Who is prioritized on Pittsburgh’s streets?


Understanding past generations’ planning decisions is crucial to the goal of undoing structural inequity and imperative for sustainability.

Pittsburgh has been shaped heavily by ambitious redevelopment projects which took place throughout the past 60 years. These projects, forming a period known as Pittsburgh’s “renaissance,” often focused on increasing ease of mobility for people traveling by car—but this is not everybody. Central to Pittsburgh’s mid-century redevelopment was the highway program, which set out plans to construct most of the highways we know in Pittsburgh today, including those encircling Downtown Pittsburgh.

How do the legacies of these attitudes affect the mobility of those getting around not in a car today, and what might a “renaissance” for non-car travelers in Pittsburgh look like? Documenting my own walks through Pittsburgh, and noticing the imbalanced way in which space is allocated, led me to the Pittsburgh City Archives, where the visions of the city’s past planners can be seen and understood.

“Comparative Traffic Efficiency of 60-foot and 80-foot Street,” Progress, Feb. 1922 (Pittsburgh City Archives).

The images below focus mainly on the legacies left behind by mid-century planning decisions. It is important to acknowledge, though, that the seeds for those decisions had been planted years before the bulk of highway construction actually began, and the push to allocate more urban space to automobiles did not appear from nowhere in the 1950s. The widening of Pittsburgh streets to accommodate more automobile traffic, for example, was a topic of discussion in the planning newsletter Progress—which was published to support a citizen-authored master plan for the city—as far back as 1922. Foreshadowing the attitudes of future planners, advocates of opening the city up to increased car traffic made little mention of the potential effect that would have on other aspects of the city, focusing only on the gains to be made in car throughput.

Lower Hill & Downtown

The story of urban renewal in the Hill District is well-documented. Most infamously, large swaths of the Lower Hill—the section of the neighborhood closest to Downtown—were razed to construct the Civic Arena. However, arguably just as destructive to the area was the Crosstown Expressway, which divides Downtown and the Hill District, creating a concrete-moat between the two sections of the city.

Some of the earliest mentions of what would become the Crosstown Expressway are made in a 1941 edition of Progress, which outlines a proposal for a highway ring around Pittsburgh’s downtown “Golden Triangle,” as expanded highways were viewed as a national imperative because of World War II. The Crosstown Expressway as it was built would end up more intrusive on the built environment and more divisive of the neighborhoods it traverses than the original proposals appear to be.

Running a major highway through the center of a city means some space will have to be given up. The result of the Crosstown Expressway’s construction is that space for anybody not in a car is left wildly out-of-scale with both the road space and the actual city.

Demolition work in the Lower Hill district, 1956. (Pittsburgh City Archives).

Today, fifty years after the large-scale demolition of the area, construction cranes are beginning to reappear in the Lower Hill, part of a redevelopment effort to stitch the neighborhood back together. The park which now covers one block of the sunken Crosstown Expressway will aid in reconnecting the Lower Hill to Downtown. However, it remains difficult to envision fully how the neighborhood can be properly and justly rebuilt when its walkability is so constrained by the scar left by the expressway.

Crosstown Expressway: Concept, Construction, & Reality

East Liberty: Penn Circle

“The New East Liberty,” an outline of plans by the city to divert traffic around the center of the neighborhood and replace old buildings, 1960s. (Pittsburgh City Archives)

East Liberty was one of the focus points for urban renewal initiatives. The centerpiece of East Liberty’s renewal—the “new East Liberty,” as planning documents proudly proclaimed—was Penn Circle, a circular road around East Liberty’s core, which allowed traffic to bypass the neighborhood’s main business district. In return, the stretch of Penn Avenue through the center of East Liberty was to be pedestrianized. This might sound on paper like a win for pedestrians, but the result was the widening of several streets surrounding East Liberty, and the prioritization of automobile traffic around the neighborhood. “[N]arrow, one way, congested entrapments designed to frustrate motorist-shoppers.” were noted as a particular problem. The alleviation of motorists’ frustration was at everyone else’s expense, however. Today, the legacy of Penn Circle still helps to undermine East Liberty’s ability to be truly friendly to those not using a car. Instead of providing the boost to the neighborhood that renewal-era planners touted, Penn Circle mostly provided an easy way for the increasing number of suburban-bound commuters to ignore the area. The widened streets today frustrate non-motorist shoppers and leave behind vast parking lots and other mostly-unused spaces where housing once sat.

Plan of the “East Liberty Pedestrian Mall,” the pedestrianized zone through the center of East Liberty that the creation of Penn Circle allowed for, 1963. (Pittsburgh City Archives)

In 2010, the City of Pittsburgh began dismantling Penn Circle, converting some of the streets back to two-way traffic and restoring their original names. That work is still ongoing (the photo above, for example, shows a remaining one-way section of Broad Street, with a pedestrian shelter that still references the former name). Though Penn Circle is gone on paper, its footprint remains especially visible at major intersections. The intersection of Penn Avenue & Centre Avenue, once part of Penn Circle, is the epicenter of a lot of recent development, and new apartments have been constructed to take advantage of the neighborhood’s transit facilities. These apartments open on to an intersection frequently blocked with traffic, leaving pedestrians with long wait times to cross safely—a symptom of decades of car-focused planning.

Other sections of the former Penn Circle, where the road went around corners, involve these two-stage pedestrian crossings—requiring users to cross slip roads that drivers sometimes take at speed, and wait on islands in the middle of the road.

Despite the design of space, it is not difficult to see that there absolutely is demand for a more diverse group of users in Pittsburgh’s intersections—and that is with the difficulties that exist for non-motorists. Were intersections like this made even a little bit less pedestrian-hostile, it is fair to assume that many more people would choose to use it.

North Side

The North Side, across the river from Downtown Pittsburgh, was also a focus of urban renewal initiatives. A large swath of the area was cleared, to construct part of the highway ring around Downtown, and separately to construct the Allegheny Center development. The city estimated that the original Lower North Side redevelopment would displace 600 families and 1,400 further individuals. The legacy of those decisions today is yet another barrier between neighborhoods, extra-wide streets, and sight-lines consisting mainly of elevated roadways.

Archive Citations

Allegheny Conference on Community Development. Pittsburgh, challenge and response. 1947.

Citizens Committee on City Plan of Pittsburgh. “Study of Pittsburgh Triangle Showing Highway Circuit Designed To Provide Free Flowing Traffic.” Progress 12, no. 93 (1941). Pittsburgh City Archives.

Citizens Committee on City Plan of Pittsburgh. “Major Improvement Program: Pittsburgh Regional Improvement.” Progress 12, no. 52 (1941). Pittsburgh City Archives.

Citizens Committee on City Plan of Pittsburgh. “Comparative Traffic Efficiency of 60 foot and 80 foot Street.” Progress 2, no. 2 (1922). Pittsburgh City Archives.

Department of City Planning. “Lower North Side Redevelopment Area Plan.” Box 24, Folder 6, Urban Redevelopment Authority Library Collection, Pittsburgh City Archives, Pittsburgh, PA, USA. 

Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh. “East Liberty Renewal Area.” Urban Redevelopment Authority Library Collection, Box 14, Folder 12, Pittsburgh City Archives, Pittsburgh, PA, USA. 

“East Liberty Aerials/Site Plans.” Urban Redevelopment Authority Library Collection, Box 33, Folder 20, Pittsburgh City Archives, Pittsburgh, PA, USA. 

“Lower Hill aerial.” Urban Redevelopment Authority Library Collection, Box 34, Folder 3, Pittsburgh City Archives, Pittsburgh, PA, USA.

“Lower Hill demolition (during).” Urban Redevelopment Authority Library Collection, Box 34, Folder 15, Pittsburgh City Archives, Pittsburgh, PA, USA.

“Lower Hill-Crosstown.” Urban Redevelopment Authority Library Collection, Box 34, Folder 8, Pittsburgh City Archives, Pittsburgh, PA, USA.