Driving in the 'Burgh

© copyright 1998, 1999, 2001, 2008, 2009, 2010
Gregg Podnar

Driving in Pittsburgh has many unique qualities. Some say this is due to the fact that Pittsburgh is built on a small black hole. Barring loose reference to the local coal mines, this fact has not yet been firmly established. Nevertheless, it is a useful model for explaining some of the features inherent in getting around around here. There is no direct route between any two points.

Pittsburgh is the only place I've lived where you can look out your living room window and be looking down on the roof of your next-door neighbor. Some streets are so steep they can't get the paving equipment up them; but people still drive on them. Some are so steep that the sidewalk is concrete steps with handrail. Some streets are not even streets, but are only a staircase (with a street sign to identify it)! It's fun to find one of these on a map thinking you can drive along that line but discover the reality when you get there.


There's the Northside, the Southside, the East End, and the West End. However, when someone tells you how to get somewhere, they never mention the points of the compass. There are really only two directions in Pittsburgh: there's "Towards Town" and "Away From Town". No matter where you go, people know which way to go to get to town (maybe because they can find their way home from there).

When you first drive in Pittsburgh, you learn how to get home from downtown (dahn'tahn). When you drive around, you get lost and end up on Penn Avenue. You drive for a while, and if you don't start to see downtown, you turn around, go downtown, and go home from downtown. Once you learn this, you are nearly as proficient as anyone at getting around.

It has been pointed out that most directions will not include street names. This is because until recently about 99.873% of the streets did not have signs. People have learned to give directions another way. When they say, "Go about a half mile and turn right..." they mean anywhere from 200 yards to a mile. If you ask after the street name, they'll tell you they "don't know it, just turn right." One clue that you are not lost is that other cars will be turning right there too, even if it looks like a side street, it will be a major route.

From Point-A to Point-B

Pittsburgh is the only place you can go from Point-A to Point-B, making fifteen consecutive lefts, and never cross your path. On the other hand, there are a few roads which manage to cross themselves. It is unwise to attempt to go around the block to get back to a turn you missed; you may end up in Pottsville.

You know how to get from Point-A to Point-B, and you know how to get from Point-A to Point-C. But to go from Point-B to Point-C, you have to go home first.

Every now and then, you are on the route from Point-A to Point-B, and you need to find a drug store. You make a left, and all of a sudden find yourself on the route from Point-A to Point-C. You've just folded space in the fourth dimension.

Everybody gets from Point-A to Point-B a different way. This may be why, when a major route is closed for repairs, it doesn't seem to affect traffic much (except a tunnel). If you go to the mall with a friend, the conversation often goes like this:
"Where are you going?"
"To the mall."
"How do you get to the mall this way?"

You will find that you go from Point-A to Point-B using one route, and from Point-B back to Point-A using a different route. Further, on the first route, you will drive along a piece of road going one direction, and on the way home, you will drive along the same piece of road, going the same direction, and it will make sense to you.

Going Home

Wherever you go, when you decide to go home, you know your route from there. Interestingly enough, you can often see another spot, like that other end of a bridge, or that intersection off to the left; and had you been there, you would go home following an entirely different route. But you wouldn't think of driving over there to go home from there. Sometimes, if you're just parked facing town, you take one route, but if you're parked facing away from town you take a different one. It just isn't worth trying to turn around to take the other route.

It's fun when people come to visit from out of town. You'll take them, say, to the store. On the way home, they are completely lost, you turn a corner, and you're home. Then you go out to a restaurant. On the way home, they are lost again (a different route), you turn a different corner, and, your home. This goes on for the whole visit.

One fun activity with visitors is to take them up Mount Washington, or the West End Overlook. After identifying some interesting landmarks, choose one, and try to get there. If you make it, look back from whence you came. Choose another spot, and try to get there. You won't get home 'till after dark.

If your visiting friends drive you around, you'll invariably come to an intersection where they have to turn left, or right. When you tell them: "Turn either way, it doesn't matter." they get perplexed. But you can get them there either way, and it's about the same; there's no direct route between any two points.


It is difficult to drive a large vehicle in Pittsburgh. Truck drivers have to be real pros to maneuver around some of the turns.

Busses are rude: if a bus driver can catch your eye, the bus will cut you off. Also, busses don't pull to the curb to pick-up or discharge passengers, so you can't get by while they are stopped.

Most people in cars are pretty much asleep (except when they let someone turn left in front of them (see below)). Car drivers never see bicycles. There are some who try to hit bicycles, but most of them just don't notice bicycles (wear a helmet).

The Pittsburgh Turn Signal is not to signal until just starting to make the turn (unless they are at the head of the line turning left (see below)). You can sit behind someone for two minutes at a light, and not until the light turns green, and they start to roll, will you see their blinker. It has been suggested this custom originated with thrifty drivers trying to save the turn signal lamps.

The Parkway

All multi-lane, limited access roads around Pittsburgh are called "the Parkway". No one knows why. The Parkway East, the Parkway West, the Parkway North (that's new). When they build the southerly bypass to the Parkway East around the Squirrel Hill tunnels it will probably be named the Parkway South.

Pittsburghers are not prolific at changing lanes or merging. So they tend to get into the lane they want to end up in as early as possible (maybe so they can sleep most of the way home). When there's roadwork ahead, they will get into the open lane at the first warning, leaving the other lane empty for miles. (They'll be mad at you if you use it to the merge point. Some will straddle two lanes to block you.) Signs have to be erected which order: "Merge at Merge Point". Pittsburghers then politely take turns merging. But not at parkway entrances.

Pittsburgh is the only place where the bottom of the parkway entrance acceleration ramp can have a stop sign (the Squirrel Hill on-ramp is a riot: 1) stop, 2) foot-to-the-floor, 3) through the exit ramp chicane, 4) then into the tunnel). Many people go to the end of a normal accelleration ramp and stop anyway, waiting for a long gap in their rear-view mirrors.

Left Turns

Because most streets are filled with parked cars, there is generally only one lane of traffic in each direction. When you are at the front of the line, waiting for a light, and the person facing you has their left turn signal on, you are set up for the Pittsburgh Left. You wave them on, or flash your lights, and they shoot across just as the light begins to change. If you don't, they wait for the whole light, as does everyone behind them.


Pittsburgh developed greatly near the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, before all the cars were built. Hence, there are few driveways; most everyone parks on the street. This makes most streets fairly narrow for driving purposes. Parking in town or near the universities is so lucrative an endeavor, that it is suggested this is the reason there is less gambling and prostitution in Pittsburgh.

If the snows of winter are deep, the plow (if it comes), builds a wall of snow between the driving lane, and your car. Digging out a 'slip' is enough effort that people place old chairs in the empty spot when they go away. This reserves the spot so they have a place to park on their return home. Most people respect this custom. But some will move your chair. (Others will steal your chair.)

Orbiting for a parking place is not uncommon. Otherwise, you have to park a few blocks away to carry all the groceries home.

If you see someone heading for a parked car with keys-in-hand, it is customary to put on your turn signal. This claims the spot as yours. Only newcomers choose to ignore this message and try to zip in and steal the spot.


They say it's because of the hills, but this may be too simple an explanation. The Fort Pitt tunnels, the Squirrel Hill tunnels, and the Liberty Tubes are the primary thoroughfares. There is also the transit tunnel, the tunnel-to-nowhere, and extra points if you actually manage to use the Armstrong tunnels (they curve) to get somewhere rather than when hopelessly lost near down town.

You may also notice that going through a tunnel transports you from one kind of place to an entirely different kind of place, not unlike Dorothy in Oz. The best one is entering the city from the Airport where you leave a verdant undeveloped area and come out to a spectacular view of down town.

There is a kind of warping that happens in the tunnels. As people drive through them, it has been pointed out that they go slower and slower. Before a tunnel, traffic may be backed up for miles, but once through it's clear and fast. Same two lanes.

It has been conjectured that this is a time-space compression due the accelleration not of the drivers, but of the small black holes which the tunnels represent. Compressing space through that seeming void in a hillside suggests that there may be something more in those hills than coal.