Let's Get Lost: The Steps of Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh PA USA

It means different things to different people.

"Pittsburgh is undoubtedly the cockeyedest city in the United States. Physically, it is absolutely irrational. It must have been laid out by a mountain goat... I've flown over it, and driven all around it, and studied maps of it, and I hardly know one end of Pittsburgh from the other... There's just one balm -- people who live here can't find their way around, either." From Ernie's America: The Best of Ernie Pyle's 1930s Travel Dispatches 

Comprised of 90 unique neighborhoods, all developed independently and only later incorporated into one unified city, the place is a spidery design of peaks, valleys, cliffs, ridges, ravines, and rivers. More than a quarter of Pittsburgh's neighborhoods make reference to "hills," "heights," "slopes", "flats", or other geographical terms; sudden elevation differences of several hundred feet are commonplace.

Not surprisingly, the city is notoriously hard on folks who believe conventional navigation should always be less difficult than performing brain surgery. Or not nearly as gut-churning as an inspired roller coaster ride at nearby Kennywood Amusement Park.

This is especially the case in the zigzagging maze known as the South Side Slopes. Certain sections of this hillside neighborhood are so steep and narrow that special smaller fire trucks (with a tighter turning basis) get the call in case of emergency. Drive a stick shift? Unless you're a pro, kiss that clutch goodbye.

Same goes for that Golumpki (aka Cabbage Roll) you just dropped.

Compounding the problem -- or charm, depending -- is that some streets in this area are so perilous that they aren't... streets. They're public stairways. Sixty-eight of them to be exact, complete with road signs and houses. Just like real streets. (But not.) In fact, there are more than 300 of these official street/public stairway hybrids citywide.

But to locals, steps and climbs are just another fact of life in this hilly city. Always has been. Back in Pittsburgh's industrial heyday, South Side steel and glass workers would make the long daily descent to factories on the river... and right back up again after a hard day's labor.

According to Pittsburgh's modern King of the Steps, Bob Regan, there are a grand total of 712 public stairways and 44,645 steps in the Steel City overall -- good for tops in the U.S. That makes two other stair-crazy cities, San Francisco (350) and Cincinnati (400), walks in a flat park by comparison.

Pittsburgh's overall step height is equivalent to 24,108 vertical feet, or more than four miles straight up. Or almost unbelievable, considering Mount McKinley clocks in at a mere 20,320 feet high.

Still, even that amazing fact didn't do much to placate Ernie Pyle:

"It's up and down, and around and around, and in betwixt… You may have a friend who lives half a mile away. But to get there you circle three miles around a mountain ridge, cross two bridges, go through a tunnel, follow a valley, skirt the edge of a cliff, and wind up at your friend's back door an hour after dark."

When it came to Pittsburgh, the road less travelled was just fine by him.