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Charlie Stewart
Bridges and Rivers and Tunnels—Oh My!
Summer 2010

Why hasn’t anyone ever figured out that Pittsburgh’s population might be declining for the simple fact that once people cross a river or go through a tunnel, they just can’t find their way back home?

Even with the latest GPS technology, it is with much trepidation that we East Enders venture out to the hinterlands of Mt. Lebanon or Sewickley.We liken it to going to a foreign country. We pat ourselves on the back if we make it all the way to a movie theater, restaurant, or shopping mall that requires navigating a bridge or tunnel. We are absolutely certain that with one small miscue we will end up at the airport.

A lifelong Squirrel Hill resident, I really can’t remember the first moment I was lost in a car. But my mother does.

“I was driving along on the Boulevard of the Allies with you and your sister, Poppy, in the back seat,” Mom recalls. “Suddenly I found myself going across the Liberty Bridge. When I said, ‘We are going to be lost,’ both you and Poppy started to cry.There was a policeman directing traffic and waving people into the entrance to the tunnel. So I stopped the car in front of him and asked, ‘May I make a U-turn and go back?’ He said, ‘No, lady, keep going straight through the tunnel.’

“I said to him, ‘If I go through the Liberty Tubes, I’m going to get lost, and you are going to get a call from your dispatcher saying there is a lady lost on the South Side somewhere, and you have to rescue her. Wouldn’t you rather just let me make a U-turn now?’ I pleaded, and at that point, he gave in.”

Whatever the word is for “fear of tunnels,” we’ve got it. Our tunnels are always backed up at peak hours because people slow down for whatever reason. But we may actually have it good. The Liberty Tubes are only two miles long. One can only imagine how long the backup is in Norway at the Laerdal Tunnel—the longest roadway tunnel in the world at 15.2 miles. They do a photo inspection and count all vehicles entering and exiting—I presume to make sure everyone eventually makes it out alive.

My real estate agent friend tells me that she has clients who are completely “paranoid” about buying a house where they would have to cross a river or go through a tunnel. “I locate them in the East End so they can drive through Schenley Park on the wayDowntown and look at the river,” she explains. “But they don’t have to cross it.”

Those with a serious fear of crossing bridges suffer from gephyrophobia, a panic that manifests itself with sweaty palms, labored breathing, dizziness, or a racing heart rate. There’s plenty of potential for gephyrophobia to go around here. Pittsburgh, often alluded to asThe City of Bridges, holds the world record for the number of bridges—446 total, 29 of which cross a river. That’s more than Venice, Italy.

And we aren’t even offered any help. Every year, 3,000 gephyrophobic motorists call ahead, and for $25, they are met by a private driver to escort them across the four-mile-long Chesapeake Bay Bridge.

Compounding our anxiety about bridges is the wonder of what to do when we get to the other side. An East End friend who emigrated to Fox Chapel told me, “It took us a while to figure out the roads when we first moved out here. All the roads curve and go off at strange angles one way or the other. You think you know where you are going and then all of a sudden you are on a different side road.”

A Squirrel Hill neighbor instructed her four daughters, all students at The Ellis School, not to make any friends from Fox Chapel because she didn’t know how to get there. And it works both ways. In my time, teenage girls in the South Side were told by their parents that should they ever drive across a river they would be in big trouble.

My best advice to our three kids: Don’t cross that bridge until you come to it. And if you do, best of luck!

With many thanks to SHADY AVE magazine for granting me permission to reprint on my website.


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