirror the federal count. It was Regan’s second book; his first cataloged the city’s public staircases. When informed that Pittsburgh does not have the most bridges of any city in the world, the retired computer mapping professor had a ready rejoinder: “I guess I’d say, ‘Well, we have the most city steps. Go ahead and refute that one!’”
The boast that Pittsburgh has more bridges than Venice, made by Regan and many others, is one Francesco Zanchi has heard before. A professional Venetian tour guide born and reared in the legendary Italian city, he said it doesn’t keep him up nights.
“We don’t nickname Venice as the city of bridges, probably because there are too many cities in the world with lots of bridges,” Zanchi said in an email. Besides, the total usually given for Venice’s bridges — the city tourism office says 438 — is only for the famous canal-laced islands in the lagoon, not the full city’s much larger modern mainland districts where most Venetians live.
European cities claiming the most bridges have included Amsterdam; Berlin and Hamburg, Germany; and St. Petersburg, Russia. In the United States, New York, Chicago, Baltimore, Cleveland and Indianapolis have been called ultimate span champion at one time or another, though Pittsburgh’s petition seems to have the most traction.
That may be because Pittsburghers have been saying so for well over a century. The 1899 “Pittsburg Press Almanac and Cyclopedia of Useful Information” said Allegheny County’s bridge count exceeded “any other community in the country,” conveniently omitting any of those other communities’ totals. The paper’s July 23 edition that year frankly noted of its almanac’s factoid: “This is rather a broad claim to make, but it is, nevertheless, correct.”
That boast made national news soon thereafter and has popped up at regular intervals ever since. The former upscale department store Boggs & Buhl on the North Side ran an ad campaign in the 1920s stating the Pittsburgh metro area led the world in total bridges with more than 500. (It also claimed Pittsburghers led the world in department store spending.)
In fact, the braggadocio began at the earliest possible moment — the dedication of the city’s first bridge in 1818. At the ceremony, the opening toast was proposed “to the State of Pennsylvania, the first in the Union for the Number and Beauty of its Bridges.”
Why have city boosters found the bridge boast so beguiling? Put it down to a confluence of factors, beginning with the unique topography that includes three navigable waterways winding through the city’s heart.
Pittsburgh is an ideal showroom for bridges, and the city has taken full advantage. A municipal art commission created in 1911 rejected preliminary plans for new bridges over the Allegheny River at Sixth, Seventh, and Ninth streets the following decade because their overhead trusses would spoil the skyline view. Plan B became the “Three Sisters” bridges, points of civic pride ever since. The first of the three to be completed, now named after Roberto Clemente, was pronounced “Most Beautiful Steel Bridge” in 1928 by the American Institute of Steel Construction. Styles and types changed, but design aesthetics remained important throughout that era’s bridge-building boom.
Pittsburgh also attracted great engineering innovators. John Roebling, who eventually designed the Brooklyn Bridge, built his first cable suspension bridge here in 1845 as an aqueduct to carry canal boats over the Allegheny River. Andrew Carnegie’s Keystone Bridge Company erected the world’s first major steel span, the Eads Bridge across the Mississippi, in 1874. Gustav Lindenthal, whose elegant Smithfield Street Bridge of 1883 is the city’s oldest extant river span, went on to design New York’s majestic Queensboro and Hell Gate bridges. Pittsburgh-based bridge inspector George Ferris created the sensation of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair with the first Ferris wheel.
Ferris was an early member of the Engineers’ Society of Western Pennsylvania, which presents its annual International Bridge Conference in Pittsburgh in July. Tom Leech, emeritus member of the conference’s executive committee, is eager to welcome hundreds of fellow bridge engineers from around the globe again to show off his city’s impressive array.
“People get so excited walking around the city and looking at the various bridges,” says Leech, chief designer of the Bloomfield Bridge, among others. “There’s a variety of types and styles, and many of them are quite beautiful. Just the sheer density of it excites the people who come to the conference.”
The retired engineer and coauthor of the book “Bridges … Pittsburgh at the Point … A Journey Through History” also believed until recently that Pittsburgh had more bridges than anywhere else. Told that Houston actually deserves that mantle, Leech offered a bit of context from what he has seen while visiting his son there. “They have these big interchanges. Where we would build up soil for an embankment and shorten a bridge, they are so flat there they have nowhere to find material for an embankment,” he said.
Houston also is one of America’s biggest cities by size, Leech points out. That’s true; sprawling over 665 square miles, Houston has enough space to fit a dozen Pittsburghs. But if we propose a per capita count, it’s only fair to offer Venice the same courtesy. After all, the historic island is only about 2 square miles to Pittsburgh’s 55.
Some might suggest our “City of Bridges” moniker is fully justified, even if not by raw quantity, then by the quality of our collection. It’s all right there in the postcard view of the Golden Triangle surrounded by an extraordinary ensemble of steel, stone and concrete. When they say Paris is the “City of Lights,” nobody checks for a bulb count.
That’s not enough for Wilson, the GAI engineer, author and amateur photographer, who has doggedly crunched the numbers to find a way for his city to come out on top. He finally hit upon counting only bridges with a main span of at least 300 feet. That qualification, Wilson readily admits, is calibrated to favor Pittsburgh; at 200 feet Houston still has the decided edge, and New York takes over at 400. But he defends the measure, asserting that a 300-foot span historically is when bridge design starts to get challenging.
“Is it more important to have every little overpass or walkway over a creek or something, or is it more important to have carefully designed bridges of significance?” Wilson says.
And eureka, Pittsburgh indeed holds a narrow edge over New York City in the 300-foot measure. Or at least it did until this year. The ongoing $8 billion overhaul of LaGuardia Airport includes two enormous new pedestrian skybridges soaring more than 400 feet between terminals, high enough that jets can taxi underneath without clipping their tailfins. The first opened last year, and the second opened in January, bringing New York’s 300-feet-or-more span count — roadway, railroad and pedestrian, with double-decker bridges only counted once — to 34, tied with Pittsburgh.
Wilson contends the city still wins if you count the Hot Metal Bridge on the South Side twice, once for each of the decks that cross its single set of masonry piers. Unorthodox maybe, he concedes, but justifiable. The downstream side, now refurbished for cyclists and pedestrians, was the original that once carried heavy railcars full of molten iron fresh from Jones & Laughlin’s Eliza blast furnaces; the upstream side, now for car and truck traffic, was added in a later expansion for standard trains.
“Pittsburgh has more bridges than any other city — if you want it to,” Wilson concludes.
How many bridges does Pittsburgh have? It depends on what counts as a bridge. the city has:
- 28 bridges across the Allegheny, Monongahela, and Ohio rivers
- 297 public automobile bridges, elevated roadways, and culverts in the National Bridge Inventory*
- 446 road, pedestrian, and rail bridges counted by Bob Regan for “The Bridges of Pittsburgh”*
- 700 elevated crossings of all kinds, including small and private ones and walkways between buildings, estimated by Todd Wilson for “Engineering Pittsburgh”
*subtract 1 from these totals to account for the collapsed Fern Hollow Bridge
Learn more about Pittsburgh’s bridges ⇓