Pittsburgh Steps Up

How the city turned adversity into advantage to help tackle a unique infrastructure challenge
May 2, 2017
Pittsburgh is a particularly hilly city, which presents some unique challenges when it comes to aging infrastructure. David Kidd
By Ron Littlefield  |  Senior Fellow
Ron Littlefield, a former mayor of Chattanooga, Tenn., is a senior fellow with the Governing Institute and its lead analyst on the City Accelerator initiative. A city planner by career, he also consults to government through Littlefield Associates.

Pittsburgh is home to more than 700 sets of steps to help people traverse the hilly city. As they aged, it became an open question about whether they are a public asset or liability. It hints at a problem common to cities as infrastructure ages and needs change.

Over the years, when seeking to compare my own city with others, Pittsburgh often served as my default community. For example, when legendary newsman Walter Cronkite announced in October 1969 that my city, Chattanooga, had the dirtiest air in America, my immediate reaction was, "What about Pittsburgh?" 

Truthfully, both cities were gritty and grimy industrial relics back then and air quality was just part of the problem. Pittsburgh was famous for its furnaces, but for a brief not-so-shining moment, little Chattanooga and its aging iron foundries was able to nudge Pittsburgh and other Rust Belt cities out of the running for the dubious title of "dirtiest."

Beyond pollution, we have a few more characteristics in common. Both Chattanooga and Pittsburgh are "physiographically challenged" -- that means hilly -- cities with historic incline railways serving as unique features of the public transportation system. Both are also traversed by major rivers that have largely been used to serve commercial interests over recreation or quality of life – which translates to more pollution. But most notably, like many other aging industrial cities, we have dealt with diminished economic opportunities and declining populations.

A major cultural shift was needed. As Pittsburgh began to clean up and change, other cities (including mine) struggling with similar issues began to take notice. 

I still remember when Willard Scott, another broadcast legend, exclaimed early one morning on the Today Show, "Pittsburgh looks like fun!" He then went on to describe how the city was turning things around. It was reclaiming the rivers, building waterfront parks and amenities, promoting festivals and celebrating all that made it what it had been and what it had become. Pittsburgh had become a model for turning adversity into advantage.

The "hill and valley" terrain of cities like Pittsburgh and Chattanooga present unique challenges and opportunities. So, when I visited Pittsburgh, I tried to take note of how the city was managing to address this demanding natural feature. I also followed the city’s redevelopment efforts in city planning circles and local government trade publications -- looking for ideas to steal. Just as Pittsburgh’s industry had been world class, so was its remediation of industrial brownfields. As those of us who follow the fortunes of cities in transition were drawn to admire Pittsburgh's expensive new condominiums perched on slag heaps, somehow it was easy to completely overlook the city’s sidewalks. Let me explain.

Pittsburgh has something that is almost totally unique: Its sidewalks include a large number of public stairways -- 23 miles of pedestrian facilities made up of steps. It's another product of the city’s industrial heritage and topography. When the mills were built in the valley near the rivers and the residential areas developed up on the hillsides, it was necessary to provide some means for the workers to get from home to job.

One solution was the inclines. At one time, Pittsburgh had more than a dozen inclines, but now has only two. (By comparison, Chattanooga once had three but now has only one.) The steps were a necessary response to a public transportation challenge addressing both the steep topography and the public's limited ability to pay. A book by Dr. Bob Regan quotes Ernie Pyle from a 1937 column about Pittsburgh, "The well-to-do people drive to work. The medium people go on street cars and inclines ... and the poor people walk up the steps."

Dr. Regan, a geophysicist affiliated with the University of Pittsburgh, has spent a good part of his professional life walking and studying the steps of his city. He has produced two books on the subject: The Steps of Pittsburgh, published in 2004, and Pittsburgh Steps, published in 2015.  Intrigued by the subject, I bought a copy of the more recent edition and devoured the text, which is richly supported by maps, charts and photographs. I then telephoned Dr. Regan for an interview.  He was kind enough to oblige.

Dr. Regan explained why Pittsburgh’s steps are unique. He said that while historically hilly cities like Cincinnati and San Francisco once had numerous public steps, most communities have attempted to phase them out over the years. By his latest count, however, Pittsburgh still has 739 sets of steps -- with 344 of those sets counted as legal city streets. Although the city isn’t building more, it is still finding them as some are almost completely camouflaged by overgrowth.

Dr. Regan declined to try and place a value on the city's collection of steps as a significant piece of public infrastructure. He said the steps were first built in the early 1900s and mostly of wood. As they were heavily used and became worn over time, many were replaced with concrete and steel. "They tried to replace railings using aluminum a few years ago," he said. "Unfortunately, those didn't last very long." The value of the metal combined with the sometimes remote locations of the steps made them an easy target for scavengers. 

He described how even today some "orphan" structures are reachable only by steps and stressed how difficult repair and replacement will be due to the need to carry materials up or down steep terrain. How will those responsible for public works determine priorities? "Look for the most used steps," he said. "One way is to look for those that have been shoveled when it has snowed."

When I asked Dr. Regan for some fun facts about Pittsburgh's steps, he mentioned the special events that were created around these unique assets. The numerous climbs, runs and walks utilizing the steps were briefly discussed in our phone conversation, but are more thoroughly covered in his book. Dr. Regan was particularly proud of an event known as "Step Trek," which has been described as "a vertical party."

Those unique steps are just one more reason for city lovers like me to envy Pittsburgh. Yes, Willard Scott, Pittsburgh does look like fun, and in dealing with adversity and making use of what makes the city special, Pittsburgh presented a new challenge for the rest of us.

City Accelerator is helping Pittsburgh identify public/private alternatives to conventional arrangements for financing infrastructure, and the preservation of the city's steps is a major focus. More than a century ago, Pittsburgh's steps were a creative and innovative solution to the pressing problems of urban development. Today, the steps might be unique but the need to find new ways to finance infrastructure is almost universal. We can't wait to see what creative and innovative solutions will emerge.

Be part of the campaign for civic innovation at the City Accelerator, presented by Citi Foundation.