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Choose a color and buckle up: Allegheny County's belt system is low tech, but navigable

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA
This is one terminum of the Allegheny County Belt System's red belt. It's at the intersection of PA 366 and East 7th Ave. in Tarentum, Pa. It is the only belt in the rainbow system not to cross any of the county's rivers.

Across the street from the Trolley Stop Inn on Library Road in Bethel Park, there’s a sign. It’s white and rectangular, the lettering is fading a bit, and on the leftmost side is a large orange dot. It’s nearly the size of a basketball and the label boldly proclaims: Orange Belt.

If you live in Allegheny County, you’re probably familiar with these colorful dotted signs.  They’re part of the county beltway system, a series of routes developed in the 1940s by engineer Joseph White.

Credit Katie Blackley / 90.5 WESA
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The orange belt in the Allegheny County Belt System is the longest, running about 91 miles. It was originally supposed to be a complete circle, but a southern section was decommissioned in the 1970s.

Despite their frequency, however, many people in the region have no idea how they work or why they exist.

Good Question! listener Julie Poepping, of Sewickley—which is on the orange belt—said she first started noticing the belt signs when she lived in Greentree—which is on the green belt—and wanted to know more about the navigational tool.

“The signs seem to follow a pretty random path,” Poepping said. “If I start from here and follow the orange belt signs, will I eventually find my way back home? And will I have circumnavigated the city of Pittsburgh.”

The simple answer is: no. But had Poepping chosen blue or yellow, the outcome could be different.

Pittsburgh Community Reinvestment Group Policy Director Chris Sandvig has studied the history of Allegheny County roadways. He said the beltway actually predates the interstate highway system dreamed up by President Dwight Eisenhower in the 1950s. They were originally meant to help drivers avoid the busy and congested Golden Triangle downtown.

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A sign for the blue belt in Pittsburgh's Brighton Heights neighborhood at the intersection of Termon Ave. and Brighton Heights Blvd. on Tuesday, May 2, 2017.

“In Pittsburgh, if you’re trying to get, say, east-west in the South Hills or north-south in the East Hills, you can’t get there from here, right? Everything goes into the city and comes out.” Sandvig said from the PCRG offices in the Hill District. “The belt system was kind of a way to get you around the city.”

Sandvig said the belts weren’t technically built, but labeled. They follow the colors of the rainbow: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple.

Allegheny County Public Works Project Manager Steve Smallhoover said roadways chosen to become a part of the belt system are almost entirely “arterials” or “collectors,” which are non-highway roads designed to hold a higher volume of traffic than a typical neighborhood street.

“They balance land access versus mobility,” Smallhoover said. “They marked them as such so they could come in and follow this route as opposed to coming into town and then going back out.”

The Allegheny County Belt System is different from other “beltways” around the country because it doesn’t divert traffic from the city. Smallhoover said, with the exception of the purple belt, none of the roadways used in the belt system will go downtown.

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The purple belt is not technically part of the Allegheny County Belt System. Rather, it's part of the city's Wayfinder System, which color-codes areas of the city. Downtown and throughout the Cultural District, purple signs point out landmarks or places of interest.

But to call them all belts is a bit of a misnomer, as belts imply a complete circle.  Only the blue, yellow and purple are close—the red, orange and green have more of a u-shape.

According to a 2004 City Paper article by Dawn Patton, the colors of the belt loosely correspond with the character of the routes. Patton writes that the blue belt, for example, 

"Takes you through Crafton, Ingram, McKees Rocks and Homestead, among other formerly industrial neighborhoods."

Patton called the orange belt “The Outdoorsman” because it runs through nearly all of the county’s major parks—North, South, Boyce and Deer Lakes.

The red is the furthest north, hugging the Allegheny County border with Beaver County. Bloggers Michael and Fox Scotto wrote about their journey through the red belt a few years ago. They said following the signs could be tricky, but the drive was very scenic. 

Much of what you pass along the Red Belt is rural, with lots of homes and fields and big, sprawling churches."

If you’re headed along the yellow belt in Plum, keep an eye out for a “cat crossing” sign. It was home to celebrity cat Pudgie Wudgie in the 1980s and '90s. It’ll also get you to the Allegheny County Airport.

The green belt can be especially useful in the summer; it can lead a North Hills family to Kennywood or a McKeesport family to Hartwood Acres.

The purple belt, which is the only maintained by the city of Pittsburgh and not Allegheny County, is the shortest and newest and runs through downtown. It’s technically part of the city’s Wayfinder System, which assigns different parts of the city with different colors. Downtown, for example, is purple, so the “purple  belt” helps drivers navigate the Cultural District.

When the highways were finally built and drivers started using them, the beltway system fell into some disrepair. But the county didn’t give up on them. Dave Wright, who, like Smallhoover, is a project manager for Allegheny County Public Works, said when he was hired in 1970, one of his main tasks was figuring out how to improve the belt system.

“What we did was we replaced all the signs with new signs at each intersection. Where there was a turn, we put in six signs,” Wright said.

This is part of our Good Question! series where we investigate what you've always wondered about Pittsburgh, its people and its culture.

Two signs were put in each direction, another included arrows pointing to significant landmarks or cities and another was “confirmation” sign, to reassure drivers they had reached the belt.

Wright said the new signs weren’t only brighter, but shinier. When the original signs were installed, reflective signage wasn’t common, but by the time Wright joined the Public Works Department, companies had researched the best way to get the most life out of signs.

We asked on Twitter how residents interact with the Allegheny County Belt System:

After blogging about the red belt in 2013, the Scottos said they’re planning to document their most trips around the rest of the belts in hopes to provide better, more accurate directions.

“It’s pretty interesting to travel the beltways because you connect different parts of town that maybe you wouldn’t in your imagination,” Michael Scotto said. “It’s kind of fun rediscovering Pittsburgh in that way—getting from place to place in unexpected ways.”

With highways available, many have said the belt system has become irrelevant, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a use for them. In a 1991 Pittsburgh atlas called “Pittsburgh Figured Out,” the beltway system is called “indispensable” for navigating “tough” county backroads. They even claim newcomers in suburbs “swear they could not have survived without them.”

A few other people have also traveled the belt system and documented their experience, too. Check out this Youtube channel,Cruising Pittsburgh, and watch Rick Sebak's special "Things That Are Still Here."

While the belt system may not be the most efficient way of getting around anymore, it’s still a great way to get to know the region and re-imagine how the county is connected.

What have you always wondered about the Pittsburgh region? Submit to our Good Question!series and we’ll go investigate and find answers. 

Katie Blackley is a digital editor/producer for 90.5 WESA, where she writes, edits and generates both web and on-air content for features and daily broadcast. She's the producer and host of our Good Question! series and podcast. She also covers history and the LGBTQ community.