Pittsburgh driving for the uninitiated

I come to Pittsburgh from California. Driving here presents challenges I had never encountered in all my years of previous driving. This page is intended to help other newcomers. And it will be an ongoing project, meaning it will be updated as I figure out how to cram in more stuff.

Challenges include extreme traffic congestion with limited lanes of travel, the bridges, navigation, and bizarre intersections. The terrain here often means streets meet at odd angles: If you’re used to intersections with 90-degree turns, you’re in for a shock. But also, the road system is ancient, with limited space for expansion. There are relatively few usable freeways so traffic congests on surface streets which via circuitous routes that sometimes lead to bridges or tunnels or both, many of which are also old, with limited capacity for expansion. This is legitimately hard driving. I’ll try to take all these in no particular order. Tips are sprinkled throughout, not always under heading that might seem immediately applicable.

Asymmetric stops

One thing I’d never seen before coming to Pittsburgh is a stop sign with another sign immediately below it that says “except right turn.” In at least one place, this right turn looks a lot more like a straight direction of travel than a turn. As you approach such a stop, that means you have right of way if you are turning right (which sometimes seems straight) and should proceed without stopping.

If, out of force of habit, you actually stop at such an intersection when signalling a right turn, you may be honked at. But also, drivers approaching the intersection from other directions have no notice that you have that right of way.

And Pittsburgh drivers seemingly do not know about tapping on the horn. When they honk, they blare at you as if you are the worst person in the world and deserve not to even exist.

Often an intersection will have stop signs in every direction except one, in either the uphill or downhill direction. I assume this has to do with winter weather driving, but in combination with the fact that stop signs are not always placed in standard locations (see next section), this introduces some real ambiguity as to who has right of way.

Oddly placed stop signs

I mentioned about terrain. It is often extremely steep here. The streets are often very narrow and the practice of taking turns so drivers proceeding in opposite directions can all get past each other and parked cars is more of an art than a science.

This also means that stop signs aren’t always placed in expected locations. They still apply, even when intersections are complicated with multiple streets that don’t always form neat singular intersections.

But the other problem with oddly placed stop signs is that you don’t know where they are for other directions of travel. Even in places where you know where to look, they can be hard to see. Here, you can’t even be sure you know where to look.

So does that other car have right of way or do you? Sometimes there will be an additional sign posted below the stop sign indicating that oncoming traffic or traffic from some other direction does not stop. But not always. So you don’t always know.

Weird intersections

Streets come together oddly at a lot of intersections in Pittsburgh. And the controls aren’t always what you expect. Sometimes there will even be a sign warning that traffic in the opposite direction has an “extended green,” meaning they’ll get to go while you’re still waiting.

Amanda, Bausman, Brownsville, and Hayes

One intersection I want to call special attention to is at Amanda, Bausman, Brownsville, and Hayes, in the Knoxville neighborhood (figure 1). This is a very complicated intersection and in ways that aren’t apparent as you approach it. And there is a very special booby trap here.
FireShot Capture 002 - brownsville bausman hayes - Google Maps - www.google.com
Fig. 1. Screenshot from Google Maps, September 22, 2019. This is the intersection of Amanda Avenue, Bausman Street, Brownsville Road, and Hayes Avenue.

What you should know here is that Brownsville Road, unidentified but depicted in figure 1 from top middle to lower left, basically proceeds along a ridge. Bausman comes up a steep hill approaching that ridge. Hayes is also on the ridge but neither the traffic on Hayes nor the traffic on Bausman can see each other as they approach the intersection. They each get a green light at the same time. And oh yeah, sometimes people are surprised when somebody else also has a green light coming from a contradictory direction.

Welcome to Pittsburgh.

Beechwood, Browns Hill, and Hazelwood

FireShot Capture 007 - Hazelwood Ave & Browns Hill Rd - Google Maps - www.google.com
Fig. 2. Screenshot from Google Maps, September 24, 2019, depicting the intersection of Hazelwood Avenue, Browns Hill Road, and Beechwood Boulevard. Hazelwood is unidentified here but approaches from center left past the food pantry. Beechwood approaches on a diagonal from lower right to the intersection and continues on a slight diagonal toward top center left. Browns Hill either begins or ends at this intersection.

Another special (in the most pejorative sense of the word) case is the intersection of Hazelwood Avenue, Browns Hill Road, and Beechwood Boulevard (figure 2). The booby trap here arises when you are approaching the intersection on Hazelwood, intending to continue in roughly the same direction on Beechwood. Google Maps identifies this as a “soft right,” it looks like a soft right, and the intersection offers a right turn signal.

So you might think that right turn signal applies to you. Hopefully, you manage to avoid a collision. That right turn signal coincides with a green for left turn traffic off Browns Hill Road. You needed to wait for the regular green light because that direction of travel, the very same one that Google identified as a “soft right,” and the very same one you thought was a right turn because it is a bit of a turn to the right, is “straight” to that light.

Tunnels

The steep terrain means there are lots of tunnels. Some of these are ancient and narrow with terrible sight lines. Occasionally, you’ll see a sign that says you should honk before entering because even the authorities have recognized that no one can see the traffic on the other side. That of course also means you should be listening for a horn before entering a tunnel.

The wider tunnels such as Fort Pitt, Liberty, and Squirrel Hill are two lanes wide, with the lanes separated by double white lines. You cannot change lanes in these tunnels. I understand this is increasingly being enforced with cameras.

The no-lane-change rule is particularly problematic with the Liberty Tunnel.

Liberty Tunnel and Bridge

If you aren’t confused by the time you finish reading this section, you just aren’t paying attention. It’s that bad. Oh, and Google Maps doesn’t know about it, so you won’t get any help there.

First, to explain, the Liberty Tunnel is a major route connecting the South Hills area of Pittsburgh with the Liberty Bridge which in turn feeds on to all sorts of possible routes into downtown, near and away from downtown, and the Veterans Bridge. Pittsburgh navigation is complicated and this is only one example. The Liberty Bridge (figure 2) crosses the Monongahela River and is separated from the Tunnel by a single intersection where turns are restricted but also offers possibilities of heading toward the South Side area, up towards Mount Oliver, and down towards Station Square.

FireShot Capture 004 - Google Maps - www.google.com
Fig. 3. Screenshot from Google Maps, September 22, 2019, covering the connection of the Liberty Tunnel to the Liberty Bridge and the mess of interchanges leading in the general direction of the Veterans Bridge (not shown, but crossing the Allegheny River to the north).

On weekdays from 2:00 pm to 6:00 pm, the Liberty Bridge, with otherwise has two lanes in each direction, switches to three lanes in the southbound (out of downtown, toward South Hills) direction and one lane in the northbound direction.

Even during such times, there are two lanes in the northbound (toward downtown) direction in the Liberty Tunnel. See above: No lane changes are permitted in the tunnel. During these times, the right lane in the tunnel very rapidly emerges into a right turn only lane toward the South Side district. If you’re heading to or through downtown, you need the left lane. Yes, that’s the one with all the cars in it.

Conversely, during such times, in the southbound direction (toward the South Hills, out of downtown), the right lane on the Liberty Bridge emerges onto a right turn only lane toward Mount Washington.

At all times, the Liberty Tunnel, in the southbound direction, also has exactly two lanes. The right lane emerges from the tunnel to a ramp for southbound Pennsylvania Route 51, toward Uniontown, with a very short space to change lanes out. You would also use the right lane if you mean to head north on Route 51.

Remember that there are no lane changes permitted in the tunnel. So this means that if you’re heading for West Liberty or Washington Road beyond, during that weekday 2:00 pm to 6:00 pm timeframe, you’ll want the left lane on the Liberty Bridge. If you’re heading toward Route 51, you’ll want the middle lane. And if you’re heading for Mount Washington, you’ll want the right. Figure it out no later than when you’re on the bridge and preferably sooner because traffic will be heavy.

The final booby trap on the Liberty Bridge occurs in the northbound direction and Google Maps doesn’t recognize that there’s any issue here at all. At some point you suddenly have three or four lanes in the northbound direction, all seemingly going straight. But the right two lanes are an exit for Boulevard of the Allies. When Google doesn’t tell you to go toward Boulevard of the Allies, that means you want the left one or two lanes (depending on whether or not it’s a weekday between 2:00 pm and 6:00 pm).

Do you have a headache yet? Because there’s more: When there are two lanes available in the northbound direction, the left rapidly becomes an exit only lane for 6th Avenue as it crosses onto land. If you want 7th Avenue (which, at this writing, will be closed for a while for construction), you want the right lane, which is the same lane as for a bunch of other options that come up in a very short space.

Think fast.

Fort Pitt and Fort Duquesne Bridges

FireShot Capture 005 - Google Maps - www.google.com
Fig. 4. Screenshot from Google Maps, September 22, 2019, covering downtown, the Fort Pitt and Fort Duquesne Bridges and environs. The Fort Pitt Tunnel extends to the southwest from the Fort Pitt Bridge. Another piece of the mess here is Pennsylvania Route 28 (not shown) which follows the north shore of the Allegheny River and connects to Route 65 very near the interchange with I-279. Two rivers are unidentified: The Allegheny approaches from the upper right. It and the Monongahela are tributaries combining to form the Ohio which proceeds to the left.

One place traffic really gets bad is around the Fort Pitt and Fort Duquesne Bridges (figure 4). These two bridges cross the Monongahela and Allegheny Rivers respectively, very near the Point (where historically Forts Duquesne and Fort Pitt stood) where these two rivers combine to form the Ohio River. They aren’t very far apart and there are a lot of directions of entry and a lot of directions of exit and a limited number of lanes on each of the bridges. This means there is a ludicrous number of lane changes that can only happen in a ludicrously short space (the rivers are wide but not that wide). If you don’t do this right, you’ll find yourself headed in entirely the wrong direction.

So pay attention: If, for example, you’re getting on the Fort Duquesne Bridge from Pittsburgh’s North Shore, where there are two major sports stadiums, a casino, the Carnegie Science Center (a museum), and Stage AE (a major entertainment venue), among other things, and you mean to head towards Banksville Road or I-376 west towards the airport, you’ll need to stay in the far right lane until you’re past the exits for Fort Duquesne Boulevard and the Strip District, then start working your way over to the left two lanes on the Fort Pitt Bridge, but look out, because you don’t want to end up on I-376 east towards Monroeville. All in very short spaces. All with people meaning to do the opposite things from you and changing lanes in the other direction.

Similar fussiness applies in the opposite direction, where you might be headed toward Fort Pitt Boulevard, Boulevard of the Allies, Fort Duquesne Bridge, the Strip District, Pittsburgh’s North Shore, I-279 north, Pennsylvania Routes 28 or 65, and all the permutations therefrom. This is absolute madness and because of it, traffic approaching the Fort Pitt Tunnel on I-376 east backs up for miles, often past Carnegie.

Navigation

As you might have gathered from the foregoing, Pittsburgh navigation is difficult. Difficult enough, it seems, even to merit a CityLab article that sheds some light on those color coded “Belt” signs you’ll see all over the place, but really doesn’t help much with day-to-day navigation.[1]

Thanks to its rugged topography and irregular pattern of development, the city and its environs are notoriously difficult to navigate. Downtown’s “Golden Triangle” is a mishmash of streets, as industrial developments on the banks of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers were eventually connected with roads, albeit haphazardly. The region’s major arterials are designed in a hub-and-spoke system, with all traffic seemingly routed through downtown. Pittsburgh, as the local map designer Bob Firth once declared, is “ungriddable[2]

To call it a “mishmash of streets,” haphazardly connected, understates it. If you’re hoping to make any sense of it all, abandon all hope.

I’ve had more than one person inform me that Pittsburgh is laid out for people who already know their way around. Which is kind of interesting—and this is something my mother also noted—since as that article points out, “lots of Pittsburgh-area natives [don’t] venture too far past [their] home[s].”[3] So try to be a bit forgiving of your fellow drivers: Even if natives, they might simply be confused.

Pittsburghers don’t much like navigation apps and only use them when they really don’t know the way to where they’re going. There are lots of reasons for this and a consequence is that Google Maps, at least, will often fail to detect gridlock: Google’s system can only detect gridlock if a lot of users have the app open and are stuck in the same place.[4]

In general, I hate turning on voice navigation with Google Maps. It says some really idiotic things and its mispronunciations are ludicrous. I have found it absolutely necessary in Pittsburgh.

Even so, many, many, many intersections here are just plain weird. In California, I had no problem driving at night. Here, I worry about it, in significant part because roads come together so weirdly and often too close together. You simply have to learn the booby traps for inexperienced navigators and learn to find your way through them. And there are a lot of them.

The hypocrisy here is rich. As noted above, even native Pittsburgh drivers are liable to confusion when they venture into unfamiliar territory. But they take the bizarre aspects of navigation closer to home for granted and expect you to have mastered them in the way that they have.

More generally, forget about any sense of orientation. Sure, look at your compass. It won’t do you any good. Roads here often bend around terrain and rivers. Very little of this is straight and to the extent that grid systems even exist, they cover small areas. And the appellations on route numbers, such as 51 North or 51 South, presumably apply to broader areas than are useful in the moment. Treat those appellations as designations that help to clarify which ramp you should be using, not as indications of which way you’re going.

Which means you need that damned navigation app if you don’t know where you’re going.

Highways

Except for toll roads, there aren’t very many freeways around Pittsburgh. But anything remotely resembling a freeway has carries a special set of hazards.

Speed

When traffic isn’t heavy, the prevailing speed on highways is generally around fifteen miles over the posted limit. You are likely to be tailgated and honked at if you go any slower. And you’ll see plenty of folks doing twenty or more over the limit.

On-ramps

The weird thing about on-ramps in this part of the world is that they aren’t merges like I’m used to in California. They’re very short, governed by yield signs or even stop signs. And other drivers actually expect you to yield or stop. If you’re wondering how you’re going to do zero to fifteen over the limit (see above) in nothing flat, well, I’m still trying to figure that out, too.

Other hazards

In general, local folks will know which roads should be avoided at all costs. Driving for Uber and Lyft, I’ve never had so many folks warn me off of routes that Google Maps recommends because of potholes.

This section is sure to expand so I’ll try to keep it in alphabetical order.

Century III Mall

The biggie near where I live is Century III Mall, which goes by a mostly closed shopping mall (JC Penney is the sole remaining tenant). Google Maps, naturally, loves it and thinks you should use this road in nearly every circumstance that it could in any way be appropriate. Use it at the risk of your car’s suspension; it has so many potholes that, if they (whomever it is that is responsible for this thing) aren’t going to fix it properly, they should close it. Instead, every once in a while, somebody comes around and dumps some asphalt in some of the holes.

Rialto Street

FireShot Capture 006 - Rialto St - Google Maps - www.google.com
Fig. 5. Screenshot from Google Maps, September 23, 2019. This covers the area around Rialto Street. There are few alternative routes to Troy Hill.

Another problem, harder to avoid, is Rialto Street (figure 5) which effectively connects the 31st Street Bridge over the Allegheny River from the Strip District to Troy Hill. It’s just about the only way to Troy Hill within a reasonable distance. This street is narrow, steep, and, yes, two way. Traffic can be heavy on it because it’s hard to avoid, and getting around that sport utility vehicle (SUV) going the other way is nerve-wracking. And there can be a lot of SUVs here; they’re popular here just like they are anywhere else.

Traffic

Traffic signals

Pittsburgh traffic sucks. And if I had waited in California as long for a traffic signal as long as I routinely do here, I would have seriously considered running it. There are simply way too many cars for these roads and there isn’t much anyone can do about it. Patience isn’t merely a virtue here; it’s a necessity.

This means of course that lots of people are checking their smartphones while waiting at intersections. Of course they do: They’re going to be waiting there for what seems like an interminable period. But where elsewhere people might tap their horn when the light turns green and the driver in front is distracted, here, it’s a blare. I’ve said it before here and I’ll say it again: People here don’t know how to tap their horns.

Lane choices

And one thing you might find rather rapidly is that, given a limited number of lanes in your direction of travel, the lane you want is the one with all the cars in it. Much more often than not. Like I said, the traffic sucks.

Road construction

There is nearly always a lot of construction going on. In part this is because the infrastructure is old. Utilities need to be dug up.

But also, Pittsburgh has winter. Winter wipes away lane markings and introduces pot holes. Repairs therefore may occur in three stages:

  1. Repainting lane markings so folks know where they should be.
  2. Repairing pot holes. Sometimes, as with Century III Mall, this might involve dumping some asphalt in the holes and—if you’re lucky—running over it with a steam roller. Sometimes it means scraping the top surface off and laying down a new surface, which takes a little longer. And sometimes it means digging up the road bed and reconstructing the road, which takes a lot longer.
  3. Repainting the lane markings for repaved roads.

All this occurs in a mad dash during “construction season,” that is, any time other than winter, all so winter can wreak its havoc all over again. And not all of it is gotten to, which means some roads get worse and worse and worse.

Culture

Coming to Pittsburgh from California, I perceive a pervasive sense of resignation that I have rarely encountered before. “It is what it is,” people say, and “if you can drive here, you can drive anywhere.”

I think the difficulties generate a paradoxical juxtaposition.

Extraordinary courtesy

The good part of the paradox is that Pittsburgh drivers are often unexpectedly courteous. They’ll let you cut in, they’ll let you do left turns, they’ll give you a chance because they know that if they don’t, you’ll literally never get a chance to do what you need to do. The courtesy is essential and you absolutely should reciprocate.

The Pittsburgh Left

One aspect of this courtesy is something called the “Pittsburgh Left.” If you’re waiting to do a left turn and the light turns green, drivers proceeding in the opposite direction may allow you to do it before proceeding. For us out-of-towners, this is a really weird thing and not everybody does it. I’m still figuring it out.

Road rage

I now have a sign on my back window that says, “Keep Your Testosterone Off My Tail.” It earns me some approval from women and pretty much everyone I talk to acknowledges that aggressive driving is a problem in Pittsburgh. Indeed, it seems there are a lot of aggressive drivers in Pittsburgh, though it appears not particularly more than, say, some (for me, familiar) spots in California.[5] The sign hasn’t done a thing to shame these assholes into better behavior. But at least I know that some offensive behavior does not go unanswered.

The bad part of the paradox I mentioned above is that road rage here is enormous. Sometimes, for example, if you’re doing anything less than twenty miles per hour over the posted speed limit (40 mph) on Route 51, you’ll get somebody in a testosterone truck, sometimes a coal roller,[6] tailgating you and honking their horn.

And as previously and repeatedly noted, it seems like no one here knows how to just tap on their horn. They’re angels here and they’re assholes, sometimes rolled up into one.

Buses

Among the assholes are bus drivers, who just make up their own rules.

In any other place, hazard blinkers mean a vehicle won’t be moving for a while and that you should try to get around the vehicle. Here, bus drivers use hazard blinkers as a sort of combined right turn signal, for pulling into a bus stop, and left turn signal, for pulling out, and you can only guess when the latter will occur. These assholes are generally reckless and unaccountable, so move around stopped buses at your own risk. In these and other situations, bus drivers will arbitrarily assert right of way, based on their relative size rather than on generally accepted rules of the road.

Mechanics

I’m seeing in a few ways that the consumer protections I took for granted in California are absent here. People here seem to hate everyone automotive, with the former being convinced the latter are out to rip them off. This, of course, forms a feedback: If you’re going to be accused of dishonesty anyway, you might as well reap the benefits of that dishonesty, which of course further feeds the perception of dishonesty.

We’d all be better off with a regime that weeds out bad actors but especially as a Uber and Lyft driver, I simply can’t be playing games with this shit. I honestly don’t know how to do business this way.

Traffic enforcement

In general, and as an older white male, I’ve seen almost no traffic enforcement. But I’ve had Black passengers tell me they take Lyft (Blacks in Pittsburgh seem to disproportionately ride with Lyft) to avoid those unpleasant, costly, and even dangerous police encounters. While some other Black passengers express doubts (I suspect this is about “respectability,” where “respectability” is defined in white terms, irrespective of an entirely different sociocultural history[7]), I have substantial reason to believe that those who allege racism are telling me the truth.[8] My observation is of pervasive systemic and overt racism here and it seems all I can do is to acknowledge it and acknowledge that I most certainly do see it.

Conclusion

In general, driving here requires a high tolerance for ambiguity. Some things should be sensible and aren’t. Lots of things can’t be sensible and aren’t.

  1. [1]Vince Guerrieri, “The Map That Unlocked the Mysteries of Pittsburgh,” CityLab, October 25, 2019, https://www.citylab.com/transportation/2019/10/pittsburgh-street-map-beltway-system-allegheny-county-roads/600658/
  2. [2]Vince Guerrieri, “The Map That Unlocked the Mysteries of Pittsburgh,” CityLab, October 25, 2019, https://www.citylab.com/transportation/2019/10/pittsburgh-street-map-beltway-system-allegheny-county-roads/600658/
  3. [3]Vince Guerrieri, “The Map That Unlocked the Mysteries of Pittsburgh,” CityLab, October 25, 2019, https://www.citylab.com/transportation/2019/10/pittsburgh-street-map-beltway-system-allegheny-county-roads/600658/
  4. [4]David Benfell, “Dear Google Maps (@GoogleMaps), you are intolerable in Pittsburgh,” Not Housebroken, July 27, 2019, https://disunitedstates.org/2019/07/27/dear-google-maps-googlemaps-you-are-intolerable-in-pittsburgh/
  5. [5]KDKA, “Pittsburgh Has Some Of The Nation’s Most Aggressive Drivers, According To Study,” March 17, 2019, https://pittsburgh.cbslocal.com/2019/03/17/pittsburgh-most-aggressive-drivers/
  6. [6]Michael Ballaban, “The EPA Just Said That This Whole ‘Rolling Coal’ Thing Is Illegal,” Jalopnik, July 8, 2014, https://jalopnik.com/the-epa-just-said-that-this-whole-rolling-coal-thing-is-1601808499
  7. [7]David Benfell, “Holding Blacks to white standards,” Not Housebroken, December 25, 2014, https://disunitedstates.org/2014/12/25/holding-blacks-to-white-standards/
  8. [8]David Benfell, “The banners and the guns: Flagrant racism in Pittsburgh,” Not Housebroken, September 22, 2019, https://disunitedstates.org/2019/09/20/the-banners-and-the-guns-flagrant-racism-in-pittsburgh/