Then & Now: Birmingham Bridge

The penultimate installment of the Then & Now series is the Birmingham Bridge just upriver from the Duquesne University Pedestrian Bridge. This is a bridge that I’ve walked multiple times from necessity despite the fact that it was not well-designed for pedestrians, which I complained about in my first post about the bridge.

It would be nice to think that the pedestrian access upgrade it underwent in 2021 was in response to my complaints of the accessibility issues with the bridge design. However, the upgrade only partly resolves those issues.

On the south end of the bridge, pedestrians are no longer forced to leave the bridge and take steps down into the park. Instead, there is an option to continue along the level of the bridge. (See the first pair of photos.) This new option at first pushes pedestrians into the edge of the pavement beside the bike lane with no physical separation from the bikes or speeding cars. Once the bridge reaches the ground, a raised sidewalk appears.

On the north end of the bridge, there was no change for pedestrian’s use of the bridge (second photo pair). The options remain to walk in the painted buffer of the bike lane from where the bridge leaves Fifth Avenue or walk several blocks out of the way down the equivalent of multiple stories only to walk back up them on the sidewalk on the ramp from Forbes Avenue.

The view of Oakland from the bridge (third photo pair) shows a building that I regretted not taking photos of before it was demolished and one of the new buildings built along Fifth and Forbes in recent years. Looking downriver toward downtown (final photo pair), the new vision center as part of UPMC Mercy Hospital is clearly visible, though its coloring blends in well from this distance. Both of these views are expected to change further in the coming years with additional growth in Oakland and the redevelopment of the Lower Hill adjacent to downtown.

Bridge Safety

The first time I walked across the Birmingham Bridge was before I came up with the idea of walking all the bridges in Pittsburgh.  I was going to an event on the South Side and according to the bus schedule, the best method for getting to this event was to take one of the Fifth Avenue buses to the Birmingham Bridge and walk across the bridge and down a few blocks on East Carson Street to the event.  I was quite dismayed when I got off the bus and saw that there was no sidewalk across the bridge–it turns out there is a sidewalk but it only connects to Forbes Avenue which is significantly lower than Fifth Avenue at this point.  Fortunately, there is a bike lane, clearly marked with a buffer zone across the bridge.  I kept as far to the right as I possibly could, hoping that cars recognized and honored the bike lane (I have noticed this is an issue for drivers in Pittsburgh at least in some areas), and headed across.  Nearly a quarter mile from Fifth Avenue, a ramp comes up from Forbes Avenue with a sidewalk.  I climbed over the cement barrier and crossed the core of the bridge on the sidewalk.  However on the southern half of the bridge, the sidewalk goes down a set of steps and comes out between the back of a parking lot and the underside of the bridge.  This seemed like a potentially unsafe place for a lone pedestrian, so I climbed back over the barrier and finished crossing the bridge as I had started, separated from the cars by only the painted lines of the bike lane.

I have walked this bridge a few times since then, employing this same method every time.  I have also observed other pedestrians using a similar method, though some don’t bother climbing over the barrier onto the sidewalk when that becomes an option.  This is truly the case of a bridge that may be pedestrian accessible, but is not at all pedestrian friendly.  In my post “One River Down,” I mention that Highland Park Bridge, Washington’s Crossing Bridge, and the 62nd Street Bridge are less than pedestrian friendly.  The Birmingham Bridge beats these bridges as the least pedestrian friendly bridge I’ve walked in Pittsburgh to the point that it is potentially unsafe for pedestrian use.

While the bridge is designed so that pedestrians can use a buffered sidewalk across the length of the bridge, the access points to this sidewalk are not convenient.  I discuss in “Taking the Long Way Round” that there are times and situations when pedestrians will go out of their way, but the Birmingham Bridge sidewalk does not meet them.  The northern access point is in a hollow surrounded by vacant or industrial-use lots and passes under several ramps/bridges/elevated roads carrying an interstate before reaching the level of the bridge.  Also there is no easy way to get there from Fifth Avenue at the bridge.  A pedestrian has to go down a block to a road that connects Fifth and Forbes avenues and then come back down toward the bridge to reach the sidewalk for it.  There is no incentive for a pedestrian on Fifth Avenue to go so far out of their way when the bridge is right in front of them.  The staircase at the other end of the bridge that I mentioned earlier makes about as much sense as this end’s inaccessible sidewalk access.  Not to mention that the staircase excludes anyone using a wheelchair from access to the sidewalk (it looks like there used to be a ramp on this end as well, but it is now sealed off and cut off).