Pittsburgh driving 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—Pittsburgh driving would in many cases be impossible without it—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.[1] I’m still figuring it out.

One thing to watch out for with the Pittsburgh Left is that some drivers just assume you’re going to let them do it and barge right on through. Coming off Crosstown Boulevard (the connector with the Liberty Bridge) at the intersection with Forbes and Sixth Avenue, you’ll typically see three or four vehicles proceed right on through from the opposing direction, doing their left turns after they’ve gotten a red arrow and you’ve gotten a green—this at an intersection with restricted visibility due to pillars supporting an elevated roadway. Enter intersections gingerly—you really don’t know what the fuck anybody else is going to do.

The Pittsburgh Left doesn’t just apply with traffic signals. One of the hardest things for me to adjust to here is that, particularly when I’m trying to turn on to a busy street from a side street, drivers intending a left turn from that busy street onto that same side street may stop, allowing me to go. Because the streets are narrow, their action blocks traffic, making the maneuver safe, but being from California where the streets are wider, I don’t realize and lack confidence that it is safe.

Hand signals

So much is confusing or poorly laid out in Pittsburgh intersections that drivers will often give hand signals to each other.

I don’t mean the one-finger salute. These are motions for “you go first, so my turn will be easier,” or “you go first, simply because I think it’s really your turn,” or “you go first, because if I don’t let you go, you’re never gonna get a chance,” or sometimes, I swear, “I don’t feel like going, so you go,” or “thanks!”

Sometimes, not always at night, drivers will flick their high beams to mean the same things. Of course, this is a lot more ambiguous. And sometimes, they’ll just sit there, giving you no signal whatsoever. That’s the most ambiguous of all.

In other places I’ve been, I’ve hardly ever seen these. Indeed, I recall a traffic school instructor warning of liability should anything bad happen as a consequence of such a signal.

In Pittsburgh, they’re routine. Get used to watching for them. Get used to giving them. It’s all part of the negotiation that is essential for people to get where they’re going.

But I enter intersections gingerly, much more so than I ever did in California. Because the truth is, I still don’t know what anyone’s going to do.

Road rage


Fig. 1. Sign created by author and affixed to his rear window.

I now have a sign on my back window that says, “Keep Your Testosterone Off My Tail” (figure 1). 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.[2] 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.


Figs. 2-4. Photographs by author, June 26, 2020, June 6, 2020, and May 11, 2020.

And it isn’t just me (figures 2-4). Various folks have various messages, many quite clever, at least one nonverbal, meant to accomplish the same end, and as you drive around, you’ll find a number of company vehicles with stickers afixed to their backs informing road ragers that the drivers of these vehicles will abide by the speed limit because their speeds are monitored by GPS (for example, figure 5). The indignant self-righteousness of speeders and tailgaters (oh, by the way, they won’t allow you to slow down to make a turn, either) is a real problem, it’s widely recognized, and as near as I can tell, the cops generally only care about your speed or about tailgating if you’re Black.
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Fig. 5. Photograph by author, August 12, 2020.

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,[3] 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.

In general, you need to do all the work of avoiding collisions with buses, because bus drivers are at best mildly interested in avoiding collisions with you.

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[4]), I have substantial reason to believe that those who allege racism are telling me the truth.[5] 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.


This page is part of a section on driving in Pittsburgh:

  1. [1]Katie Blackley, “How The Pittsburgh Left Became Embedded In City Driving,” WESA, July 28, 2020, https://www.wesa.fm/post/how-pittsburgh-left-became-embedded-city-driving
  2. [2]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/
  3. [3]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
  4. [4]David Benfell, “Holding Blacks to white standards,” Not Housebroken, December 25, 2014, https://disunitedstates.org/2014/12/25/holding-blacks-to-white-standards/; Michael Harriot, “Why We Never Talk About Black-on-Black Crime: An Answer to White America’s Most Pressing Question,” Root, October 3, 2017, https://www.theroot.com/why-we-never-talk-about-black-on-black-crime-an-answer-1819092337
  5. [5]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/