A bridge collapsed Friday morning in Pittsburgh near the intersection of Braddock and Forbes, hours before President Biden was due to visit that city to speak about America’s infrastructure.
I graduated from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh in the summer of 2000. Even then, as someone who grew up in New York, I chose not to own a car and to commute by bicycle, by bus and on foot. During my two years in Pittsburgh (“The Paris of Western Pennsylvania” as I called it), I lived in Squirrel Hill.
I could easily walk for groceries and coffee, and cycled to class. But when I finally finished school and packed up to move to Los Angeles, I decided to rent a car for my final days. This way I would have it for the necessary groceries and I could drive myself and my many suitcases to the airport.
It was a beautiful sunny afternoon and I decided to drive to a store in a mall a few miles away to buy some packing supplies. As I was driving home with a big packing bag of peanuts in the trunk, excited about my impending move and eager to start a new life in California, I drove from West Braddock to Forbes and crossed the Fern Bridge Hollow.
I saw a flash come out of the corner of my left eye and heard a loud bang. It felt like a giant hand had hit the side of the car somewhere behind my left shoulder. My car made three full turns, continuing across the bridge and into opposite lanes. Eventually the spin stopped but I continued to move sideways. I looked to my right and there were two SUVs racing towards me.
I remember I wasn’t sure they could stop in time, before realizing it didn’t matter: I was heading to the end of the bridge and into the woods and the ravine sunken. All that remained was to scream in terror.
And then, with a jolt even stronger than the original impact, the car came to a dead stop. Suddenly everything was calm. The front right of my car had wrapped around a rusty steel utility pole, preventing me from going into the ravine. Somehow, despite all the damage and deformation to the rest of the car, my seat and the side of the cabin were untouched.
I forced my door open and stumbled out. I looked at the 30ft rusty post that had stopped me. I looked behind me and saw a crumpled yellow Toyota that had stopped on the other side of the road. His driver ran over and apologized for hitting me. “My brakes malfunctioned,” he said. Other drivers came over to make sure we were okay and said the driver of the yellow Toyota was “like a bat out of hell”.
From what they described, he had made his way through eastbound traffic on the Forbes Straight. Just before Forbes meets the bridge to the east, there is a sharp turn. Looking at all the tire tracks and listening to other riders, I started to understand. The Toyota driver was driving too fast to make this turn. He tried to brake but physics took over. It lost control, went through the splitter and slammed into the left rear wheel of my car, cracking the axle and propelling the rear of my car perpendicular to my direction of travel. At that time, my car might as well move on rubber pads; there was simply no way to control it.
An ambulance, a tow truck and the police arrived a few minutes later. I remember the tow truck driver, a burly guy in a short-sleeved blue uniform who looked like he could tow a car without the truck, looking at the remains of my car and shaking his head. “How do you breathe, let alone walk? You should go to the hospital,” he said. The paramedics asked me if I was okay and if I wanted to go to the emergency room, I said I felt fine. They took my pulse, looked me in the eye; do the usual checks. “You should go to the hospital, you could have internal damage,” the tow truck driver said. One of the paramedics turned to him and said “shut up”.
The policeman examined all the tire tracks and listened to the accounts of the witnesses. I remember the Toyota driver repeating “my brakes locked up. They malfunctioned. But the police officer shook his head, saying ‘You can’t cross the double yellow line in the state of Pennsylvania’ as he pulled out his quote book and began to write.
“But what about my brakes?
I turned around and barked, “The sidewalk is dry. The brakes don’t just lock up. You were speeding up.
I asked the paramedics if they thought I should go to the hospital. They just said they didn’t find anything wrong. But I took the advice of the tow truck driver and went anyway. Everything seemed so calm in the back of the ambulance. I couldn’t believe what had happened; the day in two years I rent a car and that! I thought of bike paths on Forbes. Just a painted strip. If I had been cycling that afternoon, I would have been upset.
A doctor examined me in the emergency room and found nothing abnormal. So after about an hour of watching, they said I could go.
I came out of the hospital and suddenly remembered that I had no way home. I remembered that the packing supplies were still in the trunk of the wrecked car, now on their way to a junkyard. And the movers would arrive the next day. I still had to pack my bags. I had had enough experience with the Pittsburgh bus system to know that I would probably walk home faster.
So I started walking. It took an hour. It wasn’t that far, but Pittsburgh is as hilly as San Francisco. Squirrel Hill, as its name suggests, is path at the top.
As I climbed the tree-lined streets of Pittsburgh, I noticed many of those rusty old posts like the one that had kept me from entering the ravine. Pittsburgh once had an incredible surface rail system, perhaps rivaled only by the red cars of Los Angeles. But like so many cities in North America, it was all but destroyed in a colossal act of civic vandalism. The big steel poles that held the wires were all that survived. I thought about how I walked the “streetcar suburbs” that were once served by the great railroads of Pittsburgh. There used to be nearly 100 streetcar lines, but there was only one left, and it didn’t go anywhere near my house.
How ridiculous was it that it was so hard to get packing supplies without a car in a city that was once covered with such a massive public transit system? How absurd is it that a bridge in Pittsburgh that once carried streetcars now carries four lanes of automobile traffic, with nothing for bikes but a small strip in the gutter?
As I walked the hills of Pittsburgh trying to stop shaking, little did I know that a few months later I would be collecting signatures on the Santa Monica boardwalk to have the Expo Light Rail line built on a streetcar line abandoned in Los Angeles. This is how I met the people who were going to extend the Streetsblog network to California. This is how I ended up editing Streetsblog SF
This accident would continue to haunt me. For years I woke up screaming from nightmares. The horrors of road rage don’t just affect the physically injured. The tow truck driver was right: I was not well. But it also shocked me to realize how absurd our cities are, where once-great public transit systems have been replaced by land use and a set of monomorphic, self-uber alles policies that give people little choice on how to get around.
I finally got back to my apartment. My landlord was sitting on the porch. She said a nice tow truck driver stopped to drop off some packing peanuts and they were waiting at my apartment.
It’s amazing that no one was killed in the collapse of that same bridge on Friday morning. The president visited the site and spoke about America’s rusting bridges. “They’re going to fix them all,” he said. Certainly, the collapse highlights this need. But what a tragedy it will be if the country just rebuilds a bunch of car-only lanes and misses an opportunity to build protected bike lanes and restore the rail systems that those bridges once carried and carried people, safely, without pollution. , wherever they needed to go.