I used to ride my bike to work every day from the North Side, normally across the 16th Street Bridge to the Strip District and then up Smallman Street to my office on Penn Avenue.
The other bridge options to get from the North Side across the Allegheny for that journey were the 31st Street & 40th Street bridges, though both seemed a bit more like highways, and I didn’t feel like Russian rouletting my commute just for some variety.
But about a month after I started that job in 2010, part of the 31st Street Bridge was blocked off for some construction on Route 28. It was closed off with sandbags and some signs saying it was closed to cars. On my ride home down Penn Avenue every day, I would stare (longingly) at the empty bridge, wondering what it was like to see the city from that perspective, right in the center, without having to rush.
The bridge was closed to cars — but I wasn’t in a car. I was on a bike, as people occasionally reminded me as they shouted from their speeding cars. And even though I probably shouldn’t have, one afternoon after work, I decided to take my bike past the signs and see what the view and experience was like without cars speeding past me.
It was magnificent. The sounds of traffic dropped away as I rode away from Penn Avenue toward the center of the 31st Street Bridge. The only time I’d had the chance to experience the city from the center of the bridges was on Pittsburgh Marathon Sundays when I and hundreds of other people not participating in the marathon raced out of our houses to run and ride and cartwheel across the car-free bridges before the marathon reached them.
Construction provides a new perspective
It was nearly impossible to hear the sounds of traffic from the middle of the 31st Street Bridge — an experience I don’t recall ever having before.
Almost every day after work that summer, I stopped for a private hang out and reading break in a spot previously claimed by automobiles whose occupants sped across without ever enjoying the views of the river and the city the way a person spending time on the bridge could. I always carried a book with me and when I got to the middle of the bridge, I sat on the sidewalk, crossing my legs and settled in close to the edge so I could see the Allegheny behind the words.
And that’s when I began thinking how wonderful it would be for everyone to be able to have this experience, spending time over the river, appreciating the city I loved, from a unique perspective.
Bridges are important structures in cities and towns, providing vital connections between communities, and Pittsburgh is known, among other things, as the City of Bridges.
It’s often said that Pittsburgh has 446 bridges — a dramatic figure that’s stuck in the public imagination for over a century. It’s included in history museums, has been quoted by local government, and even presidents, as when President Biden recently visited Pittsburgh to explore the progress of the reconstructed Fern Hollow bridge. A few dozen of those span the three rivers, while the others join them in making transportation possible across and over a city with complicated geography.
As I was sitting on the 31st Street Bridge, enjoying the breeze and the view over the Allegheny River that summer in 2010, I couldn’t stop wondering: Why are some of the greatest architectural achievements of the city ones that need to be rushed over, with little or no opportunity for everyone to stop and enjoy the views of the city and the rivers?
And that’s when the idea first occurred to me: Why not make one of these bridges just for people — permanently? For people to walk, to bike, to just be? For picnics, for photo shoots, for memories?
The quiet and the beauty during the construction that closed the 31st Street Bridge to cars was a great inspiration, but that span doesn’t make sense for permanent closure. There are not enough businesses on either side to generate foot traffic and so there are rarely pedestrian crowds. And closing the 31st Street Bridge would leave a large gap for people in cars, on bikes and on foot to cross the Allegheny River between the 16th Street & 40th Street bridges.
Bridges to opportunities
But Downtown is a whole other story — and it is filled with possibilities to create new stories.
Downtown Pittsburgh has numerous bridges that cross both the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers, including the three bridges which have defined the Pittsburgh skyline and landscape for nearly a century.
The three bridges named for Roberto Clemente, Rachel Carson and Andy Warhol are commonly referred to as the Three Sisters Bridges and they are the only set of three bridges that are (almost) identical within the United States. These architectural wonders were built between 1924 and 1928 and their yellow-gold color is an iconic part of the skyline that brightens Pittsburgh, particularly on the hundreds of gray days that the city receives annually.
Connecting Downtown and the North Side, and owned by Allegheny County, the Three Sisters Bridges exist within the perfect density of cross-river options to make a people-only bridge a permanent possibility.
The people of Pittsburgh are already accustomed to occasional opportunities to enjoy the city over the rivers when the Roberto Clemente Bridge is closed to car traffic and opened for people, like on home game days for the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Steelers, or for events, like the wildly popular and internationally celebrated Picklesburgh.
Why not make it permanent? Nashville did.
Cars could easily take the Rachel Carson or Andy Warhol bridges without any inconvenience. It may seem weird initially but people will get used to it and then find it hard to imagine going back.
Closing one bridge to cars and opening it to people would create even more ways for pedestrians and cyclists to enjoy the outdoors and reap the many health benefits associated with being active.
It worked in Tennessee.
On a recent visit to my hometown of Nashville for a conference, I walked down Broadway, past dozens of music venues to see one of the longest pedestrian bridges in the world: The John Seigenthaler Pedestrian Bridge. The name is admittedly a bit challenging to remember and it’s often just called by its former names, the Shelby Avenue Bridge or Shelby Street Bridge, or referred to as the Nashville pedestrian bridge.
It crosses the Cumberland River and connects downtown Nashville to East Nashville. Like many of the bridges in downtown Pittsburgh, it was built a century ago, in 1909. After decades of heavy usage by cars and delivery trucks, it was in poor shape and was closed to motorized vehicles in 1998 and scheduled to be demolished.
But the city made a bold decision for the time and decided that the bridge would be rebuilt for people-powered transportation — as well as a unique venue for events and other experiences that were not possible before. In 2003, the bridge reopened for people and a new bridge was built to handle motorized traffic — the Gateway Bridge (since renamed the Korean War Veterans Memorial Bridge).
In the two decades since the former Shelby Street Bridge opened as a pedestrian bridge, it has become an iconic symbol of the city and has become an instantly recognizable setting for numerous music videos, photographs and events. It’s a healthy connection between two parts of the city — but is also a destination for locals and tourists alike.
Nashville’s decision to close the bridge to cars and open it to pedestrians has been a great way to promote health, improve air quality and allow pedestrians to reconnect with their city and with each other, while combating climate change.
This is absolutely something Pittsburgh could and should do as well.
Pittsburgh has transformed itself from its industrial past into a leader in sustainability, and it’s time for the city to take its commitment to sustainability to the next level.
By allowing people to reclaim their bridges for public use, Pittsburgh could create new opportunities for people to come together and make positive changes for their health and that of their city and the planet. Furthermore, making one of the Three Sisters Bridges a pedestrian bridge would be a great opportunity for the city to host events and activities that would bring people together and create a stronger sense of community.
The transition to a pedestrian bridge would open up a wide range of transportation options for its citizens, making Pittsburgh even more vibrant, and help it live up to its other moniker: the Most Livable City.
Laura Walsh is a writer and sustainable mobility consultant at Sustainability Stories and works with institutions to increase and emphasize their sustainable mobility options. She can be reached at @LauraFKALolly.
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