Your Guide to Getting There
How to make your way through construction, inscrutable directions and traffic and (quickly) get to everything Pittsburgh has to offer.
photo by dave hallewell/hi-fi fotos
Most liveable city, yes.
Most navigable city, no.
Every weekday is Groundhog Day: Accident here. Construction there. Downed power line on the “T.” Traffic-signal malfunction. Ad nauseam. Bottom line: Expect delays.
The city and its adjoining suburbs are divided into three distinct sectors: North of the Ohio-Allegheny rivers. South of the Ohio-Monongahela rivers. And the wedge-shaped land between them, starting at Point State Park, embracing Downtown and running east through Oakland, East Liberty, Penn Hills, Monroeville and beyond.
Each sector is its own labyrinth of streets. Some too narrow, some too congested, some too old and almost all too confusing unless you’ve lived and learned. The interstate highways and Pennsylvania Department of Transportation-maintained roads and bridges stitching them together are congested, restricted or under construction.
Ask for directions and, more often than not, you will hear, “Turn right at the old Isaly’s” or “Do ya’ know where the Horne’s building is at?” You’ll quickly wish you hadn’t asked. In Pittsburgh, we like to give directions using things that used to be here as landmarks.
Considering our geography, it’s not a surprise our streets are not laid out in a comprehensible geometric grid as found in, say, Manhattan, Washington, D.C., or even (ugh) Cleveland. Rivers, hills, valleys, geology, railroad rights-of-way and other factors create twists, turns and curves that can make your head spin.
photo by Anna dukovich
Allegheny County has a color-coded “belt system” in and around the city for use by anyone not in a hurry. If you don’t have GPS, the concentric routes — marked with red, orange, yellow, green, blue and purple signs and dating back to the late 1940s — can come in handy to reach unfamiliar areas. Be prepared, though, to travel on speed-restricted, two-lane roads and encounter plenty of stop signs and traffic lights.
Many people cross the lines only if they must — typically for athletic events, shows and concerts, school, medical appointments, July 4 fireworks, the Three Rivers Regatta and Light-Up Night. Dahntahn, NorSide and SouSide are typically the bullseyes of such travel. (If you’re new, you’ll need to understand Pittsburghese!)
Otherwise, many Pittsburghers abide by the idiom, “Stay put.”
Forget that. Get out and get around. All you need to do is strategize.
Pittsburgh Magazine is here to help.
photo by elaina zachos
Alternate Means of Travel
While Pittsburghers are aware of options to cope with convoluted routes, congestion, parking, weather and myriad obstacles, they abhor change. As do most Americans, they love their cars, one person to a vehicle, traffic be damned. But there are only so many streets, bridges and tunnels — each with only so much capacity — and, in effect, the flow of vehicles is halted during periods of peak demand.
So maybe it’s time to look beyond the car and find another way to get around town.
Bicycles are a growing alternative for commuting, a result of designated bikeways and bike lanes and Port Authority buses equipped with bike racks. A recent American Community Survey claims the number of people commuting to work in Pittsburgh has doubled to 2 percent since the city started creating bike lanes in 2007.
Visit bikepgh.org for information on the proactive, progressive organization Bike Pittsburgh. The website offers bike maps, resources for commuting and numerous special-events sponsorships. Check out healthyridepgh.com for information about long- and short-term bike sharing/rental opportunities that enable people to rent a bike at one station and leave it at another.
photo by dave dicello
The Port Authority, the nation’s 26th-largest public transit system, accounts for more than 200,000 rides on an average weekday, spread between buses, the light-rail “T” system and the Monongahela Incline. It also sponsors the advance-reservation, shared-ride ACCESS paratransit program for seniors and people with special needs.
New smart-card technology, real-time vehicle tracking and numerous park-and-ride lots are making public transit a more user-friendly option. Buses-only roadways and a “free fare zone” on the “T” covering the subway and all stations between First Avenue and the North Shore are the envy of many cities. The website portauthority.org provides everything you need to know, including a “trip planner” and ways to save on fares and passes.
The Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership — representing the retail, professional and service sectors — offers a helpful site at downtownpittsburgh.com. It includes a “Downtown Made Easy” guide, among many other features.
PennDOT, too, has stepped to the plate with a site including mobile apps, traffic cameras, travel advisories and alerts and a list of construction activity. Visit the website 511pa.com (or perform a Google search for “PennDOT District 11”) in order to see possibilities.
For those looking to carpool, the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission representing the 10-county region works with transportation partners to provide information on sharing rides to work or school at commuteinfo.org.
photo by anna dukovich
Construction Now and Soon
In Pittsburgh and surrounding areas, there are two special times of year: Pothole season and construction season.
Perhaps you’ve grown accustomed to the confusion and delays by now, but that’s not good enough for us — particularly during a year containing multiple projects with gridlock-inducing potential.
Pittsburgh Magazine wants to help you to get where you want to go as quickly as possible.
photo by anna dukovich
Liberty Bridge & Liberty Tunnel
These construction projects are typical of how things get done in Pittsburgh. Progress is made only as funds become available, and then it moves only as quickly as weather permits. Engineers are forced to cope with maintaining traffic on a transportation network laid out years ago on a landscape of rivers, hills and valleys.
PennDOT continues its aggressive schedule to complete work on the Liberty Bridge. The $80 million project includes deck replacement, repairs and upgrades to the nearly century-old Mon River link to and from the South Side, Mount Washington and South Hills.
There’s more work to be done in the Liberty Tunnel, too, where the ventilation system is to be replaced and computer controls are to be updated.
Something that won’t change in the near future: the 15-minute, full-span closure that happens weekdays at 2 p.m. It’s one of three daily closures, but this one causes the most disruption to rush-hour travel.
photo by anna dukovich
What Will Give Us Headaches This Year
- If you’re headed up the Ohio River, be aware of a $25.3 million road- and bridge-repair project on Ohio River Boulevard between the Fort Duquesne and McKees Rocks bridges.
- If you’re headed across the Mon from Oakland to the South Side, watch out for a $28.5 million rehabilitation of the Birmingham Bridge.
- Want to go from the East End to Downtown? The ongoing reconstruction of Bigelow and Baum boulevards might slow you down.
- Public-transit users, heads up: a mile-long section of the “T” Red Line through Beechview is closed this summer.
- If you travel this way, you’ll have to hop on and off a shuttle for part of the trip.
Wait, there’s more.
The Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission, which decides how and where to dole out transportation funds, has updated a four-year plan to spend hundreds of millions more in Pittsburgh and its suburbs. For Allegheny County, the city of Pittsburgh and the Port Authority, the list shows 135 projects and spending categories, some with multiple impacts such as $31.4 million for “betterments” — that basically means road resurfacing.
Here are a few projects you should be aware of while planning commutes in the coming months:
- Covering the Crosstown Expressway/Interstate 579 with a park-like “cap” to tie Downtown with proposed development in the Lower Hill District.
- Rebuilding Smithfield Street in a pedestrian-friendly, aesthetically pleasing way.
- Rehabilitating and repainting of the Clemente, Warhol and Carson bridges, at a cost of $43 million.
- Resurfacing Penn and Liberty avenues.
- Upgrading East Carson Street through the South Side, at a cost of $5.6 million.
- Upgrading surfaces in the Armstrong Tunnel.
- Improving Interstate 279 from the North Shore to Camp Horne Road, at a cost of $58.3 million.
The lesson to learn here: Always check what’s going on between your starting point and your end point before setting out on your trip. Mapping apps make it easier to avoid the stickiest points, though, during Pittsburgh’s construction season, you’re still likely to to hit a few bumps in the road. (And a few divots, too. If there’s one thing that you can be sure of, it’s that wherever you’re going, you’ll have to avoid potholes and more potholes.)
photo by anna dukovich
If you work Downtown, it would be ideal to actually live Downtown — or at least within reasonably easy walking or biking distance, in places such as the Mexican War Streets, elsewhere on the North Side, the emerging Lower Hill District or the revitalized Strip District. But there also are plenty of other nearby neighborhoods, too. Indeed, Pittsburgh’s home-ownership and rental markets are booming. Even a few Peregrine falcons and American bald eagles have chosen Pittsburgh to raise their families.
Where should you live and still have an easy trip on public transit to Downtown? Mount Washington, the South Side, Lawrenceville, Brookline and Polish Hill all offer an easy commute to Downtown, while Greenfield, Hazelwood, Uptown, Allentown and other neighborhoods are gaining attention as prudent, convenient and affordable housing investments. The East End — Oakland, Bloomfield, Shadyside, Squirrel Hill, Point Breeze and East Liberty — forms a secondary “City Center” with a rich kaleidoscope of meds and eds, young and old, artsy and tech-savvy residents.
photo by anna dukovich
Virtually every Port Authority bus route converges on or passes through Downtown and/or Oakland — respectively the No. 2 and No. 3 highest public-transit activity areas in Pennsylvania — so buses are a travel option from any number of neighborhoods. With phone apps providing high-tech service information, new Connect Cards for electronic payment of fares, tax deductions for passes, handicap accessibility and bike racks on every bus, they’re becoming a better option for commuters every year. If you choose to live in a suburb and don’t want to waste time sitting in traffic — and especially if you’d prefer to avoid gut-wrenching Downtown parking fees — consider living near a “busway,” buses-only roads that run west, east and south of our city. Pittsburgh has more miles of them than anywhere in the United States. Finding a place to live near the “T” also can be a plus.
photo by dave Dicello
Know Before You (Try to) Go
Many aspects of driving in Pittsburgh are handled differently here than they are in other cities. A brief tutorial — more like a series of warnings — is in order.
Reserved for bicyclists. Triggers outrage — sometimes road rage — among drivers who think streets exist for them and them alone. We at Pittsburgh Magazine are pro-bike lane.
When people park cars and delivery trucks side-by-side across from another parked vehicle, thereby obstructing traffic and blocking your exit when “just a sec” runs into many minutes.
‘Expect Delays’ Advisories
To say the least!
It’s not Gus’s ice balls in North Park we’re talking about; rather, the identifiable symbols of state, county, local, utility and other construction work. Be nice. Remember the soothing motto: “Temporary inconvenience, permanent improvement.”
Unique method by which Pittsburghers designate a personal parking spot on a public street in front of their home. Chairs, crates and other items show up, mostly in winter after the “owners” shovel snow onto the sidewalk, their neighbor’s parking space or back onto the street. Not technically legal.
Pittsburgh pedestrians cross anywhere but there because jaywalking is a local tradition. This puts pedestrians at risk and causes drivers to be on their toes — or run over someone’s toes. Use designated crossings — and even then, watch for drivers failing to yield the right-of-way.
Where you can park for free during rush hours, weather-related delays and accident situations. Just kidding. The major highways leading in and out of Downtown.
Potholes Vehicle-jolting craters that appear like measles on streets, highways and bridge decks. Pittsburgh once was dubbed “Pothole Capital of the World.” Now you can call 311 to report potholes in the city.
Often means slowing down while glancing both ways instead of coming to a complete stop. If you’re an offender, it’s time to work on this one.
Yellow Traffic Light
Another clue to put the pedal to the metal before the light turns red. A game called “running a light.” If you’re waiting on the opposing side of an intersection, you may want to give it a second before proceeding through green.
Often means stepping on the gas and elbowing your vehicle into oncoming traffic, safe merger practices and driver courtesy be damned. It’s tough to get anyone to agree on the proper methods on a particular route.
And now, a challenging …
Think you’re familiar with Pittsburgh roads and bridges? Take this short quiz:
- Where is the Raymond E. Wilt Memorial Highway? Hint: It’s one of our busiest Interstates.
- If you drove over the Veterans Memorial Bridge, which river would you cross? Hint: There are three bridges of the same name across Pennsylvania, but only one here.
- Thousands of vehicles a day travel the Raymond P. Shafer Highway — the stretch of Interstate 79 between the West Virginia border and Erie named for a former state governor. What’s another “official name” for the very same road?
Go to next page for the answers…
- I-279 between the North Side and Franklin Park, a.k.a. the Parkway North
- The Allegheny River as part of I-579, a.k.a. the Crosstown Expressway
- The 79th Division Highway
(P.S.: Thought you’d never ask. Who’s Raymond E. Wilt, for whom I-279 is named? He was a Republican state legislator from 1951-1969, when a decades-long controversy was born. It ended with the relocation of thousands of residents from the East Street Valley in order to build today’s ribbon of interstate concrete.)