Driving in Pittsburgh is confusing. The streets aren’t on a grid system and going over the wrong bridge could result in a long, unwelcomed detour.
Learning to maneuver the city’s streets is frustrating, but listener Ron Dylewski found that merging onto the region’s highways to be particularly challenging.
“Why are there so many on-ramps in the Pittsburgh area that are so dangerous and so short?” Dylewski asked.
To get into the city, Dylewski takes the Virginia Avenue Extension from Aspinwall, which gives drivers about 900 feet to accelerate to the speed of traffic on Route 28. He said it’s nearly impossible to match the highway’s traffic because of the lane’s short distance.
“Meanwhile, you have to wait for people to be kind or, not, to let you in,” he said. “I think Pittsburgh struggles with this dichotomy of should I speed up and merge, or should I sit here and wait?”
Dylewski’s not alone. Many other Pittsburghers were eager to talk about their most hated merge points around the city, including Reese McArdle, who grew up in Edgewood. Driving home, he used to frequent the on-ramp from Greenfield to the Parkway East. The stretch of road is on the side of a hill and forces drivers to come to a stop, before merging into traffic travelling at highway speeds.
"[Then you have to] step on the gas, get up to speed as quickly as possible and... get out of the lane, unless you want to exit and do the whole thing over again," he said.
Listener Jerry Fitzgibbon’s frustrating ramp leads to Bates Street in Oakland from the Parkway where traffic sometimes backs up both ways.
“You can actually roll down your window and have a conversation with somebody that’s going to other way,” he said.
Safety was a recurring theme when we talked to drivers. Listener Kate Schaich said she’s seen many near-accidents on the Parkway East.
“It gets to be really dangerous because people panic and jerk their wheel because they go, ‘Oh! Oh no! I’m supposed to get off here!’ and then end up careening across two lanes of traffic,” she said, referring to the on-ramp before the Squirrel Hill Tunnel.
On the other side of the city, there’s the on-ramp from Greentree to the Parkway West. It’s another stop sign on-ramp where drivers have only a few feet to zoom into traffic flying by at 60 or 70 miles per hour.
Dylweski said ideally, drivers should “zipper” one after another to merge, which he said would reduce congestion. But, he said, that doesn’t often happen in Pittsburgh.
“Because it’s so difficult to merge, a lot of people will get into the left lane 2 miles before they need to because they’re afraid people aren’t going to let them in.”
In the infrastructure's defense, most of Pittsburgh’s highways were built in the mid-20th Century, they weren’t really made to be highways like in other parts of the country. University of Pittsburgh Civil Engineering Professor Mark Magalotti said most of the region’s parkways were built in the 1950s and '60s, early in the era of interstate highways.
Designing highways back then involved a different process, with far fewer standards than are used today, he said. Cars weren’t as fast when the roads were built and there weren’t as many of them. Plus, unlike younger cities where there might be a high speed local, or, arterial road, adjacent to a major highway for residents to take for shorter trips, Pittsburgh is very dense.
“In cities like Pittsburgh people use the freeways almost like a local road. They make very short trips to get to one interchange or another and that's really not what they're designed for,” he said.
Younger cities, he said, are more likely to be on a grid system, or designed concurrently with major highways, so residents had alternate, local routes. In a 2011 report for PennDOT, Magalotti studied the efficiency of Pennsylvania’s ramps and provided recommendations to improve them. The most common fix to these short ramps, he said, is lengthening them during rehabilitation periods.
“They do look for opportunities to extend those and where possible they will do it,” Magalotti said. “But in many cases, they're limited by bridges and hillsides and other things that make it almost impossible to do.”
PennDOT has also looked into “ramp management strategies.” This typically means crews install traffic signals on ramps to regulate flow. The lights would change to allow ramp traffic to merge, depending on the congestion levels of the freeway.
Other states, including Minnesota and Wisconsin, have been utilizing ramp management for decades. In the Pittsburgh area, however, Magalotti said there’s been pushback from communities closer to the city who feel like installing traffic lights would make their commute longer because as they see it, traffic coming further would be prioritized. They’d have to wait at a light while the out-of-towners fly by.
“I think that [PennDOT] pretty much decided not to do it and maybe look for some other solutions to the problem,” Magalotti said.
In lieu of extending ramps or implementing traffic lights, PennDOT has focused on adding signage and preparing drivers for congestion and upcoming merges. That’s why there are a lot of signs instructing when and how to merge on Pittsburgh-area highways, even if, as this meme lovingly points out, drivers only have 100 feet to read them.