Outdoor stairways have long crisscrossed city landscapes, serving as links between neighborhoods and providing shortcuts for locals.
Some areas are home to scores of stairways that are often not maintained by city parks departments, making them difficult to track. But small groups of advocates have formed in select communities with the intent of preserving the infrastructure, which typically erodes after years of neglect.
Seattle area outdoor enthusiast Doug Beyerlein became interested in stairways while training for a race and soon began counting steps around the city. He later launched publicstairs.com, a website compiling locations and other details on stairways.
"Stairways are a great way of getting people out just walking around their own community." Beyerlein told Governing. "They can go out and see their community from a different perspective."
Many cities with particularly hilly landscapes have quite a few stairways.
Pittsburgh, with its rolling hills along the Allegheny River, encompasses 117 stairways with at least 100 steps, the most of any city for which Beyerlein has compiled information. In The Steps of Pittsburgh, a book documenting the history of the city's staircases, author Bob Regan wrote the city had more than 700 total sets of steps.
Los Angeles, Seattle and San Francisco boast similarly high numbers of documented stairways, according to Beyerlein's website.
Matt O'Grady, executive director of the San Francisco Parks Alliance, said stairways are a popular means of transit while also serving as open space in pockets of the city.
“The stairways of San Francisco are an integral part of the fabric and the beauty of living in San Francisco,” he said.
Although stairways cost less to maintain than roadways, they do require landscaping and occasional repairs as needed. Stairways along steep hillsides are particularly vulnerable to erosion and cracking of pavement over many years, O’Grady said.
Like many cities, much of San Francisco’s stairways were constructed several decades ago. O’Grady said the majority of the city’s outdoor stairways were initially laid out in the last half of the 19th century.
In some urban environments, vegetation overgrows sideways with little foot traffic, but volunteers in San Francisco and other communities often pitch in by trimming around walkways and cleaning up any litter.
While advocates of stairways aren't as visible as cycling groups and other activists, Beyerlein said his website has connected like-minded individuals in other cities, enabling him to compile numerous tips in his quest to record and map stairways throughout the country. Based on the information he's collected, the following public stairways have the highest recorded number of stairs:
1. Murphy Ranch East Stairway: 512 stairs
Location: A park in east Los Angeles
2. Gil's Stairs: 413 stairs
Location: The Second Street Stairs stretch from West State Street to Montello Avenue in downtown Hood River, Oregon
3. 56th Street Steps: 394 stairs
Location: Pittsburgh, between Carnegie and Celadine streets
4. Howe Stairway: 388 stairs
Location: Howe Stairway runs under Interstate 5 in Seattle, from Franklin Avenue to 10th Avenue East
5. Filbert East Stairway: 383 stairs
Location: The Filbert East Stairway cuts through Pioneer Park in San Francisco
GOVERNING By the Numbers is a companion to GOVERNING Data that digests the growing body of work at the intersection of computer-assisted journalism, data visualization and government transparency.
GOVERNING By the Numbers is dedicated to telling important stories through numbers, with a focus on both our original work in data visualization on GOVERING Data and providing an ongoing tally of editor's picks of new and notable data releases of use to those in government and those who care about it.