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??


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. 


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.


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:


Wednesday, July 09, 2014

if you have a milkshake, and I have a milkshake

Just your random economic factoid of the day.  If you do the math with recent data on crude oil production by state, I think it shows that right now Ohio has the highest year over year percentage growth in crude oil production.



A million here, a million there

Sorry, but .......

Some years ago I had this post, which for entirely unrelated reasons has had a life of it's own on the internet I'll explain in a second.  But a deep dive in some of the most esoteric of public finance issues (bond insurance) and the fad of variable rate bonds being used locally. See: About those SEA bonds (2008)

Now look at the news today covered by the Trib: Taxpayers on the hook for $1M more for Consol Energy Center lease

So then and now.. variable interest rates bonds = bad and as is unsurprising the state is backing up the cost.  But the bad is all so complex that it all sounds like it isn't a problem. The state's backing of the Consol arena's bonds is another whole story that has been blogged about here as well. I still believe that if you look at the state's covenants on the deal, the state really is on the hook for the arena bonds should they be at risk of not being paid.  If so, why the need to pay for bond insurance? But the actual risk and legalities are lost in translation it seems.

Funny thing is that old blog post from 2008 may be one of the most read blog posts here ever, but not because the long tail cares much about the SEA bonds. In my rambling I reference an old study by investor Bill Ackman who made a fortune pointing out the problems with bond insurer MBIA.  In the long tail of the Internet that report seems not to exist anywhere else and has been referenced by many as Ackman has taken on other companies since then.  So the search engines of the world land here. 


Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Soccer Spirit

How things change.  For a moment today I thought Pittsburgh was a soccer town.  Maybe not as new as you may think.  Some may recall the brief history of the Pittsburgh Spirit.

What I find amazing is the factoid on the website that says the Spirit season of 1983-1984 had a higher average attendance than did the Pittsburgh Penguins, which shared with the Spirit not only a venue in the Civic Arena, but were both owned at the time by mall developer Edward Debartolo. That says as much about the trajectory of hockey spirit here as it does about the Spirit itself.


Low or high?

Just one overwrought indicator, but the monthly unemployment rate for Pittsburgh in May has been released. The headline I guess will be that it is down 1/10th over the month to 5.5%. I'll add that the Pittsburgh MSA is now 91 months below the national unemployment rate FWIW.

But not to repeat my relative unemployment chart, which looks much the same, how about this.  Another headline bullet point may be that the regional unemployment rate is now down to its lowest rate since October 2008, or over 5 and a half hears ago. Also FWIW.

But what is low? Economists have been debating how low unemployment rates can go and be sustained since forever without the greatest of conclusions. Much of that debate looks at sustainable national unemployment rates. Much less debate looks at how low regional rates in any one area can stay.  Certainly through the 1990s, areas like Charlotte maintained sub 3% unemployment rates for extended periods. For the record, I believe the lowest unemployment rate ever recorded for the Pittsburgh metropolitan area as then defined was 2.3% in November 1966.

For Pittsburgh below is the distribution of monthly unemployment rates in Pittsburgh since 1970 highlighting the current data.  For reference the median monthly unemployment rate over that time has been 6.2% and the average monthly unemployment rate (really pushed up by the long tail miasma of the 1980s) is over 6.6%. Note that at 5.5% we are at the bottom end of the range for the group highlighted.