Busway Bridges: Millvale Avenue

When I crossed the Millvale Avenue Bridge over the busway, I was thinking a lot about the “caged” aspect of many of Pittsburgh’s bridges.  I wrote about this idea in my Highland Park Bridge, Taking the Long Way Round, and Busway Bridges: East Liberty posts.  While a lot of bridges in Pittsburgh have the mess fencing, which often makes me as a pedestrian feel caged in, there are several that do not.  As I prepared to cross this bridge I wondered why that is.

I wondered if perhaps it was to prevent people from jumping off the bridges.  This theory did not make sense though.  First, if that is the case shouldn’t all the bridges have the fences?  One of the times I crossed the Birmingham Bridge, I witnessed a scene that I believe was a group of people working to dissuade a jumper.  The Birmingham Bridge is one of the bridges without a fence.  The second reason this theory doesn’t fit is that on the Millvale Bridge, the fencing is only along part of it.  There is a significant stretch not fenced with a big drop.  The part that is fenced is the stretch over the railroad tracks and the busway.

My next ideas were that perhaps the fences are meant to stop litter from blowing off the bridge and onto the tracks/road/river below or to stop people from throwing things over the bridge.  Again, these don’t make sense.  Litter can blow in from any direction and could blow over the fence.  There is also a parking lot under the Millvale Bridge, so if the concern is about people tossing things over the bridge, why isn’t the fence extended to protect the cars in the lot?

I mention in Busway Bridges: Baum-Centre Corridor that most of the bridges across the busway between Penn Avenue and the Bloomfield Bridge are ugly and unpleasant.  Millvale Avenue Bridge is mostly exempted from this.  The design of the bridge is more aesthetically pleasing than the concrete of the Baum and Centre bridges and the rusty metal of the Highland and Negley bridges.  The area surrounding this bridge is also more residential and less used than the commercial arteries of Baum and Centre.

I thought the aesthetic difference might be explained by the years in which the bridges were built, but that is not the case.  The Highland, Negley, Aiken, Baum, and Millvale bridges across the busway were built in the 1910s or 1920s.  They were all reconstructed while the Penn, Centre, and Bloomfield bridges were all built in the 1960s, ’70s, or ’80s.  The Negley and Aiken bridges also connect with residential areas, so the land use around the bridge cannot explain the slightly different and better design of the Millvale Bridge.

Busway Bridges: Baum-Centre Corridor

Baum Boulevard and Centre Ave run parallel along the border of Pittsburgh’s Shadyside and Bloomfield neighborhoods and are arteries that help people move from downtown and Oakland to East Liberty and other East End neighborhoods.  The Baum-Centre corridor is currently receiving a lot of attention from the perspective of the development of the city.  There is even a community group called the Baum-Centre Initiative made up of representatives from other groups along the corridor.  Their goal is to work together to promote development along the corridor that is beneficial and satisfactory to their respective groups and communities.

This area is attracting interest in part because of its arterial activity, but also because Baum used to be the car dealership district.  Most of the dealerships have closed their locations leaving behind many empty buildings.  Contrary to this disinvestment, Centre Ave hosts one of the UPMC hospitals and an urgent care center was recently added.  From what I’ve picked up, UPMC is working to expand in this area.

The large building between Centre and Baum last housed a party/costume supply store, but I image most of the building was sitting empty.  For about the last year, it has been under redevelopment.  The rumor I have heard is that something related to UPMC is going into the space.

I also heard that UPMC wants to build a parking lot for its employees in this area.  I couldn’t picture exactly where it was to be placed from the description I heard, but I wonder if it is this empty lot off of Baum Boulevard.

Outside of the developments going on near them, my impression of these two bridges is that they are quite ugly.  I am glad that except for when I walked them for my project, I’m in a bus when crossing Centre Avenue’s bridge and in a car when crossing Baum Boulevard’s bridge.  Now that I mention it, that’s how I felt about most of the bridges across the busway I’ve walked (except for the new pedestrian bridge, see July 26 post).  Though I haven’t written the posts for all of them yet, at this point I have walked all the bridges over the busway between Penn Avenue and the Bloomfield Bridge.

My favorite part about walking these two bridges was the view of Bloomfield/Lawrenceville from the Baum Boulevard Bridge.  This view captures two of Bloomfield’s churches (both currently active) with Lawrenceville’s Childrens Hospital sandwiched between them.

Pedestrian Bridges: Shadyside

When the pedestrian bridge I discuss in “Taking the Long Way Round” was in the process of being built, I was thinking it was the first pedestrian bridge in Pittsburgh.  When I started my project of walking the bridges in Pittsburgh, I realized what a ridiculous thought that was.  Pittsburgh has many pedestrian bridges, but until the new one was built, I never heard anyone talk about any pedestrian bridge in the city.  Many of these pedestrian bridges are not particularly attractive and are not in high traffic areas.

Shadyside has one of these hidden pedestrian bridges.  The bridge connects Graham Street across the busway and railroad tracks.  The only reason I know about this bridge is from riding buses on the busway.  Walking down Graham from Centre Ave (a busy corridor lined with businesses, churches and a hospital and used by several major bus routes and lots of cars), I was impressed how quiet and peaceful the residential area between Centre and the busway was.  That is until a train comes by.

As I walked across this bridge, I wondered why it was there.  There is a vehicular bridge with sidewalks on both sides across the busway a block in either direction.  There are eight other roads between this bridge and the Penn Ave Bridge that end at the busway and have neither a vehicular or pedestrian bridge connecting them to the other side of the busway.  In my walk, I speculated that perhaps it was put in to connect the residents on the north side of the busway to places of work on the southern.  This was based on the fact that there was a large building on the southern side that now houses the Shadyside Boys and Girls Club (photo below).

When I got home I went to PGHbridges.com, which I have used whenever I’ve had questions like this about the origin or design of Pittsburgh bridges.  However, for some reason this website ignores many of the bridges over the busway.  In looking up some of the bridges that PGHbridges.com misses, I found several other bridge websites that list and identify many of the bridges in the city, but none of them include the Graham Street Bridge, not even the National Bridge Inventory Database.

So I turned back to my favorite resource–the G.M. Hopkins maps.  I also went to the image collection on Historic Pittsburgh, the parent site for the Hopkins maps.  In the image collection I found one photo from 1908 of the bridge under construction.  The 1904 and 1911 maps show the area immediately adjacent to the bridge as all residential.  The building that is now the Boys and Girls Club does not exist.  All I’m left with is speculation at this point.  However, there is a school a few blocks from the southern end of the bridge and in between 1904 and 1911 another church was built a couple blocks north of the bridge.  There already was a large church a block from the site of the newer, smaller one.  Perhaps, the bridge was built to facilitate school students and church goers to get to their respective destinations.

Based on the way the bridge is depicted on the 1911 map and the 1939 map, I suspect the bridge may have been rebuilt since 1908.  At the very least the stairs were replaced.  The southern steps are drawn as coming straight out from the bridge to the road, but today the stairs are perpendicular to the line of the bridge and Graham Street.  The northern steps are drawn perpendicular to the bridge and facing the same direction the southern steps face today.  However, the steps I walked are switchback style, with the upper portion facing the opposite direction depicted on the 1939 map.

Busway Bridges: East Liberty

There are currently two pedestrian bridges across the busway in East Liberty to give bus riders access to and from the busway and surrounding neighborhoods.  I have used the larger of the two many times to get to and from the busway, but the smaller one (pictured above) always seemed out of the way, scary, and a bit useless.  It ended up not be as scary as I imagined, but it is not a path I would choose to use after dark.  It seemed useless, and out of the way, as it connects very low traffic areas to the busway and the Highland Ave Bridge (see July 26 post) or the other pedestrian bridge provide access between the busway and high traffic areas.

Both these bridges are scheduled to be demolished and replaced with one bridge.  In June, there was an announcement that a TIGER (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) Grant was awarded for a new transit center at this location (see June 20 and June 23 articles in the Post-Gazette).  In this new transit center, the busway station will be shifted closer to Penn Avenue, making the smaller pedestrian bridge truly obsolete.  The larger pedestrian bridge is planned to be rebuilt and the former bus ramp (see July 27 post) will be made into a pedestrian/bicycle connection to the busway (near the top of the ramp a bicycle garage is planned to be built).  The articles say that the developer hopes to start construction in the spring.  Perhaps in a year, or a little more, there will be a new bridge for me to walk.

Both the current pedestrian bridges take the caged feeling that several of the bridges I’ve crossed to a new level (see Highland Park Bridge, Taking the Long Way Round posts).  I have heard that the new bridge planned for this area will be more open and thereby more pleasant.  Whether this means it will be more open like the pedestrian bridge in Taking the Long Way Round or it will be truly open without any cage-like fencing, only time will tell.

When I first heard about the planned new transit center, I thought the whole idea was ridiculous–there already are bus stops on the busway and on Penn Avenue and there already are bridges connecting these areas, also public transit across the city has been in serious danger for the last couple years and there is no indication that its downward spiral with increasing route cuts and fare increases is going to stop anytime soon.  However after learning more about the new transit center, it seems like it might actually be helpful/useful by making the busway easier to access and more attractive to access.  Also after observing the behavior of a pedestrian in Taking the Long Way Round, I wonder if the new transit center might encourage more people to use alternative transit options.

What is a Bridge? Pittsburgh Edition II

When I wrote the first “What is a Bridge?” post, I felt confident that Merriam-Webster’s definition of a bridge, “a structure carrying a pathway or roadway over a depression or obstacle,” was sufficiently explicit to exclude ramps.  However, while crossing the Penn Avenue Bridge in East Liberty I found a new structure to challenge the definition of a bridge.

The former bus ramp from the former Penn Avenue (Bus) Station to the (not former) East Liberty Busway Station meets the above definition of a bridge as it carries a roadway over the obstacle presented by the railroad bordering the busway.  On the other hand, it also meets the definition of a ramp, “a slope or inclined plane for joining two different levels,” as the busway is significantly lower than most of the surrounding area.  So, is it a bridge or a ramp?  It almost feels like asking is a tomato a fruit or vegetable? or perhaps even which came first, the chicken or the egg?  Are these equally impossible questions to answer or is it rather the case that there are exceptions to every rule?  There aren’t always easy or straight-forward answers.  I suppose in this case the structure is both a bridge and a ramp.

Perhaps a way to answer the question a little more specifically is to look at the way it is used.  In its previous use, the point of the structure was to get buses down onto or up out of the lower busway level.  While it was used in this fashion, I’d say it was more a ramp than a bridge.  There is a future plan for it to be turned into a pedestrian bridge to transport pedestrians safely across the railroad and busway to the busway station (see Busway Bridges: East Liberty).  At that point, in function the structure will be more of a bridge, though I suppose the ramp end will still function as a ramp to provide an accessible route to the station.  Whether it is a ramp or a bridge, I did not walk it yet as it is not currently designed for pedestrian access.  After its conversion is complete in the next couple years, I will come back to walk it.

Other posts in this series:

What is a Bridge? Pittsburgh Edition I (July 18, 2012)

What is a Bridge? Chicago Edition I (April 18, 2013)

What is a Bridge? Chicago Edition II (February 1, 2020)

What is a Bridge? Bethlehem Edition I (July 1, 2020)

What is a Bridge? Bethlehem Edition II (July 15, 2020)

Taking the Long Way Round

This week while I was walking some more bridges, I witnessed a fascinating phenomenon. I had an architectural design class a few years ago where we had an assignment to create a theoretical “intervention” for an assigned two block area of Pittsburgh (which coincidentally included a bridge).  Several of my classmates noticed in observing the area a significant number of j-walkers and so designed interventions that were pathways going over or under the road to stop pedestrians from crossing the road dangerously.  The reaction that I, the professors and other reviewers had to these projects was the theory and design is nice, but no one is going to go out of their way to climb up or down just to cross the road.  Similarly to this was a conversation some classmates of mine had about the paths pedestrians created across the school’s lawn.  These paths were formed because the pedestrians recognized that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, yet every year for many years the school insisted on replanting the grass on these paths. If I remember correctly the school eventually gave up on this and instead of replanting the grass they paved the paths.

The phenomenon I witnessed this week was a pedestrian contradicting all the observations above.  I was walking several of the bridges over the busway in the East End neighborhoods.  As I walked to the Highland Ave Bridge, I was behind another pedestrian who looked like he might have been on his way to work.  He continued straight on the road while I climbed the steps pictured above to cross the bridge.  After I crossed the Highland Ave Bridge I crossed through the EastSide parking lot to cross the new pedestrian bridge.  As I approached this new bridge, I crossed paths with the man I had been walking behind.  He had crossed the pedestrian bridge and was now doubling back to get to his location.  The shortest route for him would have been to cross the Highland Ave Bridge; instead he made the choice to go out of his way and cross the new pedestrian bridge instead.  Apparently my architectural design classmates were not as far off as I thought–given an attractive enough alternative pedestrians will go out of their way.

The new pedestrian bridge is probably the newest bridge in Pittsburgh, being less than a year old.  I had been waiting for it for over two years before it finally opened.  Shortly after it opened I took the opportunity to walk across it for the first time and was very disappointed.  I thought it looked incredibly ridiculous and with the planters on either side I didn’t feel like I was on a bridge.  I think I had imagined it as something a little closer to a swinging bridge that this heavy and solid construction.  However, the incident this week with the pedestrian has caused me to reconsider this bridge.  Comparing this bridge to the Highland Ave Bridge, I have to admit it does have many good points.  Though I still think the pedestrian bridge leans to the ridiculous, it is much more pleasant looking that the Highland Ave Bridge.  While crossing the Highland Ave Bridge, I can’t help wondering if the wooden planks that make up the sidewalk are still strong enough.  What if the wood has become rotten or termites have eaten away its integrity?

Given the proximity of these two bridges (they are about a block apart) I don’t blame the man for walking a little bit out of his way to cross the pedestrian bridge instead of the Highland Ave one.  The one complaint I have left about the new pedestrian bridge is the enclosed, caged feeling it has.  While it certainly is the most dressed up caged bridge in the city, it is still a cage.