Pittsburgh presents the profile of a bustling metropolis, but in a size and scale that's easy to grasp and maneuver. It is not exactly an urban planner's dream city, however. The hilly terrain, multitude of rivers, bridges and tunnels, and winding suburban roads preclude any pretense of the traditional city grid. We just don't have city "blocks" here. Downtown Pittsburgh is even laid out in a triangle shape, as it sits right at the point where the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers meet to form the Ohio.
Geography of Pittsburgh
An easy way to orient yourself is to divide Pittsburgh into four sections: the North and South Sides and the East and West Ends, with downtown positioned conveniently right in the center of it all.
Both the North Side and South Side are divided further into the "flats," the areas which begin flat along the rivers across from downtown, and the "slopes," the neighborhoods which quickly sprawl up the hills which cocoon downtown Pittsburgh on the north and south.
Tucked into the nooks and crannies of the four sections are the 88 distinctive neighborhoods which make up Pittsburgh, linked by winding streets, steep stairways and even a few inclines.
Getting Around Town
Downtown Pittsburgh occupies a compact 50-acre area bordered by Grant Street to the east, Penn Avenue to the north and the Boulevard of the Allies to the south. You're never more than a few blocks to your destination, and downtown is easy to walk and nicely scaled for pedestrian enjoyment - with parks and plazas spaced conveniently between office towers and retail corridors.
Outside of downtown, public transportation links the outlying city neighborhoods and suburbs.
The Port Authority of Allegheny County has more than 875 buses, 83 light rail vehicles and the Monongahela and Duquesne Inclines to help you get around Pittsburgh
- Subway - The 'T' - Pittsburgh's small but clean and safe 25.2-mile subway and light rail system, the 'T' serves downtown Pittsburgh with a four-stop loop including stops at Steel Plaza at Grant Street, Gateway Center Plaza (Liberty Avenue and Stanwix Street), Wood Street, and the First Avenue Parking Garage. Underground, the music is classical, the art whimsical and travel within downtown Pittsburgh is free. The subway will also deliver you across the river to Station Square on the South Side for a minimal fare. After traveling under the Monongahela River, the 'T' runs above ground along three different light rail lines into Pittsburgh's south suburbs.
- Public Bus - Multiple bus routes connect downtown Pittsburgh to cultural and other attractions on the North Side and Oakland as well as to the majority of the neighborhoods surrounding Pittsburgh. The Port Authority also sponsors the ACCESS program, the nation’s largest paratransit program of its kind for senior citizens and persons with disabilities.
- Duquesne & Monongahela Inclines - Thousands of visitors each year marvel at the breathtaking view of the city of Pittsburgh while riding two of only a few remaining inclines in the country, the Monongahela ('Mon') & Duquesne Inclines -- which run up and down Mt. Washington just across the Monongahela River from downtown Pittsburgh. Many residents also use the inclines on a daily basis to get down to the base of Mt. Washington where they can hop a bus or the 'T' over to downtown Pittsburgh.
The Port Authority of Allegheny County operates its buses, light rail cars, and inclines under a zone fare structure where the amount of fare is based on trip length from Pittsburgh's Golden Triangle or Central Business District. Higher fares are paid for trips crossing more than one zone. Fares are collected as the rider boards on an inbound, or downtown-bound trip and as the rider exits the outbound or suburban-bound trip, with some exceptions.
Since Port Authority operators neither carry change nor make change, riders must be prepared to pay exact fare or pay an amount in excess of the prevailing fare. Check out the Port Authority of Allegheny County Web site for zone maps, an interactive bus schedule locater, fare information, bus routes, disability access and to purchase bus tickets and passes. You can also use Google Transit to search for Pittsburgh public transportation routes using interactive Google Maps technology.
Taxi service is available in the Greater Pittsburgh area. The area's two largest cab companies are Yellow Cab and People's Cab. As a warning for visitors from other cities, don't expect to be able to hail a cab anytime you want. Cabs in Pittsburgh generally require a phone call to arrange for a pickup or a walk to the nearest hotel cab stand.
Cabs are also available at the Pittsburgh International Airport.
Zipcar offers a car-sharing option for Pittsburgh residents and visitors, especially those in the downtown and Oakland neighborhoods. With a ZipCar account, you share access to any of fifty vehicles. All you need to do is reserve a car online or by phone, and then return to the car's designated parking space when you're done, all for one hourly rate that covers gas, premium insurance, and 150 free miles.
Getting to Pittsburgh couldn't be easier since Pittsburgh is located within a two-hour flight or a day's drive of more than half of the U.S. and Canadian populations. The city is serviced by a vast interstate highway system, full Greyhound schedules, Amtrak passenger rail service from both the East Coast and Midwest and one of the top airports in the world.
Highways to Pittsburgh
From the North and South, Pittsburgh is easily accessed via I-79.
Coming from the North you will exit I-79 onto I-279 at a point just south of Wexford, PA. This road is officially named the Raymond P. Shafer highway, but you will hear locals refer to it as the Parkway North. Coming from the south on I-79, you will also exit onto I-279, aka US 22/30, Penn Lincoln Highway, and the Parkway West (there is no Parkway South). From here you can also connect with Route 60 to the airport.
The main access to Pittsburgh from the East/West is via the Pennsylvania Turnpike, I-76. There are four Pittsburgh exits: Exit 28 in Cranberry (Route 19, Perry Highway), Exit 39 in Gibsonia (Route 8, Butler Valley), Exit 48 in Harmarville (Allegheny Valley) and Exit 57 in Monroeville (best access to Pittsburgh). Coming from the East you will exit the PA Turnpike in Monroeville (Exit 57) to connect to the Parkway East (also known as I-376, US 22/30 and the Penn Lincoln Parkway).
Coming from the Northwest (Cleveland) you exit at Route 19 (Exit 28) and follow Route 19 (Perry Highway) to I-79S. Interstates 70 and 68, which both connect to I-79 south of Pittsburgh, also provide access from the East/West.
Bus Service to Pittsburgh
A second bus terminal is located in Monroeville at 220 Mall Circle Drive, near the Monroeville Mall. They also provided limited service to/from a bus stop at the Pittsburgh Airport.
Pittsburgh's Amtrak train station is located right across from the Greyhound bus terminal, just east of Grant Street on Liberty Avenue, in the basement of the Pennsylvanian. Two Amtrak passenger routes service Pittsburgh daily: the Capitol Limited (Washington D.C., Pittsburgh, Chicago) and the Pennsylvanian (Pittsburgh to New York City). Pittsburgh has access to the full Amtrak system, but some destinations may require a bus/train combination.
Pittsburgh International Airport
The Pittsburgh International Airport is one of the world's most modern airport terminal complexes, opened in October 1992. Service there is not nearly what it once was as a hub for US Airways, down from its peak of nearly 590 daily, non-stop flights to 119 cities in 2000, to less than 250 flights per day to about 50 destinations. Pittsburgh International serves as a "focus city" for USAirways and is also serviced by all other major U.S. airlines, including Southwest, American, United, Delta, AirTran and Northwest. Recently voted as the #1 airport in the United States and #3 in the world by readers of Conde Naste Traveler.
With serpentine streets and many hills and valleys, Pittsburgh can be notoriously difficult to navigate without a good map. Conventional maps will usually do the trick, but a great resource for visitors residents alike is Pittsburgh Figured Out, a locally-produced collection of easy-to-follow maps and insider tips on everything from hassle-free parking to short-cuts to the airport. This book is available from most major book sellers.
Driving around Pittsburgh became much easier during the summer of 1994 when new city-wide signage - the Wayfinder System - was created to help residents and visitors navigate from one part of the city to another. The Pittsburgh Wayfinder System organizes Pittsburgh into five regions, each represented by a corresponding color. The Wayfinder System creates a loop, the Purple Belt, around the periphery of Pittsburgh's downtown pointing the way to walk or drive to such major attractions as the Andy Warhol Museum and Fort Pitt Block House. Practical visitor information such as parking is also part of the signage system.
Since Pittsburgh doesn't have an Interstate Beltway, leaving the two main Interstates running through Pittsburgh very congested at times, the Pittsburgh Belt Route System was constructed to provide a series of marked alternate routes around the city. Six color-coded loops surround Pittsburgh and link various towns, highways and important sites such as the two airports.
The colors of the Belt Route system are arranged in order of the rainbow - the outermost belt is Red, followed by Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue and Purple (the Purple belt is the Wayfinder System mentioned above). A few of the routes do not form complete loops because they meet the outside edge of Allegheny County.
The Belt Route system is pretty complete and well-maintained. Pretty much anywhere you come to an intersection along a belt route, you will find a new sign, so they can be relied on to get you where you planned to go. The AAA Pittsburgh Downtown & Vicinity map shows the Color Belt system. The laminated Rand McNally EasyFinder Pittsburgh map is another good choice.
If you are traveling into downtown Pittsburgh from the East, South or West you will probably arrive through a tunnel. I-376 (the Parkway East) travels through the Squirrel Hill Tunnel from the east, truck 19 travels through Pittsburgh via the Liberty Tunnel (Liberty Tubes) from the South and the Fort Pitt Tunnels and Fort Pitt Bridge connect the southern and western suburbs of Pittsburgh to the Golden Triangle via I-279. Be careful when driving through these tunnels and their connecting bridges for the first time - many of the signs are on the overhead spans and are hard to see until you are practically underneath them.
Pittsburgh is affectionately known as the City of Bridges for good reason - over 1700 bridges exist in Allegheny County alone! Pittsburgh bridges are truly remarkable, both for their beauty and variety.
People often brag that no two bridges here are alike in color or design, with the exception of the identical Sixth, Seventh and Ninth street bridges (known as the Three Sisters). The Smithfield Street Bridge holds the prestigious designation as the country's oldest steel bridge - it was designed and built in 1845 and is still used by thousands of cars and pedestrians each day.
Rules of the Road - the Pittsburgh Left
For people visiting Pittsburgh for the first time, I have to add a word of warning - watch out for the Pittsburgh Left! Essentially, this means that when you are stopped at the front of a line of cars at a red light and the car across from you has its left turn-signal on, they are going to expect you to let them go first. This tradition began because most streets in Pittsburgh are narrow and are also filled with parked cars, allowing for only one lane of traffic in each direction.
Therefore someone waiting to turn left at a light is going to hold up their entire lane of traffic, unless someone lets them through. It's known as the "Pittsburgh Left" because it is not only tolerated in this area, it's expected. Try it in any other city in the country and you're bound to get a good number of irate drivers flipping you off.
More Pittsburgh Driving Tips
- You can't get there from here
- Many Pittsburgh entrance and exit ramps have stop signs instead of yield signs. Pittsburgher's will often come to a full stop prior to slowly merging, even on ramps that do have yield signs.
- Everyday is "Sunday" here, so watch out for slowpokes!
- Pittsburgh drivers are more polite than most so watch out for people in front of you who may be stopped in the roadway to allow someone to turn left in front of them or enter from a side road.
- Most roads in Pittsburgh are two lanes with narrow to non-existent shoulders and lots of twists and turns. Watch out for joggers, bikers, and pedestrians!
Parking in downtown Pittsburgh can be expensive and hard to find, just as in most large cities. Daily rates run from about $8 to $16 for most downtown garages. Parking spots are a rare commodity during the Monday-Friday work week for people without leases. The tip to finding economical parking in downtown is to look to some of the fringe lots. Parking can be found for as low as $4 per day with just a short walk or shuttle ride to town.
Because much of Pittsburgh was built prior to the introduction of the automobile, there are few driveways in many of the older neighborhoods. People here park on the street leaving a fairly narrow strip open for driving purposes. This can leave spots in many Pittsburgh neighborhoods hard to come by as well. It's not uncommon for people to park several blocks away from home, or to leave a lawn chair out at the curb to "save" their spot. Some neighborhoods offer on-street parking for residents only (Resident Parking Permit signs will be posted). There are also designated street-cleaning days - signs are posted which announce when on-street parking is prohibited. Metered parking is also available in many city neighborhoods.
A Sampling of Downtown Parking Alternatives
*rates listed here may not be the most current
North Shore Parking Garage
This newer facility on Pittsburgh's North Shore (across the Allegheny River from downtown) provides 925 parking spaces for sporting events, non-gameday activities, and daily commuters.
Rates: $3 for up to two hours, $7 for two to four hours and $9 for more than four hours (Pirates Games $15; Steelers Games $25)
CONSOL Energy Center Parking Lots
Five different lots surround the CONSOL Energy Center with a total of 2,500 spaces, plus a 500-space garage with special parking for compact and environmentally friendly cars.
As long as you leave those lots by 6:30 p.m., you are not charged an additional fee if there is an event at the arena.
Rates: $6.00 - $8.00 per day (Special event rates for concerts, Penguins games, etc. can vary—generally in the $15–$25 range).
Monongahela Wharf Parking Lot
The Mon Wharf parking lot is located under the Fort Pitt Boulevard on the Monongahela River - next to Point State Park and directly across the river from Station Square. A great, inexpensive alternative to downtown parking garages, but its 860 spaces are closed several times per year due to flooding.
Rates: $8 max rate per day ($2 - $5 after 4:00 p.m. or for special events and weekends)
Strip District Parking
Several parking lots (over 3000 spaces) are available between 11th Street and the 16th Street Bridge and offer a short walk or bus ride to uptown.
Rates: range from $5.00 - $12.00 per day
Station Square Parking
A short, easy walk across the Smithfield Street bridge from downtown, Station Square offers 4 outdoor parking lots and a 4-level covered parking garage for a total of 3,500 spaces. The 'T' also runs from Station Square to downtown.
Rates: $6–$15 daily (Special event rates as posted, also in the $6–$15 range)
More Parking Information:
Pittsburgh Parking Authority
Operates nine (9) parking garages, 38 off-street surface parking lots, three (3) attended lots (Parking Plazas) and all on-street metered parking spaces in the City of Pittsburgh. Check their Web site for locations, to search by neighborhood and to find current rates.
Reserved Downtown Parking
Coming into town for a day and don't want to waste time driving from garage to garage trying to find a free space? The Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership Reserved Parking Service allows you to reserve your parking space in advance through their online concierge service or by telephone. The service is available any day Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. in participating Pittsburgh Parking Authority's Downtown garages and select Alco Parking lots.
There is no extra fee (outside of the regular parking cost) associated with this reserved parking service.
Parking at the Pittsburgh International Airport
Learn more about parking options and rates.