Sunday, March 29, 2015

Pittsburgh's Pickle

There was an article out recently about how cities suffer a persistence of memory. (NextCity: How a City's Collective Memory May Predict Its Future) You have to wonder about that given the glaring example of the great Ketchup story this week past.

Of course the big business news of last week was the announcement that the food conglomerates Heinz and Kraft were merging. The news sent everyone in Pittsburgh into a tizzy, with both city and county struggling to respond to the publicity, though I wonder if any local politicians were consulted before any of this happened, or what local policies really have any impact on big business decisions like this.

Times change, dude!

The reaction to the news really is curious.  Given all the talk of new Pittsburgh and all the various catalysts talked about: eds and meds, high tech, Marcellus (and related) Shale... etc, etc, there rarely is ever any mention of food manufacturing.  Granted it was a big part of history here, but we are talking some ancient history at this point. Pittsburgh's Heinz roots date back long into the 19th century (talk about memory) and for a long time ketchup has been.. well, just ketchup.  In fact some say Ketchup has suffered from an innovation problem for years (New Yorker: The Ketchup Conundrum).

Even Big news jumped into the fray over what this all means for Pittsburgh.  No less than the WSJ asked: In Kraft Deal, Will Pittsburgh or Chicago lose more jobs? But how many jobs are here? WSJ mentioned a number that 800 Heinz jobs remain in Pittsburgh.  I wonder if the number is that high?  To start, the venerable producer of Ketchup has not actually produced any condiment, or any other product for that matter, locally in at least a dozen years. (as noted by the NYT years ago: Pittsburgh's Time of Transition) So really no manufacturing employment at all. Saving jobs at Heinz is mostly about whether the remaining headquarters staff will remain here in Pittsburgh. But again, has anyone asked what is remaining?

Seems like a recurring story in that just two years ago we went through this all when Warren Buffet and his Brazilian partners bought Heinz outright. Everyone wondered what would happen to what was left of Heinz back then. One of the stories that followed that transaction was some layoffs and focused buyout offers the new management apparently offered just to its Pittsburgh employees. Those past stories said that Pittsburgh based employment at Heinz was coming down pretty drastically from 1,200 to 800 workers here. That # I am guessing is the source of the 800 number recently quoted in the WSJ article this week. Is that # still valid given all the changes going on down there? Sure sounds like a lot of staff has been leaving from those news stories. I really have to believe the current employment numbers, at least in the city, are really more like half the lower number.

There are also some folks working at Heinz's Food Innovation Center in Warrendale, jobs that they have also been cutting back on in recent years according to the news. Though outside the city of Pittsburgh proper, I presume there still are test batches of ketchup made there, so yes, Heinz still does make Ketchup here. Kraft has it's own research programs as well, which they appear to have been focusing on improving in recent years, so there will be an impact there of this merger for sure. Hopefully this link is not a premonition of the division's future.

Whether the current employment count is 400, 800 or something in between, how big is that to Pittsburgh? Are all of those jobs at risk? Of course, every job matters to the person employed, but how much is at stake in any future reorganizations at the new Kraft/Heinz. The current numbers are that roughly 40,000 folks in Pittsburgh are employed in industry categorized as Management of Companies and Enterprises. That in itself is just over 3% of all jobs in the MSA. Then the entirety of Heinz's footprint here works out to maybe 1% -2%, at the very most, of that.

But whether the merger of the two firms brings more jobs to Pittsburgh, or further eviscerates what was once here, only time will tell.  To quote the great Carly Simon, and tomorrow we might not be together.

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Thursday, March 26, 2015

Pittsburgh's Seven Year Demographic Itch

So this is worth noting.   Some will see the wonkish news stories trying to decompile the latest dump of population estimates from the friendly gnomes at the Census Bureau.  The summary is that I was kind of expecting the net migration trend to dip negative a small bit in the latest year of data (July 2013 to July 2014,) but Pittsburgh just squeaked by for a 7th straight year of positive net migration. But we will put a * on that positive number. More later.

The news stories will mostly look at the overall population change, which I guess they have to, but the recurring story here is that the Pittsburgh region stands out as a place experiencing natural population decline (more deaths than births).  Since natural population decline is really a demographic legacy of changes literally decades ago, you need to think about it differently from what is happening today in the regional economy.  A big topic I've been talking about for a long time.

Here is total net migration for the Pittsburgh MSA since 2000. The historical trends before this were pretty much all negative every year (with one possible exception around 1991) going back pretty much to the end of WWII.  So the break in trend in mid-decade, with net migration turning positive for the region, was a big deal IMHO.

That the positive trend has extended for seven years is pretty remarkable.  For a region that experienced net migration losses on the order of 50K per year in the early 1980s, just being net even is an accomplishment, but still, the recent trend appears to be contracting.   It likely reflects that in early 2013 you saw the closest convergence of regional and national unemployment rates in the last 8 years. If that convergence had continued I would have really expected this net migration trend to turn negative.  But that trend did not converge more, so we will see how it all plays out next year.

What's the * in the positive net migration story, even if small.  I've graphed total net migration, which is the sum of net domestic migration and net international migration.  In this data, net international is almost always (there are rare exceptions) a positive number by definition.   Domestic migration is the number of people who move within the US each year.  Domestic migration has turned negative for the Pittsburgh MSA (-2,806 for the 2013-2014 period), again probably reflecting the past contraction of regional and national labor force trends.  So the only reason there was an, albeit small, positive net migration (+411) was due to the net international immigration number (+3,217 for 2013-2014). That number is still pretty small relative to most any other metro region in the country, but still responsible for offsetting most of the natural population decline and keeping the population stable. There is the headline.  (if you waited for it).

Addendum.. here is the by county super summary of population change over the most recent year of data:

1-Jul-13 1-Jul-14 Change
Allegheny 1,232,953 1,231,255 -1,698
Armstrong 68,110 67,785 -325
Beaver 170,060 169,392 -668
Butler 185,369 185,943 574
Fayette 134,799 134,086 -713
Washington 208,194 208,187 -7
Westmoreland 361,080 359,320 -1,760
Pittsburgh MSA 2,360,565 2,355,968 -4,597

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Monday, March 23, 2015

There (could be) an app for that - Pittsburgh Parking

Wonky news buzz over talk that the Pittsburgh Parking Authority (PPA) will pursue an app to pay for Parking. PG: App could be used to pay for Pittsburgh Parking

People forget, but it is something the PPA said would be in limited operation last year actually, following the model of...  Latrobe, PA. See the last paragraph in (Feb 2014): New App Lets You Pay for Parking on your Phone.  But hey, progress is progress.  How about the bigger question and imagine what might be possible if the Parking Authority actually made a live feed of some of its parking utilization data. I'll just point back to this post: Free our (parking) data. 

But this all could enable the real innovation in parking economics here...  resident discounts!!! or in the great duality of all things economic: non-resident surcharges.   Ponder that for a second and when it comes to pass remember where you heard it first.

Addendum...  what was the final story on the great missing parking meter story?  Remember: Audit can't trace missing parking meters.  What's a few tons of scrap steel anyway.  

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Monday, March 16, 2015

Who needs (Braddock)?

To use a particular vernacular, here is the bottom line up front: A law journal article just out will be of interest to most (of the remaining) readers here. Stanford law professor Michelle Anderson authored this just published in the Widener Law Review: WHO NEEDS LOCAL GOVERNMENT ANYWAY? DISSOLUTION IN PENNSYLVANIA'S DISTRESSED CITIES.

What is the foil for the article? The geography known to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania as the borough of Braddock, PA. While you may not quite catch it in all the legal verbiage, it really is a provocative thesis all but arguing that Braddock should cease to exist.

Braddock Films
Never mentioned, but I couldn't help thinking about the recent Kevin Sousa meme when reading it and maybe not for the reasons you may think. Hard to see any mention of Braddock in the popular press these days without a de rigueur mention of Sousa and his latest project: Superior Motors.  The recent PG article (Kevin Sousa, a visionary chef with fiscal issues on his plate) has sparked a new look at the project. The blowback on the article includes commentary out there such as this blog post: Everything is (Not) Awesome or “Is This Good Enough For Pittsburgh?

IMHO, I think both angles, or virtually all angles I see debated on this, miss the far more important story. I take for granted that Sousa himself is a positive change agent, but what happens if the project is successful? Or even wildly successful? A wave of prosperity comes to Braddock and spills over into neighboring communities? Some believe that has already happened.  I really do get routine queries from the media or other interested parties from all over the country asking some question about the dramatic turnaround that has already happened in Braddock.I think local folks get the difference between the vision and reality, but folks from afar don't get that message. It is a premise that I've pointed out belies some stark statistics including some of the steepest vacancy and poverty rates across Pennsylvania that have yet to show any signs at all of improving to date. If you think a restaurant is the solution to the problem, you are probably underestimating the structural problems Braddock and nearby municipalities have to deal with. 

1994! - see Lucchino referenced below.
I really think that the obsession on how big or impactful the new restaurant project can be for Braddock has a side impact of distracting the powers that be from the harder questions about the future of the borough and environs.  The more talk of the restaurant, the less talk of what it will take to address harder problems.  The problem is that the restaurant is really just the latest iteration of a recurring story of how Braddock has turned the corner,. You can't recall so many previous versions, including the earlier restaurant project in Braddock, because they have all been for naught. The redevelopment of the Mon Valley has been the county's primary economic development focus for decades, with plenty of headlines to show for it along the way. As a result we have had decades of folks talking about how much positive change is taking place in Braddock. I once was yelled at by a long since deposed County Commissioner for merely questioning the premise.  

What are those harder questions being overlooked? Well, there we come back to the law article just out that looks at just how dysfunctional some local governments are in Pennsylvania. The very first sentence of the article: "Pennsylvania is home to an exceptionally high number of small, fiscally troubled local governments—each one a monument to the decline of American manufacturing and its middle class jobs."

I'll be the first to quibble with the economic history embedded in that.  Braddock's decline started long before the decline of the steel industry, but the cause is not as important as the reality of today. Braddock, by most metrics of distress, has only continued downward over the last decade. Why is that?

Let's talk beyond Braddock to desensitize this all. Braddock in a sense is not the worst off place for its residents. Children in Braddock actually get to attend a functioning school district in the form of Woodland Hills. That is a result of the General Braddock school district being one of the original districts that were combined to form Woodland Hills as the result of a Federal consent decree three decades ago. The children of the neighboring Duquesne School District have no such luxury and have seen their schools literally deconstructed, with students unwanted by any other school district in the county, only to forcibly assigned by state fiat into nearby school districts. If you think Duquesne is an anomaly then go read the recent research showing Pennsylvania having the most unequal school funding in the nation.

School Districts, and municipalities such as Duquesne, or Rankin, or Braddock, all are forced to exist despite having no fiscal capacity to maintain minimal public services. I remain perplexed that there is no greater hue and cry over what is an ongoing miasma in Duquesne. Hence again, the law article focused on the hyper sensitive topic of municipal disincorporation and the greater failings of the Act 47 process in Pennsylvania which may have a counterproductive goal of keeping low functioning governments extant. Maybe they shouldn't be strung along.

If you read the footnotes to the article, and law authors do like their footnotes, there is a reference (warning, pseudo vanity alert) to a report completed long ago by former County Controller Frank Lucchino. His report titled Reclaiming Hope - Voluntary Disincorporation in Allegheny Countybrought up the topic that is like political kryptonite in Pennsylvania. Just coming out with that report was an act of political courage since similar talk has brought political careers to an end before and since. The article actually concludes by pointing out that if they were looking for new legislation to address municipal distress  then "state legislators should go back to the drawing board—the one that Frank Lucchino drafted for them years ago." Easier to talk about menus.

The Luccino article, and other sundry ephemera on this whole topic of fragmentation in local government in Pennsylvania is on my web page on the topic (minimally updated in a decade at this point).  To end I'll just throw out this illustration I put together years ago showing just how much local government there is in Pennsylvania:

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Saturday, March 14, 2015

All things Larryville - long past inflection

I'm kind of fascinated by the media's newfound interest in the changes taking place in the City of Pittsburgh's Lawrenceville Neighborhood.   One is this on some micro-development in this story last week: How much should this building worth?.   But also the piece last week: When did Pittsburgh's Lawrenceville become Larryville.  You might thing there is a new story somewhere.  But are any of these new stories?  Not really.  Just to begin, here is the Financial Times of all papers from a few years ago (2009):  Diamond in the Rust.

But the answer to the Larryville question goes back much further if you don't want to be superficial about it.  If you have any doubt see the map of real estate assessment changes that had already taken place between 2002 and 2012. I'd argue that the property appreciation represented in this map is most concentrated across a wide areas throughout Lawrenceville and emanating into its environs. Parsing that is a long long post, so hold that thought.  But that map looks like this which probably only captures a fraction of the appreciation that has been accelerating in the neighborhood since the assessment (making future current affordability in the neighborhood another topic altogether):


But that is only the beginning of the answer.  The most dramatic change in Lawrenceville has been its demographics.  I will tell you that as late as 2000, folks who think about these things would find me to ask me what was up with the census tracts in Lawrenceville because they were so old.  Many, many local elders lived in Lawrenceville, and not elders institutionalized into  Nursing Homes or similar locations that might alter the demographics exogenously.   Lawrenceville has one of the highest concentrations of elders living in their homes compared to most anywhere in the entire nation, thus giving rise to the concept of Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities (NORCs).

How and when then the demographics of the census tracts in Lawrenceville changed:

So again, the answer is not recently, or really not recently.   The inflection point (i.e. when the 2nd derivative, not the first = zero) in the time series for each of those trend lines is not even in the last decade, but well into the 1990s I would argue.   So then who and what is responsible?  You might want to go back into the 1990s to see some of the very focused and grassroots efforts. Try this from the PG in 1993: Sprucing up the neighborhood. Those efforts are what folks ought to be writing more on now if you want to give credit where due.

Those efforts probably aided in large part, by the lack of a large empty hospital in the neighborhood. I think I myself once wrote on Lawrenceville that "the real estate speculation must have already begun" as far back as 2002 in Goodbye, St. Francis.  The current story of Lawrenceville may have as much to do with just how low real estate prices were until very recently.  That distorts all these stories (and that map for the record) in the percentage change in real estate values.

Sort of a Pittsburgh story writ large in that even solid price appreciation has not really raised a lot of local real estate to levels that might be considered normal elsewhere.  Thus the stories of late (long after the real estate price collapses elsewhere) that Pittsburgh is still one of the most affordable real estate markets anywhere.  Lawrenceville prices were going unsold even to the "We Buy Homes" folks not long ago. As unbelievable that may seem at the moment, it fostered a wave of rehab, some truly stunning in what was done, but also some truly depressing in how quickly folks flipped homes after doing only basic work, often destroying more than improving.  Look up the modern use of the term "remuddling" which really must have been a term re-coined to describe some of what has been happening here.

But all that only touches the surface of a big topic, but nobody should think for a second that the Lawrenceville story, whatever that story is, is a story of now. It has been a long time coming.  If you want a more recent qualitative look at the changes going on within Lawrenceville, which is not just one universal answer, see the report and survey:  Who moves to Lawrenceville and Why?

If you are still reading this post, or even the blog I probably owe you a beer.   The lack of daily posts appears to have dropped the number daily unique readers from something like 500 to under 50.  Probably better that way.

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Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Uncle Martin asks.....

This is something a bit off-script.  The chair of the City of Pittsburgh Planning Commission has some issues with the proposed headquarters for U.S. Steel, the first major development in the works for the rebuilding of the Lower Hill District. Trib: Pittsburgh Planning official pans U.S. Steel headquarters proposal.  PG: Pittsburgh Official Does not Like proposed design of new U.S. Steel headquarters.

It is not like U.S. Steel and local government have never been at odds with one another.  It was more Big Steel's anger at some new Allegheny County (Pittsburgh, Allegheny County... whatevs) regulations over some pesky new air regulations that prompted the corporation to run these full page advertisements in 1976. Different context, but the sentiment may be in play again.

If that comes to pass, the doomsaying over development in the Lower Hill has also been in play for some time.  Recall that everyone thought the plan for a Penguins-linked casino was thought to be a sure thing once before being pre-empted, surprisingly, by the late Don Barden. Why was that? In part because it was linked to development of the Lower Hill and keeping the Penguins in town.  When it didn't come to pass, there resulted lots of gnashing over whether the Penguins themselves would leave the city.  Yes, that unthinkable was on everyone's mind, see Washington Post: Penguins' Future in Pittsburgh in Doubt.  But if the will is there, there is always a Plan B.

But back to the here and now.  There actually is an expensively-developed (and completed just last fall) Preliminary Land
Original caption reads:This illustration indicates the scale and
density that can be achieved by following the regulating plans
described on subsequent pages
Development Plan for the Lower Hill District
. I will leave it to the land use planners and architects to debate the finer points of what the plan intended vice what USS wants to build.

What I wonder about more is that if the finances do not allow for something more grand, for lack of an adjective, for this one parcel, how is it that the plan for a not-cheap multi-level park/bridge will be feasible not far away. That is a big part of the plan right? See last fall: @brotheroneill: Building Park over I-579 could cap rebirth of the Hill.  That has actually been part of the 'plan,' as far back as the Isle of Capri's vision for the Lower Hill District (see Pittsburgh City Paper 12/2/20016: For Hill Residents, Requests from Casino Developers May Be Too Much, Too Late )  Goes back to the difference between things proposed vice things that actually happen around here. Why am I thinking of the promised Intermodal Grant Street Transportation Center? ("It's as close to an intermodal transportation center as we'll get,")   But save that for later.

And yes, I know this was also in the the most recent post, but again this one advertisement just reminds us just how wide a gap there is between vision and reality for the Lower Hill.  Uncle Martin might be asking this question anew.....

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Monday, March 02, 2015

Downtown Pittsburgh is Dead; Long Live Downtown Pittsburgh

Just a passing note that Downtown Pittsburgh has been ranked #1 for 'livability.' See Trib: Pittsburgh's Downtown tops ranking of small to midsized cities.  One of those stories I bet everyone covers, and I'll add links when more coverage comes online.

But a decade ago there was so much talk of how quickly Downtown Pittsburgh was dying that I was prompted to write:  Is Downtown Dead? Hardly.

What a difference a decade makes?  Of course there have been a lot of changes Downtown, but a decade ago the talk that all things Downtown were imploding was so pervasive, and so unsupported by data, that someone had to point out the incredibly persistent strength of the job concentration in the city's core.  For slightly more recent parsing of Downtown employment numbers: Nullspace August 12, 2012 .

Of course the new ranking is about the 'livability' of Downtown, and  the sheer number of people living Downtown is a story unto itself.   Downtown Pittsburgh, i.e. the Golden Triangle, was once a place almost devoid of a residential population outside of a small handful (or less) of large high rise residential buildings.  A Downtown 'neighborhood' would have been hard to describe the non-incarcerated population was so small. I actually think the true Downtown 'neighborhood' was that which was once called the "Lower Hill District" (for more see "The Downtowners" in the last issue
of Pulp Magazine from 2004) which was as many know was unceremoniously quite ceremoniously leveled in the 1950s.  But that is another story, though a story coming up more and more often of late.

Nonetheless, the current numbers living within the Golden Triangle, whether that be the Census 2010 count of 3,629, or higher numbers others have estimated, is an achievement.  Probably worth keeping in mind that the population jump Downtown was highly subsidized achievement with a lot of construction supported by various forms of public or public-private investment.  Expensive, but a determined strategy and in large part it worked.  Note it is a somewhat different causal story in Pittsburgh than some similar population growth in Center City Philadelphia which has (arguably) been driven by a comprehensive tax abatement program on residential construction there.  

But how did we get here from there, or there from here? It might be interesting to look at the Downtown Pittsburgh plan from the mid-Murphy years.  Yes, it does include the vision for the maligned and abandoned Fifth and Forbes retail development (I'll point out there is a big skyscraper going in where the hat shop everyone was trying to save used to be), but there is a bit more there and quite a range of participants in the process. Read closely and find the small illustration for the plan to reintroduce a street grid across the Strip District, which is still my preferred plan, if the least likely to be implemented comprehensively.

On one last note. Recall that in 2000, the hope for Downtown living was so hard to defend that folks jumped any anything, any sliver of data, even if completely misconstrued, to believe. Below was a page 1 headline and story about the big jump of downtown residential population that appeared to show up in the 2000 census.  What was completely overlooked was that the expansion of the county jail had generated new population that exactly matched the net population growth Downtown.  So a lot of new, mostly young, people were indeed living Downtown, but I am just not quite sure that is what anyone really meant.

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Saturday, February 28, 2015

Say again Pittsburgh

If you have not seen the early print edition of the Post-Gazette, which isn't online yet, this will just be a teaser.  I will follow a practice Jim R. uses and make a blog here a place for the more extensive footnotes that don't fit into other publications.  Newspapers really do need a place for footnotes.

For the oped in the Sunday paper here are some relevant notes with links, all far more interesting that whatever I had to say about them. But if you can't wait until Sunday to figure out what this is all about, do your bit to save the dead fish club and buy some parchment.


cascade of regional marketing and public relations efforts... For just one example, see this classic 1985 WTAE video.  Also the city of Pittsburgh went and invited David Savageau, who put together the Places Rated report, to visit in the wake of the national publicity that came from the report.  At one point, Mayor Caliguiri tried to give him a ceremonial 'Key to the City,' but he refused the honor thinking it might give the appearance he was less than objective.See Post-Gazette, Almanac Author refuses key to city.

A single month at 10.0%.....      Bureau of Labor Statistics.Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey, Seasonally Adjusted Unemployment Rate. Online at:

What next? A city known to outsiders…      Article by Wilhelm, Kathy, Associated Press. Variously syndicated including, “Pittsburgh - country’s ‘best-kept secret,’ Nashua Telegraph, February 28, 1985. p.4.

Say it Ain’t Pittsburgh…   See: Loftus, Geoffrey, R., “Say it ain’t Pittsburgh,” Psychology Today; June 1985, Vol. 19 Issue 6, p8.   Also an earlier post from Nullspace here a few years ago covered the topic: April 26, 2007: Say it ain't Pittsburgh again or this from June 9, 2009: Ever more livable?

long forgotten is the fish...  See the relevant Wikipedia entry.  Sorry, but I couldn't resist.

a passing affliction for cupcakes..  for this I must defer to Mike Madison on Pittsblog in 2006: Truthiness of the Cupcake Class, which more than anything else explains the apotheosis of the Pittsburgh psyche struggling for some reason to be boastful prior to the G-20 (IMHO).

227 thousand more people departed ……     For my own calculation of that number see: Briem, Christopher P., “How Many People Left Pittsburgh During the 1980s?“ Pittsburgh Economic Quarterly, University Center for Social and Urban Research, University of Pittsburgh, June 2014, pp 1,4-5.

An additional note.  One of the more interesting things about the whole Loftus criticism of Pittsburgh's high ranking in 1985 was that the author/publisher of the Places Rated Almanac, David Savageau, not only took the methodological criticism to heart, but brought Professor Loftus onto his team for some of the subsequent editions of the publication.  See this picture of the two.

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Sunday, February 22, 2015

Gringo 45789

Just a map I've never seen before. Does anyone still refer to any part of the area between Ambridge and Moon Township as "Gringo"?

Historical telephone exchange map of the Pittsburgh region:


And for comic relief, this reminds me of the 2nd best episode from WKRP in Cincinatti which may be hard to understand in the era after the AT&T breakup.. but still:

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Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Railroading data

Yes, that 12 step program is failing me.

So the news, and some rather amazing photos, from West Virginia tell the tale of the recent train derailment not far from Pittsburgh. I think the photo highlighting a sign of "Boomer Branch Road" and a dateline of "Mount Carbon, WV" deserves a Pulitzer for its framing.

I've pointed out before the lack of publicly available rail data.  I really want to know how many other urban centers have as much oil moving by rail through them as Pittsburgh does these days. If someone has a data source to answer that, please let me know.

Why care?  Some may recall the impact rail accidents have had on Pittsburgh, including the evacuation of almost all of Bloomfield and environs in 1987.  More recently in Philadelphia, the final destination of much of the rail shipments passing through Pittsburgh, public officials fought to get the industry to release data for emergency planning.So still not public data, but a start.

I have no idea whether similar data access is an issue on this side of the state, but it sure is curious there have been no comparable media stories on rail data here as best I can tell.  It actually seemed pretty hard for our media friends to get officials to even admit there was any oil traveling by rail through the city at all. See this from  May 29, 2014:  "However, a state official said Bakken crude does come through Pittsburgh on the way to Philadelphia".  Talk about pulling teeth and stating the obvious.  

It turns out this all may be a passing phenomenon.  Some have speculated that a second order effect of the collapse of world oil prices may be to decrease the incentive to bring North Dakota oil to east coast refineries.  I think the argument is that it may now be more competitive to again import oil directly from overseas and shipped in via tankers.  We will see how that works out.

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Sunday, February 15, 2015

Ben Chinitz Redux

Just to keep the digital squatters from laying claim to this corner of the Intertubes, here is a quick thought. (Yes, this is what I do when cocooning from the cold.)

It is hard to read any local news, or any national news about Pittsburgh these days, without someone touting just how big a transformation has been going on here.  There is the inevitable story about this new business, or that new business, and it is easy to believe that those stories can be aggregated and extrapolated, and that we are really a hotbed of new entrepreneurship.  The thing is.. this is a big region, and for sure there are stories of smart innovative folks doing neat things.  The question is whether the region as a whole is really doing well. Remember, the plural of anecdote is not data, so you have to move well beyond any one story.

Over 50 years ago, so literally more than half a century, the economist Ben Chinitz wrote on the hard to quantify, but generally accepted, observation that being an entrepreneur in Pittsburgh was hard, or at least rare. We basically were not generating new small businesses. See: Benjamin Chinitz: Contrasts in Agglomeration, American Economic Review, Papers and Proceedings, Vol. 51, 1961, pp. 279-289

His theory was that the nature of the steel industry here actually inhibited the level of entrepreneurship that might normally take place. One sentence from his paper oversimilifies his thesis but gets to the rub of it: ".. you do not breed as many entrepreneurs per capita in families allied with steel..." (p. 284)

But now.. today, what is the state of entrepreneurship in Pittsburgh?  It is actually not much easier today to measure 'entrepreneurship' than it was a half century ago. But there is some data that is pretty current. So I took some data that the economic census has data on establishment births. This counts as at least a generic measure of new business creation. The data is from the Statistics on U.S. businesses, and specifically the Metropolitan Statistical Area totals for 2010-2011:

I basically filtered the data for, the 30 largest metropolitan areas (ranked by employment) and then quickly computed the ratio of new establishment births between 2011 and 2012 to the number of establishments in 2011. That gives a somewhat depressing benchmarking that looks like this.

So Pittsburgh is decidedly last, even now 50 years after Chinitz was one of the first to talk about this foreboding Pittsburghism so openly. Can we still look to the impact of industry structure and the nature of big steel writ large? Seems a stretch even if that legacy extends long past the contraction of the local steel industry.  Should we be looking for new explanations?  And what does it say about all the recent Pittsburgh buzz?

To be clear, this is just an elaborate factoid, one that clearly is not the whole picture.  But it certainly is worth keeping in mind when yet another 'What lessons does Pittsburgh have for us' type of headline.

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Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Banking on the Future (of Downtown Pittsburgh)

History is written by the victors they say.  That is about the only explanation I can come up with for how much of Pittsburgh's economic development history is not just forgotten, but literally unwritten from the record for the most part. This all came to mind because of some developments scheduled for today down at the City's zoning board on some proposed redevelopment for a new Pittsburgh Playhouse Theater.  Just spurred my thinking on what was once Pittsburgh's central effort to invigorate Downtown.

The new playhouse site is across from what was once called the Bank Center, a series of building's once known as Pittsburgh's Wall Street. Redevelopment of the Bank Building into an indoor urban mall (a modern Jenkin's Arcade?) was in itself a $10 million development effort (in 1976 dollars!). The redeveloped building included a range of shopping and entertainment venues including a disco named the Library (actually a franchise of a chain of disco clubs), and even included a movie theater. Actually what liked best was the quote that the site had a coffee shop named 'Cappucino' described as "an idea borrowed from the streets of Europe."  Who knew the retail coffee biz was a going to be a big new thing?

Foreign journalists used to point to it as an example of urban rebirth here saying things like "...Pittsburgh has the Bank Center." Local reporters called the project "an early entry into Pittsburgh's Renaissance II.." or as Pittsburgh's "Beauty mark" (I can't make this up) or even "Pittsburgh's Grand Bazaar."  Think the goal of a 24 hour destination is something new?  Prose that seems to have been excised from the modern media once described the omniplex when extant thusly:
"The Bank. 
The terseness of the title belies all that it connotes: A city-within-a-city complex where strolling shoppers scuff white marble... where society blends in an amalgam of disco dancer, yogurt-fancier and notion-hunter.. where the dishwasher's apron brushes indiscriminately against milady's mink.. where bookworm, moviegoer and girl-watcher function in unison and singular purpose during a morning, noon or night on the town."
The original project eventually went bankrupt and was pretty much shuttered by 1986. It would be a decade of effort before the site was redeveloped again, with great fanfare, by a partnership between Point Park University and the Carnegie Library which made the site into the Downtown/Business branch of the library system.  That lasted for another decade when the library moved across town to its current location across from the Gimbels Building (obligatory anachronistic geographic reference) and Point Park eventually acquired the building. Then there was the unrealized plan otherwise known as Fifth and Forbes which I suspect would have had a minor impact on the site, if it had happened.

With everyone now looking to Pittsburgh for answers, I wonder if we are picking and choosing the stories to tell? Might be more to learn from what we want to forget than from whatever the latest PR has to say.

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Monday, November 24, 2014

Cor-ten nevermore

I just don't have time to ponder how much Pittsburgh economic development history all weaves together in just one news item today: U.S. Steel to put headquarters on former Civic Arena Site. Banished forever is the Mellon Arena moniker of course. Moving on.....

Steel, the Penguins, the Hill District and the Civic Arena. So much Pittsburgh history all imploded together into a spatial singularity, it collectively is a bit sublime; and even more impactful on what it means for the neighborhood.  Keeping US Steel's headquarters in Pittsburgh has now, quite remarkably, become subsumed into all facets of the debate on Hill District re-redevelopment.

What I don't think has ever been written has been the omni-decade overview of how many redevelopment efforts there have been in the Hill District.  Many we know about, but many kind of get forgotten quickly.  Some efforts go way back (see photo below), but even much more recent efforts have been banished from memory..  I really don't think there has been one great effort to look comprehensively across the decades to explain how the Hill District has changed.

But back to today's announcement. This new project now pretty much swamps a dozen or so past efforts, or visions might be a better way to think about them, of the Hill District's future  I wonder how money and effort was spent in just working up this blueprint circa 1983:

But the location of US Steel's headquarters obviously still has an emotional tug for the 'Steel City.'   It is often overlooked that US Steel's headquarters through its first half decade of existence was actually in New York City befitting the corporation's genesis in the capital accumulation of JP Morgan. Only in the 1950s did Pittsburgh formally become the headquarters for the corporation.  Then, when US Steel morphed into USX in the 1980s, the headquarters of the holding company for a time was in Texas, only to return to Pittsburgh officially after Marathon Oil was divested. That history is forgotten probably because the  megalithic "Steel Building" seems to be a permanent presence defining Pittsburgh, or at least Downtown.  But in reality 600 Grant Street is a relatively modern building. The building itself only opened in the 1970s and before that the headquarters was located adjacent to Mellon Park.

Politics has long had a role in the location of the corporations HQ.  When air pollution battles were escalating in the 1970s, there was this full page ad blasted into the media. Begs a question of what would have happened if pollution control efforts had been derailed?

Old debates?


I forgot about this graphic from few years ago which is incredibly apropos to the topic This advertisement (circa 1961) presages just how intertwined the history of U.S. Steel and the Civic Arena have always been.  U.S. Steel asks us to "Look what the earthlings built!" but read the subtext as well.

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Monday, November 17, 2014

Old is new is old again: Pittsburgh immigration

Just connecting some dots across the decades....

Last week PG had this story: Restaurant industry largest employer of immigrants in U.S., but not in Steel city, a story that has struck such a chord it is being republished all over. I guess we don't eat? The testable hypothesis it suggests is that Pittsburgh has fewer restaurants per capita than you might expect compared to other cities/region. As much as I'm tempted, I'll let someone else try and model that. Then the PG passes on, via our PT friends, the factoid that indeed Pittsburgh remains one of the least diverse places in the US.

Any 'new' news here? Is the recent data any different from the past is the question? Consider that it has been more than a few years since @danfitzwsj wrote: In Pittsburgh, welcome mat is out to immigrants.  Do any of those themes sound familiar with any of the stories/initiatives of today? But you should have seen the e-mail I got from that story with people insisting a flood of new and mostly undocumented immigrants were already coming to Pittsburgh.  Remember that was almost a decade ago. I am sure that with a minimal bit of effort I could find older references that say much the same thing a decade before that.

I always wonder why there are there so may stories always about the new immigrants coming to Pittsburgh and only very rarely does anyone focus on the hard question of what might be keeping our immigration numbers  so low. Maybe the extra efforts we go through here?  Remember this telling NYT piece: Altoona,with no immigrant problem, tries to solve it. Or a bit closer to home if you insist, there was this narrative from the South Side: The other side of the fence. More recent, as in today, here is a piece of a Pittsburgh-catalyzed immigration story in the HuffPo: I'm a Not-Quite-Legal Alien in the U.S., and it sucks.So no, attracting more immigrants to Pittsburgh is a lot more complicated than putting up 'Come to Pittsburgh' billboards at JFK (not that I've heard of anyone doing that... yet?)

But going back to the first link on immigrants in the local restaurant industry.  More than a decade ago I once had a call from a New York based journalist on this topic of immigration in Pittsburgh.  When I explained how off the chart low our recent immigration numbers were, their immediate, and to them obvious, question was "but who drives the taxis?"  An interesting question again today is it not? Maybe more so than what is going on in the restaurant industry. In a lot of regions recent immigrants make up most taxi drivers. Certainly an overlooked angle on the emerging paradigm of crowdsourcing taxi service. At least it is not a debate here, as it is elsewhere.

Every time this topic comes up, I get the comments that insist everything is different now. In some ways yes, but in a lot of fundamental ways no. If there is something different these days, at least in the decade-perspective; t reallys is true that the new immigrants to Pittsburgh are very different from the past. (or see WSJ: A fading vision of the old world)

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Tuesday, November 11, 2014

World War II Vets in Allegheny County

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Wednesday, November 05, 2014

The race that wasn't

One of the things about this election cycle in Pennsylvania was just how sparse the races were.  Other than for governor, there was no major senate race, for example.  Most ballots voters saw were about as short as you ever get. Not even many referenda bouncing around to pad ballot choices to be made.  Since the gubernatorial race was itself so uncontested by all accounts heading in, not much there either.

Except there were all of these races for state house (the General Assembly) and state senate.  Lots of talk some make, but few take action to change the size of the legislature in Pennsylvania which has 204 house seats and 50 senators. But if you want one reason why so many sitting legislators look askance at any effort to change the size of the legislature, look at the effort they need to make to say in office.  Of the 203 General Assembly seats, 108 of them were uncontested on Tuesday. Literally only one candidate.  Here is a quick map of all the General Assembly districts which had only one registered candidate. For folks in all those 108 districts, the effective ballot they faced was even shorter than it appeared. My guess is the large number of districts results in smaller and and more homogeneous districts that have little incentive for both parties to compete in, so they don't. Creative redistricting cartography only reinforces that result.

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Friday, October 17, 2014

Velho é novo outra vez

As things seemingly wind down here, the history möbius continues.  One of the very first posts here was:  Greyfields are getting bigger every year, or Who Remembers Zayre's

The topic was some contemporaneous news of the then-young Pittsburgh Mills mall that had been built with the help of a lot of public investment.   In the news again this week. See:  Pittsburgh Mills to lose Sears store, auto center.  

Just a minor business story generated by the constant churn in retail businesses?  Maybe, except there is the sheer amount of public effort that went into getting the mall off the ground.  

It turns out the hyperlinks in my old post have mostly atrophied, but one was worth updating.  Former Trib journo Mike Yeomans' coverage of the history of the development of the mall is most certainly worth re-reading in light of the news this week.  See his meticulous history included in: Pittsburgh Mills muscles its way into landscape (from 2005). The history is really worth re-reading.  The story this week is not really about Sears closing its one store at the mall...

Still a great site by the way:  No lack of local stories there either. But Jason may need to update the entry on Eastland Mall which has been mostly returned to fallow since that story was written. 

and just in case you think old stories ever die (NOT)...  the most in -epth story on Bernardo Katz comes from just last month in Bernardo Katz, cellist hunted by Interpol. Who knew he owned 250 apartments in Omaha? And what is Michael Diven up to these days? But seriously, never in all of Western history has so much of Pittsburgh politics been translated into Portuguese. Read all the way to the end where you see he has visions of a book or movie on his exploits here.  If that comes to pass I hope there is a voice-over included from Jeff  Habay. (Where is the Angry Drunk Bureaucrat when you need him?) 

The book thing is not as improbable as you might think. Local political history makes it to mass media more often than logic might imply.  If ever there was a political metaphor begging to be expressed in monograph form, read the recently published: The Demon of Brownsville Road. I may have to buy a copy to convince myself that really was published in the trade press.

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Thursday, September 25, 2014

Pittsburgh: No longer 'Hell with the lid off'?

Curious nobody has really noticed that we are right now exactly 5 years past the G-20 Summit that was hosted here in Pittsburgh, September 24-25, 2009.  One could argue it was the singular turning point in the perception of Pittsburgh throughout the world.  If you forget the scale of media coverage at the timeliterally around the world, it was a bit crazy. What I noted at the time was how everyone loved to re-use, or rather mis-use the Parton quote, but the point is taken. Seriously, if there was a point in time that so quickly reset the image of any region more comprehensively throughout the world, it is hard to find an example bigger than the G-20's impact on Pittsburgh...  Still, and maybe much more so now after 5 years, worth asking the question: What did Pittsburgh learn from the G-20?

For me looking back, it really is a bit amusing read all the explanations folks give for Pittsburgh's rebirth, if you want to call it that... explanations that followed what was almost universal bashing from the pundits before. Remember Pittsburgh is the place where you want to be at the end of the world, because Pittsburgh only takes up a new idea 25 years after it has been adopted everywhere else... or however that old joke went?   Now, everyone is trying to figure out what we were doing over the last 25 years. Go figure. But the neo-punditry would make you think Pittsburgh hit the big 'easy' button and became a new place overnight.  But even if it took a long time, what were the reasons? Some say robots, others seriously suggest 'karma,' while others stretch pretty far to say it was our 'healthy living,' an explanation that is really about as cogent as saying it was the Fish that Saved Pittsburgh. Everyone has their own answer, which does not help anyone looking to follow our lead.

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Sunday, September 07, 2014

52 minus 23 =

The PG has a story on national demographics and the latest factoid of note that the biggest single age cohort in the US is now made up of those 23 years old.  See: Being 23: The meteoric rise of Millennials a powerful force. Sure sounds like the same is true here?

It also says that "The U.S. Census does not break down the number of people by specific ages like its national figures," which is not quite true.  The census itself has no local intercensal estimates is correct, but it certainly had single year of age data from 2010 and that tells a pretty different story for Pittsburgh. The Census Bureau's national age breakdown for 2014 is itself just an estimate, and their are comparable local estimates out there.

In 2010, the single biggest age group in the Pittsburgh MSA was certainly not made up of those 23 years old and it wasn't even close. The biggest age cohort in the Pittsburgh MSA in 2010?  52 years old.  In fact the 5 largest age cohorts in Pittsburgh (the MSA) were ALL in their 50s. The number of 23 year olds is not even close to the number of any of the age cohorts in their 50s.  So a fun story nationally, but not really a local story no matter how you look at the data, almost the opposite.  And no, the last couple years has not seen a complete inversion of those numbers for Pittsburgh MSA. Here is what I see for the 5 largest single year age cohorts here....

Age                    #    
52 39,916
50 38,949
51 38,904
53 38,803
54 37,986

For comparison:
23 29,457

Source: 2010 Decennial Census SF1,  Table QT-P2,  Single Years of Age and Sex: 2010  

Data is sacred they say, but actual digits are pesky. Turns out that among age cohorts before mortality impacts the numbers, say the ages18-60, the number of 23 year olds in Pittsburgh (MSA) is actually one of the smaller cohorts we have here.  Think about that and go re-read the article.

and for those wondering.. not even true in the city of Pittsburgh where the largest age cohort is made up of 19 year olds, most certainly because of the young matriculants at local colleges and universities. 


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Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Private Sector Unionization in Pittsburgh

I find it a little curious that given all the coverage of Labor Day in Pittsburgh, nobody has even taken a peek at what the data says specifically about the state of unions locally (I do see J.O. touches upon some state data, but that can be pretty diluted from what is happening here in Pittsburgh.)  The latest data for 2013 shows a pretty remarkable drop in private sector unionization here. See below.

While the data used to calculate that has a fair bit of volatility and sample error, note it is the same data used to calculate the unemployment rate we all over-parse each month. Probably comparable error in the two metrics, so either use them both or discount them both equally. With that caveat, the latest data is showing what has to be a new all-time low in the rate of unionization here, or at least the lowest since the Sons of Vulcan stood up shop here.  Again, given some measurement caveats, it looks like the biggest annual drop in data back to 1986 at least.

I will not be surprised if there is not some reversion in that dip when data for 2014 is calculated. Still, a decade ago I thought stabilization in this time series might lead to an uptick going forward. That looks not to have happened.

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Monday, August 18, 2014

Political Courage and Sophie Masloff

If you want to see a moment of sheer political courage, watch the late Mayor Sophie Masloff face an irate room full of supervoters arguing for some adjustments to local tax rates. Watch from time 1:00 forward of the video below saved by Dan Sullivan. Do the themes of keeping young families living in the city sound familiar?

Update: Video taken down because I could no figure out how to turn off the auto-start.. but you can see the referenced video here.

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Monday, July 21, 2014

Cactus Yunz?

Hagiography watch, but a view from down under: Why Adelaide should be more like Pittsburgh — a phoenix city that has reinvented itself.  Subtitled: Pittsburgh has gone from rustbucket city to thriving metropolis.

I do admit I wish they better cited some material there which I lay good odds comes form here, not that you would know.  But still I have to applaud that they alone among almost every other media reference to the timing of it all get it:  "And to add insult to injury, the Steelers missed the playoffs in 1981, presaging a decade of poor performances for the home team."  So only the Australians realize that the Superbowls of the 1970s were not played during the economic miasma of the 1980s.

But also I note an odd Australian only take on what could be construed into a more creative-cities amenity type argument.  They note "As a measure of vibrancy, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported in May that the city had the most bars per person — 12 per 10,000 — of any city in the US."  Of course I don't know how one would impute causality given that I suspect we had a pretty high bars-per-capita metric decades ago as well.  I mean, some city neighborhoods were hip before there was hip if that is the metric that matters.

and to think I once blogged here worrying that the Australians were going to hate us.  2007: Thought she was cactus??

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Sunday, July 20, 2014

Pittsburgh immigration stats update

I don't think anyone has looked at this specifically as yet, but the most recent data on immigration statistics from the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) are out and this is what the data says for Pittsburgh through 2013:

I know there are strong opinions out there to the contrary, but at least in this rather hard data there is only an elusive trend at most in there for Pittsburgh. But what has been a robust trend for Pittsburgh, the immigrants settling here from Asia again form a supermajority in the region.  Of the 2,645 new permanent residents in Pittsburgh in 2013, just a smidge under 2/3rds (65.7%) were born in Asia or Oceania.   Just 399 were born in Europe. Still, 2,645 is a relatively small number no matter how you want to benchmark it. Boston for one possibly unfair comparison came in at 23,837 over the same year. But how about Columbus, OH which had 4,868 new permanent residents in 2013.

Of course 'lawful permanent residents' refers to just one part of the immigration flow impacting most regions.  Many here on temporary visas are not captured by these numbers (but they would be captured when they convert there status to any permanent visa) and then there is the more complex debate that is too much to get into right here on the number of undocumented immigrants here in the region. 

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Monday, July 14, 2014

Transit Transitions

Trib mentions that former Port Authority of Allegheny County CEO Steve Bland is up for a new job in Nashville. My still extant Google news filter for Steve Bland is fired for not catching any of this. A fuller story is from The Tennessean: Ousted Pittsburgh transit exec leads pack for MTA job. Note the version they have of his ouster here.

Who cares eh?  What I find curious is there is at most only cursory discussion of public transit in the whole debate over ridesharing and deregulation of the taxi industry.  Think they are not connected... they were just recently per this news article from 2012. Note the argument over privatizing bus routes covered in a recent article with this quote: '"They control the cab business," he said of the PUC. "What good has that done?"'

Anyways I digress. I was curious how big a deal this job in Nashville was. According to the National Transit Database, the most recent number of "unlinked passenger trips" I add up for the two transit agencies looks like this:

So basically Mr. Bland is taking over an agency with ridership numbers more akin to that of the EBA.

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Thursday, July 10, 2014

The Jitney in all of us

The whole fight over ridesharing in Pittsburgh is so much more bizarre than you may think if you just stick to the headlines. Where to start?

The fight is all being portrayed as the vast new network of entrepreneurial drivers against the vast pseudo-monopoly of Yellow Cab (there are some other taxi services in play, to include at least in a niche way the local Veterans Taxi service, might be interesting to get their opinion on the record about all of this?). So who is Yellow Cab? It is itself a subsidiary of the international conglomerate Veolia. So what?  Veolia is the same company that some of the same folks fought hard to get the contract to professionalize the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority, which is key to a set of enormously important infrastructure that have to be addressed in the region. So to be clear möbius here, the city is fighting the corporate entity known as Veolia which runs in a very similar way yet another regulated entity operating coterminously within the City of Pittsburgh. I don't know what I'd think about the city if I were running the company. Friend or foe?

But the whole ridesharing debate has much larger political angles. Take for example that no less than Grover Norquist is a big big fan of what Uber could mean for the future. Via Reuters: How Uber can help the GOP gain control of the cities. That is not a new idea in a sense and there is a theme going back. If you dig into it deregulation of local taxi service has been an idea pushed at least as far back as the Reagan Administration. See this from the 80s: An Economic Analysis of Taxicab Regulation

It all may even be a bigger political deal than that. Looking back, I'd argue ridesharing was the determinative tool used by protesters to maintain the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955/6. What am I talking about?  To get boycotting riders to work, alternative transportation including ad hoc taxi service was set up. It had much the same challenges as alternative taxi service today, to include proper insurance which was eventually supplied by Lloyds of London. The effective alternative transportation is arguably what forced the bus companies to back down since it sustained the boycott and kept business away from the bus companies. (Uber and Lyft PR types: you're welcome for the future talking point).

But is that analogy valid here? Maybe, but I tell you something as an observer of local political machinations, did anyone fighting for Uber today ever expend any similar efforts defending the rights of Jitneys to operate their very similar ridesharing service, one that they do routinely get ticketed for by the PUC? Just asking.

Anyways, there are a lot of conflicting ideas out there about the actual facts on the ground. Lots of folks seem to think Uber and Lyft are operating in Philadelphia. That mostly isn't true, at least they are not operating as they are trying to in Pittsburgh. Don't believe me, read the statement from the company as reported by the Inky recently:  "(UberX) has no plans to seek the Philadelphia Parking Authority's permission to offer ride sharing ". In fact the closer analogy to what Uber is doing in most places is the competitor Sidecar which was shut down by Philadelphia regulators.

There is an interesting sidebar to that story in that Philadelphia long ago repatriated the right to regulate the taxi industry in the city there. But it is not the City of Philadelphia that exercises that power, it is the Philadelphia Parking Authority that exercises that regulates taxis there. Some want to do the same thing here, but do we want to give the Pittsburgh Parking Authority vast new powers to regulate an entire industry?  The unintended consequences of implementing similar here could potentially swamp whatever the nominal intent is. Whether it is even legally possible is lost in state law, and lawyers better start reading the state's public authority law to determine what is even possible.

Another myth I hear is that Pittsburgh's taxi operate as a medallion service which some are used to elsewhere in places like New York or Philadelphia. To be clear, there is no taxi medallion system here fwiw. In fact, it appears the taxi medallion system was introduced in Philadelphia as a reform to improve the taxi system there. I can't begin to say whether that worked.

and for your intertube long-tail zen research... check out:

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