Geographically speaking, Pittsburgh is compact. The entire city is a mere 56 square miles with the main business district nestled into a triangle between the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers. End to end, downtown is less than two miles. And if you include Oakland, Pittsburgh’s second largest business district, it’s only about four miles.

Pittsburgh’s density is driving both commuting and real estate decisions. There’s been a 20 percent increase in the number of people who live downtown and for the first time in 50 years the number of US families without a car has gone up. And more than ever, people are making transit decisions based on health, fitness, affordability and environmental impact.

While nearly half of Pittsburgh commuters still drive, the city is uniquely positioned to offer a variety of options. May we suggest a NICE commute? That is, one with no internal combustion engine of your own. Here’s what Pittsburgh has to offer:

Bicycling

Biking to work in Pittsburgh has long been an uphill battle. Early naysayers said it couldn’t be done. The hills! The weather! But bicycling is bigger than ever in Pittsburgh, and the infrastructure needed to make bike commuters safer on roads is falling into place.

“It’s taken us 12 years to get here but now it’s taking off. It’s a mainstream thing. It’s not a marginal thing,” said Scott Bricker, executive director of BikePGH.

“Whats most exciting to me is that we have elected officials who get it and support it and want to make Pittsburgh a better place to live,” Bricker added, noting the need for other investments like more protected lanes, visual markings at intersections, bicycle boulevards and neighborhood greenways.

Next year Pittsburgh Bike Share will launch, providing 500 bikes for rent at 50 solar-powered stations throughout the city—making biking to work an option even for people who don’t own a bike.

In September, the walk bike run conference will take place in Pittsburgh and the city is working on a two-way bike lane on Penn Avenue downtown. That’s a sign—a big one—of progress.

Kayaking

There are a growing number of way cool kayak commuters out there. The Three Rivers Water Trail connects 72 riverfront communities with 20 completed access points (four more are on the way and 40 are on the list for long-term development). And once you make landfall you don’t have to schlep your yak to the office. There are storage racks at multiple locations around the city.

“It takes a lot of dedication to do it. In certain neighborhoods it is much more conducive, so there has to be an alignment of factors—where you live and where you work,” said Dave Malehorn, (pictured above) a laboratory manager at the University of Pittsburgh who sometimes kayaks to work.

“I time my commute to swing around the point around 7am when the sun is coming up and shining on the city,” he added. “The river at that time of day is amazing. Once you’re on the water you remember how beautiful the city is.”

Walking

Pittsburgh is hoofing it to the office more than any other city in the nation except Boston and Washington DC. according to a recent census report. Pittsburgh’s percentage of walkers is 11.3% of the working population. For comparison, Boston leads the way at 15.1% and New York trails us at 10.5%. There are also about 120,000 college students who mainly walk to class.

As Pittsburgh’s riverfront trails continue to expand, more commuters are walking, running and even cross-country skiing to work. And as walking to work becomes more popular, parking at trailhead lots is reaching capacity.

“It’s a great problem to have, isn’t it?” asks Thomas Baxter, executive director of Friends of the Riverfront, an organization that plays an important role in expanding the riverfront trail system. “The biggest challenge is communities wanting a trail. They ask when theirs is coming or going to be connected.”

The 18th St. Steps on the South Side, a major connector. Photo by Tracy Certo

The 18th St. Steps on the South Side, a major connector. Photo by Tracy Certo

The Pittsburgh Steps

There are more than 700 sets of stairs around the City of Pittsburgh–more than San Francisco and Cincinnati combined–that grace steep scenic hillsides around the city. Back in the day, these steps led workers down the hills and into the mills along Pittsburgh’s rivers. Today they are iconic and still very much in use, dropping walkers down to the main arteries of the city where they continue their walk to work or catch a ride on public transit. One example is the 18th St. Steps which acts as a main connector between the South Side slopes and the flats and provides a breathtaking view of the city. Not to mention a great workout.