Welcome to Pittsburgh (Part IV)

Today's topic: Traffic and roads.

When we moved here, I looked around to decide where to live. A lot of people pointed out to me that Mt. Lebanon is a pleasant suburb with good schools. But when I mentioned possibly living out here to my prospective colleagues at Pitt, almost to a person I heard: Why would you want to live so far away? And have to drive so long to get to work?

Of course, Mt. Lebanon is roughly 10 miles from Oakland, and on an average day -- during rush hour, and including a bridge and a tunnel -- it takes me about 30 minutes to get from my front door to my office, including parking and walking.

So the first thing to know about Pittsburgh traffic is that on the whole, and by comparison to most major metropolitan areas, Pittsburgh doesn't have any. You want traffic -- go to Atlanta, or Washington, DC, or Los Angeles. For almost five years in the Bay Area, I had a 70 minute/40 mile commute each way, and that wasn't uncommon.

We do, however, have traffic jams and traffic problems, and of course Pittsburgh, like any metro region, has its share of driving idiosyncrasies.

One major cause of traffic jams is Pittsburgh's antiquated system of regional roadways. Pittsburgh never built a metro beltway. Instead, we have the Red and Blue and Green and Orange and Yellow belts, each one with an accompanying set of coded signs. You may be tempted to use these to get around. My advice: don't, unless you like sightseeing. The belt system is a charming curiosity that offers real transportation value to relatively few people, like the surviving inclines.

The interstate highways that do come into downtown are reasonably well-engineered up to a few miles from the Point, and then horribly engineered closer in. The heart of the whole thing, at the city-side anchorage of the Fort Pitt Bridge, is the worst-designed piece of highway engineering that I've ever seen in the U.S., outside of Boston. Then there are the short on-ramps to the Parkways -- where there is no time or space to do what I was taught to do: When entering a freeway, you simply drive on, get up to speed in the merge lane, and edge over. You do that here and you'll get killed.

In addition, until you figure out the best short cuts to get from one place to another on state highways and smaller roads, there are relatively few good alternatives to the interstates. So if there's an accident somewhere, then most of the time, and until you get a lot of confidence in your ability to feel your way via smaller roads, you're stuck. The corollary is that almost everyone here either inherits or learns a set of short cuts to get around and avoid congestion as much as possible. A lot of this is trial and error, though people are usually generous with sharing their tips -- the problem is that the tips usually involve landmark-specific directions, as in, "turn where the Isaly's used to be."

Of course, no one calls freeways "interstates." They are all "parkways" (as in the old Steven Wright quip, why do we drive on the parkway and park in the driveway?). There's the Parkway East (I-376, out through the Squirrel Hill Tunnels), the Parkway North (I-279, north beyond the Veterans' Bridge), and the Parkway West (I-279 through the Fort Pitt Tunnel and out to the Airport). There is no Parkway South.

There is rarely a straight route from point A to point B. Roads aren't laid out on a grid (unlike that other famous city on a bunch of hills, San Francisco); they weave around the hills and through the runs. When you arrive, you'll spend a lot of time exploring interesting parts of Pittsburgh because you're lost, or because you've taken one wrong turn and you're trying like hell to get back to where you made it.

Pittsburgh driving idiosyncrasies are too numerous to catalog. Here are some of my favorites:

-- Fear of tunnels: I've lived in places with tunnels, but I've never lived anywhere where people slow down at the entrance to a tunnel, on general principle. I've heard it said that the tunnels themselves are so dark that people aren't sure whether traffic is moving inside. I don't know. I do know that slow traffic at tunnel entrances is like the weather; everyone in Pittsburgh seems to talk about it, but no one does anything about it.

-- the Pittsburgh left: When the light turns from red to green, the driver in the left turn lane facing you may leap across the intersection before you and your colleagues get moving. Once you've lived here a little while, you learn to anticipate this, and it rarely causes problems. Almost anywhere else in the country, the maneuver would cause of thousands of accidents annually.

-- after you, Alphonse. No, after you, Gaston: Pittsburgh drivers are naturally, and some would say overly or even dangerously, courteous. If there's a line of cars on the Parkway heading across the Fort Pitt Bridge, and if you drive up near the head of the line and maneuver to nudge your way into the line, someone is apt to pause long enough to let you in. Also, drivers will stop in the middle of the road -- no stop sign, no red light, no Yield sign -- and let cars turn left in front of them. There's the sibling maneuver, the headlight flash from the ongoing car that says, "I'm going to let you turn in front on me, since you've been waiting to turn left." Again, in many parts of the country, the courteous driver (and possibly the turning vehicle) would be on the receiving end of loud honks, bumps, taps, fingers, yells, and even gun shots. Even here, it's not clear why courtesy favors the turning car over the trailing car, given the lack of danger to the former and the risk of collision with the latter. But it does. And it gives rise to:

-- the Pittsburgh wave: If someone lets you cut in, or lets to turn in front of them, you're supposed to give a little wave of acknowledgement and thanks. Failure to do this is a clear sign that you're from California.

-- Stop except right turn: Here and there, you will come to an intersection marked by a stop sign, but the stop sign is paired with a smaller sign that says: Except right turn. In other words, rather than the usual stop-then-right-turn, you just drive on by to the right. There's nothing wrong with this, except that I've never seen it anywhere else, and it's just weird.

And I haven't even mentioned the quality of the roads, or PennDOT, or public transit options (the subject of a future post), and/or other things that will probably show up in the Comments. Did I mention that Pittsburgh drivers aren't particularly friendly to pedestrians or bicyclists?

Finally, though I'm trying just to describe what I see, if my sweeping generalizations haven't irritated or offended native Pittsburghers yet, this one probably will: Pittsburghers, on the whole, drive slowly. Maybe it's the badly engineered or maintained roads. Maybe it's the large number of much older drivers. I don't know the reason. This isn't good or bad, but it's an adjustment. Californians are unaccountably fast drivers, though if you learn to drive out there you learn that it's possible to drive 75 miles an hour and more or less bumper to bumper with the cars in front of you and behind you -- and have the sense that the road is a relatively safe place. Bostonians are unaccountably fast, too, though they react less charitably to cars getting too close to them. I feel safe on the road up there because I'm certain that everyone else behind the wheel is insane, and they think that I am, too. Iowans are unaccountably fast, because they're used to speeding down rural blacktops at 90 miles an hour and dodging tractors and combines and deer and cows. My sense of safety out there comes from a peculiar fatalism, not trust in other drivers. (Maybe this is why my wife and I almost died laughing at the car/deer collision in The Straight Story, while no one else in the theater made a sound.) But I rarely feel safe on Pittsburgh roads; there isn't the fatalism of the Middle West nor the "we're all driving the same way" predictability of the coasts.

The bottom line is: Pittsburgh may be too small to have much traffic, but still: To drive in Pittsburgh is to learn patience behind the wheel.

Previous installments:

Welcome to Pittsburgh (Part III)
Welcome to Pittsburgh (Part II)
Welcome to Pittsburgh (Part I)


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Pittsblog 2.0 is written by Mike Madison, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh. Send email to michael.j.madison[at]gmail.com. Mike also blogs at Madisonian.net, on law and technology. Chris Briem of Null Space drops by from time to time.

All opinions expressed at Pittsblog 2.0 are those of their respective authors and of no one (and no thing) else, least of all the University of Pittsburgh.

Pittsblog 2.0 has a motto: "It's steel good in Pittsburgh." Say it aloud, with a Pittsburgh accent.

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