To untangle the roads of Allegheny County, a 1940s traffic engineer devised an ingenious way to help people like me find their way around.
It may be hyperbole to say that I got lost every day for the first six months I lived in Pittsburgh, but not by much.
I grew up just across the state line in Youngstown, Ohio, but we rarely even made day trips to Pittsburgh, probably because my father hated driving there; he said it was the only place where he could see where he was going, but between the one-way streets, bridges, and rivers, couldn’t get there. Driving back from a Pirates game once, he announced, “Well, we’re lost, but we’re making really good time.”
Thanks to its rugged topography and irregular pattern of development, the city and its environs are notoriously difficult to navigate. Downtown’s “Golden Triangle” is a mishmash of streets, as industrial developments on the banks of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers were eventually connected with roads, albeit haphazardly. The region’s major arterials are designed in a hub-and-spoke system, with all traffic seemingly routed through downtown. Pittsburgh, as the local map designer Bob Firth once declared, is “ungriddable”
But Pittsburgh, or at least its suburbs, is where I ended up working as a young journalist, hired by the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review in 1999, during a phase where they were just looking for warm bodies that could form a cogent sentence. My first apartment was in Carnegie, a borough where the football stadium is named for Baseball Hall of Famer Honus Wagner and the baseball fields are named for Football Hall of Famer Mike Ditka. It’s like Pittsburgh goes out of its way to confuse you.
The bare walls of my first apartment needed some adornment, so I used maps: one of the nation, one of the state of Pennsylvania, and one of Allegheny County. That’s the one I needed.
The county map was ancient, a Rand McNally map that was likely my grandfather’s; its age could be determined by what it listed, and what it did not. An inset of downtown Pittsburgh listed Horne’s Department Store and the Pittsburgh Press building, though both tenants had long vanished. There was no Interstate 279 North, which Pittsburghers call the Parkway North. Another layer of the area’s labyrinthine nature was the marked inability of residents to use formal designations for anything. There were no signs anywhere for the Parkway, but that’s what everyone, even TV newscasters, called it. (Similarly: Ask for directions in Pittsburgh and you’ll inevitably get useful phrases like, “Turn left where the Gulf station used to be.”)
But there was one feature of this map that proved critical—routes that looked like they’d been highlighted in a rainbow of different colors. Gradually, I realized they were part of a countywide system of colored belts. That explained the road sign with the yellow circle not far from my apartment, the one that said “Yellow Belt.” And it was the key to understanding the whole region.
There was a point when Pittsburgh was on the cutting edge in American transportation. The city was a major stop on the Lincoln Highway, the first coast-to-coast road for autos. Briefly, the Liberty Tunnels were the longest in the country; the Pennsylvania Turnpike still bills itself as America’s First Superhighway, even as it shows its age today.
The Allegheny County belt system was part of this innovative tradition. In the late 1940s, an engineer with the Allegheny County Department of Public Works named Joseph White devised this color-coded series of five routes that traversed, or, in some instances, made a complete circle throughout the county. The routes used existing two-lane roads, not limited-access highways, and their concentric patterns offered drivers various means of getting around the area without having to go downtown. (A pedestrian-friendly sixth route—the two-mile Purple Belt in downtown Pittsburgh—was added in the mid-1990s.)
Later, as high-speed expressways arrived and siphoned off some suburban traffic, the belt system became less important; it was largely unneeded and unnoticed by the kind of locals who said “Turn left where the Gulf Station used to be.” But the route signs were a godsend for newcomers like me, who was expected to know and find my way around all 90 city neighborhoods.
Armed with my belt knowledge, travel suddenly became easier. For a day trip to Kennywood, the city’s beloved amusement park, I just had to turn out of my parking lot onto the Yellow Belt and it would guide me right there, past the beautiful Art Deco Allegheny County Airport. The Blue Belt would take me through the west end, down narrow streets barely wide enough for my car. I’d follow the Orange Belt to the Air Reserve Station, where I was often dispatched to watch President George W. Bush get on and off Air Force One, in case something newsworthy happened during one of his what seemed to be frequent visits to the Pittsburgh area. (Nothing ever did.)
In the days before GPS units and smartphones, the belt system converted me into an accomplished yinzer. A trip to Pittsburgh became a breeze for my father, who could follow the Yellow Belt to my apartment, and then let me do the driving. (He was particularly proud that I could get to Three Rivers Stadium without getting onto the traffic-clogged Parkway.) I’d often field urgent phone calls from out-of-town friends asking for directions. In time, I could even get around town better than my wife. She’d spent her first 30 years there, but like lots of Pittsburgh-area natives, didn’t venture too far past her home. Pittsburghers tend to judge how far something is not by miles or minutes, but by how many bridges and tunnels it takes to get there. (One river is slightly inconvenient; more than one is a serious effort. And if you have to take more than two tunnels, forget it.)
In 2005, I left Pittsburgh and returned to Ohio, where navigation is easier: The streets meet at right angles; Lake Erie is always north. Back in Pittsburgh, the colored belt routes remain, joined by the many signs associated with the Wayfinder System, an ingenious regime of colored zones implemented in the late 1990s in an effort to assist the cartographically challenged. To those who’ve lived there all their lives, they’re just a local curiosity, but they’re still helping people like me find my way around with ease.
At least, I’ve convinced enough people that I can. I haven’t called Pittsburgh home for nearly 15 years. But I still get calls for directions.