Friday, March 14th, 2014

Did Robots Save Pittsburgh?

Glenn Thrush over at Politico had a lengthy article called “The Robots That Saved Pittsburgh” which has been getting quite a bit of attention:

Pittsburgh, after decades of trying to remake itself, today really does have a new economy, rooted in the city’s rapidly growing robotic, artificial intelligence, health technology, advanced manufacturing and software industries. It’s growing in population for the first time since the 1950s, and now features regularly in lists like “the Hottest Cities of the Future” and “Best Cities for Working Mothers.” “The city is sort of in a sweet spot,” says Sanjiv Singh, a Whittaker acolyte at Carnegie Mellon who is working on the first-of-its-kind pilotless medical evacuation helicopter for the Marines. “It has the critical mass of talent you need, it’s still pretty affordable and it has corporate memory—the people here still remember when the place was an industrial powerhouse.”

Improbably for a blue-collar town that seemed headed for the scrap heap when its steel industry collapsed, Pittsburgh has developed into one of the country’s most vibrant tech centers, a hotbed of innovation that can no longer be ignored by the industry’s titans.

Pittsburgh has been getting a lot of press for its job growth, income growth, and even the reversal of demographic loss in switching from net out migration to net in migration. But is the hype warranted?

To look at whether there really has been some boom in the brain-powered economy, I decided to look at college grads. After all, if brains are what is powering Pittsburgh, then we’d expect to see more brains collecting there.

First let’s look at metro area college degree attainment change since 2000 vs. other large Midwestern regions:

Rank Metro Area 2000 2012 Change in % of Total Adult (25+) Population
1 Pittsburgh, PA 396,981 (23.4%) 513,838 (30.5%) 7.11%
2 Minneapolis-St. Paul-Bloomington, MN-WI 633,112 (33.3%) 881,581 (39.5%) 6.20%
3 St. Louis, MO-IL 435,940 (24.8%) 586,547 (30.8%) 5.93%
4 Chicago-Joliet-Naperville, IL-IN-WI 1,679,306 (29.0%) 2,190,424 (34.8%) 5.83%
5 Columbus, OH 291,995 (28.3%) 419,136 (34.1%) 5.76%
6 Indianapolis-Carmel, IN 260,705 (26.5%) 377,189 (32.1%) 5.59%
7 Milwaukee-Waukesha-West Allis, WI 260,981 (27.0%) 337,253 (32.5%) 5.51%
8 Kansas City, MO-KS 334,225 (28.0%) 460,391 (33.5%) 5.49%
9 Louisville/Jefferson County, KY-IN 163,080 (21.2%) 233,566 (26.5%) 5.37%
10 Detroit-Warren-Livonia, MI 676,906 (23.2%) 819,347 (28.2%) 5.01%
11 Cincinnati-Middletown, OH-KY-IN 319,469 (24.8%) 419,714 (29.6%) 4.78%
12 Cleveland-Elyria-Mentor, OH 343,103 (23.9%) 405,731 (28.5%) 4.58%

Pittsburgh is #1 and is one of the tops in the country in its increase in share of the adult population with college degrees. That’s good news. However, this isn’t all it seems. Pittsburgh is the clear #1 among large metros in the percentage of its population over age 85. Last I checked it was also a rare metro with natural decrease, that is, more deaths than births. Pittsburgh’s attainment rates are being boosted at a higher rate than other places because more poorly educated older cohorts are dying.

Let’s look at it in terms of actual brains, the people with degrees:

Rank Metro Area 2000 2012 Total Change Pct Change
1 Indianapolis-Carmel, IN 260,705 377,189 116,484 44.68%
2 Columbus, OH 291,995 419,136 127,141 43.54%
3 Louisville/Jefferson County, KY-IN 163,080 233,566 70,486 43.22%
4 Minneapolis-St. Paul-Bloomington, MN-WI 633,112 881,581 248,469 39.25%
5 Kansas City, MO-KS 334,225 460,391 126,166 37.75%
6 St. Louis, MO-IL 435,940 586,547 150,607 34.55%
7 Cincinnati-Middletown, OH-KY-IN 319,469 419,714 100,245 31.38%
8 Chicago-Joliet-Naperville, IL-IN-WI 1,679,306 2,190,424 511,118 30.44%
9 Pittsburgh, PA 396,981 513,838 116,857 29.44%
10 Milwaukee-Waukesha-West Allis, WI 260,981 337,253 76,272 29.23%
11 Detroit-Warren-Livonia, MI 676,906 819,347 142,441 21.04%
12 Cleveland-Elyria-Mentor, OH 343,103 405,731 62,628 18.25%

Pittsburgh doesn’t look so great here. It’s towards the bottom even in Midwest metros in percentage gain in the total number of adults with degrees, and the total number of new grads is lower than in some other Midwest metros that are smaller than Pittsburgh.

However, let’s look at a core municipality view. (Louisville excluded because of a city-county merger):

Rank Municipality 2000 2012 Total Change Pct Change
1 St. Louis city, MO 42,338 65,161 22,823 53.91%
2 Columbus city, OH 128,058 177,251 49,193 38.41%
3 Pittsburgh city, PA 57,267 77,500 20,233 35.33%
4 Chicago city, IL 462,783 623,484 160,701 34.72%
5 Kansas City city, MO 73,824 98,806 24,982 33.84%
6 Minneapolis city, MN 91,027 119,231 28,204 30.98%
7 Milwaukee city, WI 64,742 79,520 14,778 22.83%
8 Indianapolis city (balance), IN 127,608 152,998 25,390 19.90%
9 Cleveland city, OH 33,949 38,369 4,420 13.02%
10 Cincinnati city, OH 55,215 56,938 1,723 3.12%
11 Detroit city, MI 61,836 56,770 -5,066 -8.19%

Here Pittsburgh is back to showing strong growth. I should also point out the very good showing by St. Louis, a region conventionally viewed as slow growth. Pittburgh had strong growth in people with degrees inside the city. If I were to judge just based on this quick look at the data, the relatively small city of Pittsburgh appears to be gearing things up around its educational complex, but the rest of the region is still somewhat a laggard in brainpower growth. The high tech turnaround may be more a city of Pittsburgh story than a regional one.

Topics: Demographic Analysis, Economic Development
Cities: Pittsburgh

60 Responses to “Did Robots Save Pittsburgh?”

  1. John Morris says:

    Young educated blacks are the one large group leaving the area. Sadly, I don’t see that turning around.

    Yet another link to the Teenie Harris Archive.

    This is what I mean by the sacking of Rome.

  2. Ryan Moeslein says:

    Actually, John, I’ve lived in Pittsburgh all of my 32 years. In fact, I grew up on the North Side, aka the flood plane of the Allegheny-Ohio River (hydrologically, the are considered to be one). And, no, I don’t work for a PR firm. I just happen to be able to understand things in context. Has Pittsburgh experienced flooding? Yes…it rains here. Is flooding a problem particular to Pittsburgh? Nope, not remotely. See, John, what you’ve done is make a false induction. Certainly, you’ve established your base case; it has flooded in Pittsburgh. But in order to prove your point, you’d need to demonstrate that Pittsburgh is particularly prone to flooding, over and above other cities. Unfortunately, the data do not obtain.

    You seem to like links, so I’ve got one for you: As you can see, Pittsburgh is not particularly prone to any sort of natural disaster (though I disagree with the overall assessment of the safety of the Pacific Northwest…they do live on the Ring of Fire).

  3. John Morris says:

    “But in order to prove your point, you’d need to demonstrate that Pittsburgh is particularly prone to flooding, over and above other cities. Unfortunately, the data do not obtain.”

    Do we really need to go there?

    Many parts of that area are very vulnerable to flooding & landslides & many are not. A macro stat on “natural disasters” does not capture the reality on the ground. Your thinking is childish.

    My point by the way- is not that Pittsburgh is some kind of dangerous hell hole- just that it is a tricky area that requires well thought out development.

    Ironically, many of the areas least exposed to problems- like most of the North Side are the least developed. Blow up Heinz Field!

  4. Marty says:

    There were never many African Americans in the first place and that’s my point. If you doubled the region’s minority population, how would Pittsburgh stack up to its peers? I think it’s clear Pittsburgh wouldn’t look much better than St. Louis or Cleveland.

  5. Ryan Moeslein says:

    “Many parts of that area are very vulnerable to flooding & landslides & many are not. A macro stat on “natural disasters” does not capture the reality on the ground. Your thinking is childish.”

    Oh dear…ineloquent and condescending. You must be the life of the party!

    You state that the basic problems facing Pittsburgh derive from two sources: politics (true, but arguably so everywhere) and logistics due to the city’s situation on flood prone river valleys. On this second point, while it is true that parts of the city are on flood planes, it is not true that we are especially prone to flooding. Yes, it’s flooded here and some people have suffered for that. It’s also true that it snowed in the southeastern states in late January and that 13 people died as a result. By your logic, one is forced to conclude that the southeastern states are particularly vulnerable to snow storms that this is one of the basic challenges facing the region.

    You, sir, do not understand the difference between anecdote and well-established fact. I would explain in greater detail to you, but clarity of thought does not seem to be a particular talent of yours.

    Also, Johnstown is not Pittsburgh. It’s not even in the CSA. What are you, a finger painter moonlighting as a civil engineer?

  6. John Morris says:

    I really don’t think too many people who know the region and are not trying to evade reality would argue that this isn’t a significant issue.

    The problem as a whole is flash flooding- erosion, and landslides. (Ever see the back of Bloomfield?) By nature, this is always a localized event and can’t be captured in some macro stat on “natural disasters”.

    Pittsburgh Flash Flood gets 154,000 entries on Google search
    Pittsburgh Rock Slide gets 260,000 entries
    Pittsburgh Landslide gets 460,000 entries

    A good PDF on Pittsburgh Geology & landslide risk.

    “The Monongahela River is named for the Native American word
    “Menaungehilla” which means “river with the
    sliding banks” or “high banks, which break off
    and fall down.”

  7. Ryan Moeslein says:

    “Pittsburgh Flash Flood gets 154,000 entries on Google search
    Pittsburgh Rock Slide gets 260,000 entries
    Pittsburgh Landslide gets 460,000 entries”

    Oh my, oh my…let’s try to use the Google search results as evidence. Yes, let’s:

    Seattle Flash Flood: 324,000
    Seattle Rock Slide: 1,290,000
    Seattle Landslide: 825,000

    Oh, and just for the fun of it:

    Pittsburgh Alien Abduction: 7,070,000

    Fun, isn’t it?

  8. John Morris says:

    Seattle of course also has pretty big problem – as a hilly area with lots of rain.

    From 3 days ago:

    “Crews are working to get a Pittsburgh street reopened after a landslide.

    Authorities said the landslide happened on Swinburne Street between Greenfield and Parkview avenues.


    Pittsburgh Public Works is clearing the debris and assessing the stability of the hillside.”

    You have also misrepresented what I said..

    A) I pretty clearly said- the flash flooding of hillsides, small creeks and overloaded sewer systems was now the biggest issue- not the rising of the major rivers. (Although regional a Federal Authorities seem to be allowing the main river dams to deteriorate)

    You are very right in saying that the city still has lots of land to develop where the risk is low. But is it using that land well? Surface parking, stadiums & under building still occupy critical eras of the city.

  9. Ryan Moeslein says:

    Forgive me my irreverence, John. I was merely having fun with what I considered to be a somewhat specious argument. From my perspective, of all of the issues that prevent Pittsburgh from moving forward, flooding ranks somewhere below a beaver-zombie apocalypse.

    I couldn’t agree more that the city isn’t using much of the land very well. The lower North Side is a disaster, as well as Allegheny Center; the Hill and about a third of Uptown ought to be torn down in favor of new row houses; and the parking lots that flank Station Square are sorely in need of mid rise residential development.

  10. John Morris says:

    That is a bare start. People in East Liberty think a Home Depot that occupies 4-6 square blocks is great. Almost every decent sized building like the Highland, or Armstrong Cork has to have a massive parking garage to be developed.
    un-taxed “non-profits” like the colleges and UMPC continue to absorb and waste more property.

    The flooding risk in the city/ area is very much dependent on how the land is used.

    Flooding is just one of 15 or so problems that can be made worse by dumb development. Add traffic, smog, landslides, high snow removal costs, road & bridge repairs and a stressed tax base.

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