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Ten Questions with Todd Wilson

By June 13, 2023June 16th, 2023Blog

Todd Wilson really loves bridges. 

Todd is a graduate of Carnegie Mellon University and an award-winning transportation engineer with a deep appreciation for Pittsburgh bridges. He is a Trustee of Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation’s Landmarks Development Corporation, the author of several books including Images of America: Pittsburgh Bridges, and has served as History & Heritage Chair for the Pittsburgh Section of the American Society of Civil Engineers. You can find him giving riverboat tours for Doors Open Pittsburgh and follow him on Instagram @pghbridges – he is an internet-famous bridge photographer!

We sat down with Todd to chat about his career as a transportation engineer, his passion for bridges, and what the Completing the Loop plan means to him. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Q:What did you like to do as a child? 

A: My favorite thing to do in Pittsburgh as a kid was to go around the area and photograph bridges. My father ran a photography studio, and he bought me my first camera when I was six years old. My mom was an art teacher, so she encouraged me to draw bridges. In elementary school, I was photographing bridges, drawing them, and researching them. I guess some things never change.

Q: Did you always know you wanted to build, or did you run into a fork in the road with another career path?

A: Everyone told me that since I liked bridges, I should become a civil engineer. However, in order to see bridges growing up, I had to learn how to read a map and navigate our transit system to go visit them. I developed an appreciation for the entire journey [to see the bridges], seeing how our transportation system developed along the way. Therefore, I entered Carnegie Mellon intending to be a highway civil engineer but ended up as a traffic civil engineer, wanting to tie roads and bridges together.

Q: What do you think sets traffic engineering apart from other engineering disciplines?

A: Other forms of civil engineering, such as structural engineering, highway engineering, and geotechnical engineering, are more analytical based. While all engineering disciplines involve coming up with a solution balanced against constraints, traffic engineering requires more than just creating a design that simply meets design standards or satisfies a project’s purpose and need. It involves consideration of how to best apply multimodal mobility for users of all ages and abilities to our engineered road, bridge, and transit systems. How do you quantify that? 

Q: What is the most important factor to consider when you are designing a project?

A: The most important factor is how a project can improve safety and mobility for drivers, pedestrians, bicyclists, and transit users alike without degrading travel time for any of those users. That’s why I try to incorporate road safety assessments and traffic capacity analyses into planning projects when I can, to try to find a solution that can work before a project reaches the design stage.

Q: In your book “Images of America: Pittsburgh Bridges,” you talk about how the development of Pittsburgh’s ubiquitously convoluted roads is linked to the development of the city’s bridges. What are some of the more interesting abnormalities or inconsistencies in Pittsburgh’s road map that you’ve found throughout your work?

A: Due to [Pittsburgh’s] topography, clues [from the past] are always left behind. If there is something that does not make sense about a road or intersection, chances are that if you peel back layers of time, you can find out why. For example, when you drive uphill approaching the Boulevard of the Allies, Bates Street may start to feel like it is in its own little valley, but there used to be a retaining wall on its left side. Halket Street connected to Bates Street there on a tall bridge over the ravine. Today there is a level, grassy area along the Boulevard of the Allies there where the ravine used to be. If you ever find flat land or athletic fields up a hill in Pittsburgh, it indicates the area probably used to be a valley. 

Q: To you, what is the most challenging aspect of transportation design?

A: As a traffic engineer, I feel the most challenging aspect is creating a solution that works better for everyone within fiscal and schedule constraints. Projects could be so much better if we had the time and money to do a project right. Yet doing so might mean delaying a project for years and years while making it so costly other projects cannot get done. So, it is challenging that Phase 2 or the long-term recommendation may not happen sometimes.

Q: Most rewarding part?

A: The most rewarding aspect [of transportation design] is seeing [a project] be completed and work well, especially when you can tell it makes a positive difference. For example, I had the opportunity to redesign a signalized intersection in Pittsburgh a decade ago. We add[ed] overhead lane assignment signs, which helped drivers know which lane to be in, and vehicle detection, [which] reduced congestion at the intersection. We also added accessible pedestrian signals that made it easier for people of all abilities to cross, and gave them more time to do so. I use this intersection frequently, both as a driver and as a pedestrian, so it is incredibly rewarding how much better it [the redesign] has made things overall.

Q: Favorite bridge in the world. Why?  

A: I’ve probably seen 5,000 different bridges in all 50 states and nearly 30 countries. Picking a favorite is impossible. However, [one of] my favorite types of bridges are early metal bridges from the 1800s. Back then, different companies specialized in different styles, and each company generally had their own patented proprietary details. They [the companies] would also try to copy each other’s designs, too. There is just so much you can tell about an old metal bridge if you know where to look. And stylistically, I love the tunnel effect when crossing an old metal bridge, which ironically, Pittsburgh’s Art Commission rejected for our [Pittsburgh’s] bridges.

Q: Favorite bridge in Pittsburgh. Why? 

A: How about three favorite Pittsburgh bridges? One is the Smithfield Street Bridge, which is our oldest metal truss bridge. Not only is it an outstanding and rare example of a lenticular truss, it was built above the old Roebling bridge it replaced, and was designed to fit the piers of a suspension bridge that was canceled. Another favorite is the 16th Street David McCullough Bridge, which is probably Pittsburgh’s most beautiful bridge from a design perspective. It was modeled after an arch bridge in Germany and decorated with models of a fountain in Paris. Finally, the McKees Rocks Bridge, our longest and most varied, is another favorite. It was modeled after New York’s Hell Gate Bridge. Architecture truly blends with engineering with the McKees Rocks Bridge, as the inner and outer arches were designed without cross bracing to be open to create such an impressive effect when driving across. 

Q: Can you talk a little bit about what Riverlife’s Completing the Loop plan means to you?

A: What sets our city apart is its incredible vistas and scenic rivers. It was not always this way. As [Pittsburgh] developed as an industrial city, our recreational amenities were placed as far away as possible from our polluted, rivers lined with factories. It took great visionaries to help clean up our city and help transform the place where no one wanted to be into the place we all love today. That’s why Completing the Loop is so important, so we complete our reclamation of the riverfront as our key recreational amenity. [Completing the Loop] is also something that is part of my personal experience growing up in Pittsburgh. Around the time the section of trail was developed along the Allegheny River between the Veterans Bridge and the Three Sisters, I started working in my dad’s photography studio. He never wanted to pay for downtown parking and he wanted the exercise, so he always parked near the Veterans Bridge and walked the trail to his studio downtown. When I think of the riverfront today, I always think of those typical days carrying tripods on the trail to and from the studio with him. The Riverfront is part of all of us Pittsburghers, so Completing the Loop helps complete our shared relationship with life in Pittsburgh.

Check out more of Todd’s spectacular shots on Instagram @pghbridges and @bridgemapper.

All photos courtesy of Todd Wilson.