Getting Around the City of Pittsburgh

a steep track, similar to a railroad, a red car being lifted up toward a white house - an inclined plane

Photograph by Dan4th Nicholas

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Pittsburgh has more methods of public transportation than any other city of which I’m aware.

That doesn’t mean “oh yeah, they’ve got all the usuals” and so they’re at just about as many as most other cities, it means they’ve got way more. Ever heard of an inclined plane? How about a “T”? Duckies, anyone?

First let’s just clear one thing up: great cities mean you don’t need to have a car. This is one of the many areas that my former hometown shines as I lived there for several years without owning an automobile of any type, and never once wished I had one or even asked a friend for a ride. That’s not to say I didn’t occasionally accept a lift from a pal if we were going to a party and he didn’t want to wait while I hopped a bus to catch a train to walk up some stairs before meeting him there. But it’s just that kind of a place.

A lot of the city’s residents state that “the thing about Pittsburgh is, it’s not as much a city as it is a bunch of small towns all in one place”. By that, they mean the city is made up of a plethora of neighborhoods, all of which could be completely self-sustaining if they needed to be. If you live in Bloomfield, you’ve got all of the bars, grocery stores, gas stations, corner stores, restaurants, nail salons, etc. that you need. You literally don’t have to leave your neighborhood. Southside, Shadyside, Northside, Squirrel Hill, Mt. Washington, they’re all like this. That is precisely why I found myself completely comfortable living sans-automobile back in those days. I felt better about myself, my contribution to saving a little slice of the world, and instilling walking to get somewhere in my oldest son.

So there’s that, your own two feet as a means of exploring the city. But should you want to get around a bit more swiftly, Pittsburgh doesn’t disappoint.

The city has a dedicated bicycle organization, Bike Pittsburgh, which has worked tirelessly over the past decade to get miles of bike lanes, trails and parking in nearly every neighborhood. There’s a big cycling culture, and though it’s not perfect, bikes on the street are more accepted and common place than in many other metropolitan areas in this country. On the downside, the city is as thick with hills and rivers dividing neighborhoods as it is full of guys wearing Big Ben jerseys, so you’ll have your work cut out for you. That said, a little work up hill means a helluva ride back down. You can rent bicycles from the good folks at Golden Triangle Bike Rentals, located just West of the Allegheny County Jail near First Avenue and B Street on the portion of the Three Rivers Heritage Trail that runs along the Monongahela’s north shore in downtown.

As for public transportation, the city has had its problems in that arena. Rising costs due to what some might call poor management, while others would simply note was exceptionally frequent and expansive service, have put prices at $2.50 per ride for most trips in the actual city. That said, you can catch a bus without walking much more than two blocks, typically less, in most parts of the city proper. Not exactly a grid-based system of streets, there is a bit of a learning curve to figure out how to get from here to there and whether you should catch an inbound or outbound and which direction those actually travel…but all in all I can’t recommend the city’s buses enough. Sit back and watch the city go by as you and your fellow passengers speed along in often reserved-for-buses-only lanes while traffic seems to actually go backwards in neighborhoods like Oakland or Southside during rush hour.

The city’s public transportation system also consists of the “T”, a light rail service that runs from way out in the middle of nowhere-I-ever-cared-to-go neighborhoods south of the actual city limits, through more authentically traditional neighborhoods like Dormont and Beechview, through part of the Southside and into downtown, where it becomes a subway for a few stops. The T is a smoother ride than buses, for sure, but unless you’re going to a handful of places, you can’t get there from here, as they say.

The final piece of the public transit system is Pittsburgh’s inclined planes, two of which exist, both located on the slopes of Mt. Washington, the large cliff to the south of downtown. Either one afford you a ride in a box up a steep slope. Watch the city shrink beneath you as you’re elevated to one of the most spectacular views of a downtown skyline you’ll ever be afforded, particularly on one of many, many nights where one of the stadiums on the North Shore decides to set off fireworks.

a light rail train crosses a black bridge over the Monogahela river, another yellow bridge in the background
The T crosses the Monongahela by Kaffee Einstein

All public transportation within the Golden Triangle, Pittsburgh’s downtown, is free, too, so if you’re just scooting around the mile or so square that is the city’s center, it’s an easy, ever so affordable way to make the rounds.

The final real option for traversing the city that I’ll mention is ZipCar. It’s a car sharing service, and though you need a membership which isn’t exactly obtainable if you’re only in the city for a week or so, the service is in plenty of other major metropolitan areas from Portland to Atlanta to LA to Toronto, so if you do decide to sign up, you could take advantage of these rent-by-the-hour cars at some later date. The basic gist of it all is, you reserve one of many cars parked around the city. Sometimes they’re pickup trucks, if you need a pickup truck say, but usually they’re small, four door sedans like a Honda Civic or Toyota Prius. You show up, swipe your card against the windshield, and the car unlocks. Grab the key, and you’re off. The downside is, you have to return the car to wherever you picked it up, and you have to schedule how much time you want it for, so it’s not like you can just take one and go and bring it back whenever you feel like being done with it. The upsides though include free gas and no insurance needed.

But the City of Bridges wouldn’t be complete if it didn’t have a few more liquid-based means of transportation. If you just want to take a tour of the city, check out the Just Ducky Tours, where you hop in GMC-built, World War II era amphibious vehicle that, as “amphibious” and “ducky” implies, can traverse both the land and three rivers the city has to offer. If you really want to put your back into it, though, check out Kayak Pittsburgh, underneath the 6th Street (also known as the Roberto Clemente) Bridge near the home of the Pittsburgh Pirates, PNC Park.

views from Pittsburgh's riverwalk, left a yellow bridge spans a wide river, a skyscraper in the background, bike racks and people walking a trail in front. Right the city's skyline and river.
Views of the city from the North Shore. Photographs by DJk1

Whether you choose to wear holes in the soles of your shoes, push yourself up and coast down the cities multitude of bike paths, or hop onboard a six-wheel drive military vehicle to tour the water and streets all in one go, there’s really no excuse for sitting around in your hotel room while in the city.

Photograph by Dan4th Nicholas