Once upon a weekend, I made a road trip to Chambersburg, PA (think peaches…).
Coming home via the Pennsylvania Turnpike was a relatively easy drive despite lots of cars to go along with the on and off rainy weather. With my iPod on shuffle play, I was enjoying tunes I don’t always listen to, occasionally singing along at the top of my lungs. I try to do this only when in the car because as my kid sister asked me when she was about seven, “Can you hum? Because you can’t sing.” No, no I can’t and yes, yes, we Griffiths were raised with a great deal of sarcasm at the helm of our personalities.
Life was good until I got off the turnpike and started the trek into Pittsburgh via the infamous Parkway, aka 376.
Shall I tell you how much I hate this road?
I hate this road more than a farmer hates Japanese Beetles, more than allergic dogs hate bees, more than—even—a cat hates water. I hate this highway. Leaving from my parents’ house one weekend—70 some miles east of Pittsburgh—I yet again stretched my road map out on the dining room table. Mom rolled her eyes. Dad leaned over the map with me and said, “You know, they haven’t built any new roads since the last time you had that out.” Did I mention the sarcasm?
Sigh. I began my drive, knowing that with the invariable construction going on around town, my only possible detour was not an option. When I saw the sign blaring that the Squirrel Hill tunnel was delayed, there was nothing to be done but groan.
There are many things in Pittsburgh that I’ve grown to like in my unplanned years here. I appreciate the gorgeous city view no matter which highway leads you into town. New York’s grand skyline has nothing on Pittsburgh’s tiny downtown with it’s unique collection of buildings. The rectangular U.S. Steel Building, the pointed Highmark headquarters, or the pyramid-like Gulf Tower. Daytime or a nighttime of lighted structures—the cityscape is attractive.
Pittsburgh’s cultural district is phenomenal and offers a wide variety of venues for theatre goers. From the over hundred year old Heinz, Benedum, and Byham buildings to the newer Cabaret and O’Reilly, there is a theatre for whatever taste in shows you fancy.
Speaking of tastes, when I first moved here from cattle-country Montana, I was astounded at the lack of vegetarian choices in Pittsburgh—topping that off when I received a gorgeous salad with French Fries dropped on it. Yech. The restaurant choices have continually expanded, making life easier for food lovers to fulfill their taste bud yearninsg for any cuisine.
But there is one thing that continues to aggravate me beyond words in the Steel City and every time this place has made the Best Places to Live in America list, I have asked again and again, “Have these people ever driven here?”
I don’t know where these people get their driver’s licenses from, but it’s not the same Commonwealth of Pennsylvania where I got mine when I was sixteen.
The Squirrel Hill tunnel is the epitome of what is wrong. I remember when a friend moved here in the early 1980s. She wanted to get a laser gun, wait at the exit of the tunnel on the city side and vaporize the first driver who came out of the tunnel under the speed limit. A drastic approach to be sure. I laughed.
Now I weep, wishing at the very least for a Star Trek transporter so I can beam those horrid drivers to the Sahara Desert.
There are tunnels throughout the city. Some of them have traffic signals at each end or near the exits. One even sports a 90 degree turn—go figure. The Squirrel Hill tunnel is part of the aforementioned dreaded Parkway—an Interstate highway. It’s a wide-open four-lane road with nothing but wide-open tarmac on either end. Why these drivers invariably slow down when entering this tunnel from either direction is beyond me. There’s not a single reason for it. It took me twenty minutes to go 1.5 miles to get through the tunnel. For no reason. None. Zippo.
I pray for patience every time I’m stuck in this mess. I start out begging God, “Please make this the time I learn patience from you, please don’t let me get mad at these lunatics.” My use of words with aggravating tones connected to them belies my practice of deep breathing and working to restrain from yelling at the drivers in front of me who create the whole slow down problem. I avoid pointing at the Penn Dot signs, “Maintain Speed Thru Tunnel.” None of these exercises work as my blood boils while I wait, and wait, for no good reason. Non-eloquently put, the Squirrel Hill tunnel sucks.
Then there’s Route 19.
Route 19 in Pittsburgh plays an integral part in traffic flow. It also wreaks havoc with newcomers to the area or anyone without a GPS. Why? In this case it’s not the drivers. It’s whoever decided that Route 19 should have multiple names:
Truck Route 19
I experienced any number of interesting events until I finally highlighted every single Route 19 in my map book (pre GPS days) and committed them to memory.
Keep in mind as you begin your driving adventure in Pittsburgh that one wrong move can catapult your car downtown (or dahntahn as the locals say) and you can become lost for days. If this in fact occurs, do not base getting un-lost on route 19 or any of its affiliates. Head instead for the airport—freedom lies following 60 west (22-30 west, or as they recently renamed it—yes, let’s add to the numeric confusion! The Parkway West 376).
In my early days here, I once left Cranberry—north of the city—on 79 South and happened to look at the CD player just as my exit to stay on 79 South came and ended up on Interstate 279, driving into the city, wound up in the Hill District on the far side of the city, crossed the Fort Pitt Bridge three times—the signs said airport and I didn’t want to go to the airport, so I kept getting in the wrong lane. Little did I know that heading toward the airport would actually give me a chance to get to to the South Hills and….
Do you get the idea? I was so lost it was aggravating beyond words. Shortly after that adventure, I got my first cell phone.
As if having bridges, tunnels, hills, and missing street signs aren’t challenges enough, then there’s the general lack of local knowledge as to how to proceed at stop signs. Pittsburghers don’t go by the “who got there first,” or “driver on right” gets to go rules. Nope. They do whatever they feel like making it an eternal challenge to know what to do when you reach a stop sign. If I’m approaching one and see another car coming, I slow to a crawl so that the other car will arrive first, clearly indicating that they should go. I burst into tears when they start frantically waving at me to proceed and stubbornly shake my redhead no.
These drivers also stop in the middle of random roads to let cars turn in front of them. Our most recent experience with this was driving east on Route 22. A man in the far right hand lane stopped in the middle of the highway, holding up six cars behind him, because he wanted to turn left three lanes over.
Then we have the point of this entire tirade: The Reverse Yield. In fairness to Pittsburgh, I’ve begun to notice this phenomenon throughout our country. Are Pittsburghers moving to new cities and teaching this bad behavior by driver example?
Gilbert, dear dad, taught us kids the proper way to yield: If I am on the highway and see someone coming from a ramp to merge, and I can do so, I move into the left lane. If I can’t, oh well, the ramp-driver has to stop. Not so in this crazy city. Here, highway traffic can be buzzing along at 65 miles an hour, but if a driver in the right lane sees someone coming down the ramp, they slow down to let them in—whether it’s necessary or not. Invariably, the person merging onto the highway is going about 40. It doesn’t matter if the highway is backed up, there are a dozen cars in the same lane with everyone going 65. The first driver stops and that’s it—a traffic snarl is created.
Could I sell my car and become a devoted user of public transportation? You betcha. I’d ride trains everywhere and enjoy trolleys and subways. But Pittsburgh’s metro system isn’t there yet. You can’t always get there from here and you can’t get over that-a-way at using the transit system. In my novel, Cosmic Cold Cases of Pittsburgh: Murder at the Canalucci Creamery, I expand the trolley system throughout the city. Ah, glorious wishful thinking! My characters get everywhere on it.
But buzzing around in my little Rogue I go, stuck ranting about people doing the cell phone lean while driving (elbow on window, phone against ear, as if they are at their kitchen table) effectively blocking their view to the left, or perhaps the cellphone crooked in neck, cigarette in mouth, coffee in hand setup that we frequently see.
All of this perplexes me and I’m surprised there are not more accidents on a daily basis. I can get distracted enough—remember that CD player glance that wound me up on the opposite side of downtown—while driving simply because my brain is always going, thinking of a million things at one time. Too add cell phones and coffee to the mix, to ignore the fundamental traffic laws … these hindrances make our roads more dangerous and frankly, scary to drive on.
When you’re out and about this week in your own version of my Nissan, think back to when you first got your license whether it was fifty years or five days ago. Remember the rules and start or keep following on them. If each of us does, then we’ll raise driver-expectations, cut down on rudeness on our roads, and maybe even save a life.