Pittsburgh travelers always face a mixed bag of conditions. Landslides and torrential downpour. Some of the steepest hills in the country. A nontraditional – and by some measures illogical – street grid system. But with increasing construction projects in the region thanks to an influx of infrastructure dollars and more Pittsburghers taking to the streets as society attempts to assume normalcy, travelers face a unique moment.
Civil engineers and travel experts agree: It’s a risky time for non-car travelers as sweeping shifts are enacted on Pittsburgh’s roads and bridges that could change everyday travel for years to come.
We were warned.
Ninety projects were slated to begin on the Pittsburgh region’s roads and bridges, Gov. Tom Wolf said in March. Wolf urged the public to anticipate “seeing many work zones” and to practice safe travel and driving habits and slow down as the “2022 construction season kicks off with more than $317 million of infrastructure projects” in the region.
About 388 miles of roadway maintenance will occur. Sixty-seven bridges – 24 in poor condition – will be repaired or replaced. (Notably, concerns are growing that the federal infrastructure windfall may not stretch as far due to swiftly rising inflation, fuel costs and challenges to secure basic materials like concrete and asphalt.)
“People need to be aware of the fact that there’s going to be a lot more construction this summer than you’ve seen in the past,” said Mark Magalotti, a senior lecturer at the University of Pittsburgh’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.
The influx of federal funding to fix Pennsylvania’s roads and bridges will mean more construction on roads that already prove treacherous for Pittsburgh’s more vulnerable travelers.
Pedestrian deaths across the United States hit a 40-year high this year. Pennsylvania was among the top 10 states with increases in pedestrian fatalities from 2020 to 2021.
“A big reason for this was speeding,” said Scott Bricker, executive director of Bike Pittsburgh. “People may think it’s harmless, but speed kills.”
About 5% of pedestrians would die when hit by a car going 20 miles per hour, but that estimate jumps to 40% of pedestrians for vehicles traveling 30 miles per hour, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Association.
How can non-car Pittsburgh travelers stay safe this summer?
Studies show streets are safer with less speeding and with more non-car trips, such as biking or public transit, Bricker said. Some 40% of all the trips people make in Pittsburgh cover less than 2 miles and therefore are achievable without a car for many people.
“But the things that result in more people biking and walking are safer streets and closer proximity to everything people need so that people don’t need to get into a car in the first place. So, really, the question should be, ‘What can the government do at all levels — local, county, state, and federal — to keep non-car travelers safe?’” The answer, Bricker said, is to build safe streets and walkable, bikeable, transit-rich communities.
“Some larger construction projects that are getting underway this summer and throughout the year will eventually result in more protected bike lanes, safer pedestrian crossings, and more neighborway connections,” Bricker said.
For instance, more than $1.7 million will go to reopening a portion of Sylvan Avenue to bike and foot traffic as a trail that will connect Hazelwood and Greenfield to job centers in Oakland, according to PennDOT.
Magalotti said in the coming years, thanks to the infrastructure bill and federal windfall, Pittsburgh travelers can expect to see more highways being reconstructed or bridges being repaired or replaced.
“That’s a good thing because we do have such an aging infrastructure in this country,” Magalotti said. “Just try to be aware of that and try to be somewhat tolerant of this because we’re going to end up with a better roadway system than we have now.”
Bricker said so many construction projects will, on the positive side, result in slower speeds and safer streets overall.
Some city projects to increase and advance pedestrian safety have occurred in recent years. Goals have included adding new pedestrian signals and new parking spaces to distance traffic from pedestrians, and giving pedestrians a head start when crossing the street.
“Innovative transportation is certainly going to help in certain aspects,” said Aleksandar Stevanovic, an associate professor of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Pittsburgh.
That includes modernized features to ensure safer travel for vulnerable travelers, such as pedestrian sensors at crosswalks or automated counting systems that help agencies better understand traffic flows and systems.
“Right now the city’s investing in the infrastructure to equip intersections with the detection of pedestrians,” he said. “Better pedestrian detection is one way, for example, to improve, to kind of hit the sweet spot and have, at the same time, reliable supports for pedestrians and efficient operations for the vehicles.”
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