An autonomous vehicle crosses one of Pittsburgh's iconic bridges.
An autonomous vehicle crosses one of Pittsburgh's iconic bridges. Gene J. Puskar/AP

Pittsburgh’s mayor talks about the city becoming the capital of autonomous vehicles and the challenge of including everyone in its renewal.

Pittsburgh Mayor William (Bill) Peduto, who just began his second term this year, has presided over a historic era of change in that city. Back in 2002, I wrote my book The Rise of the Creative Class while living in Pittsburgh and teaching at Carnegie Mellon. I dubbed the city my “base case” in the transition from an industrial to a knowledge-based economy. “If Pittsburgh, with all of its assets and its emerging human creativity, somehow can’t make it in the Creative Age,” I wrote, “I fear the future does not bode well for other older industrial communities and established cities.”

Today, it looks like Pittsburgh has made it. It is more likely to be mentioned in the same breath with tech hubs like Austin and Seattle than with its Rust Belt peers.

Thanks to pioneering research at Carnegie Mellon University, and new labs for leading tech companies like Uber and Google, Pittsburgh has become a global leader in robotics and autonomous vehicles. As in other tech hubs, however, recent economic growth has not been widely distributed enough. In response, Peduto has launched a number of programs aimed at more inclusive prosperity.

In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve known Peduto for the better part of two decades. Back in the day, when he was a councilman, we’d meet up for beers in local dive bars. When he ran for mayor, I held a fundraiser for him in my Pittsburgh home. Well before he was mayor he was a full-fledged urban policy wonk.

In our chat, Peduto and I revisited some of the urban issues we used to discuss back then, as well as the changes that have occurred in Pittsburgh over the course of his mayoralty.  

When I was living in Pittsburgh back in the early 2000s, my students would move to places like San Francisco or New York immediately after they graduated. But now we’re starting to see people decamping from those places to come to Pittsburgh. What’s behind that change?

When you were living here, the rest of this country was booming. Panera Breads took over every street corner, Starbucks right next to them. But Pittsburgh’s economy was still coming out of a depression. There was no investment being made here when the rest of the country became “Anywhere USA.”

In Pittsburgh, you still have the neighborhood bakery, which is reflective of the ethnicity of the neighborhood in the 1940s. You still have neighborhood business districts even in the most popular areas of the city, where the people behind the cash register are the owners. Look at Lawrenceville. There [are] barely any national companies that have moved in—they’re all mom-and-pop shops. And you find that throughout the city, in 90 unique neighborhoods. [Pittsburgh] has the most neighborhoods per capita in America. It’s a city of small towns.

How has Pittsburgh been able to retain so much of this authentic character?

Part of it is having a cold market and not having broker-based development. Part of it is that we still have multigenerational families within the neighborhoods that are involved in the business development of those neighborhoods, and sort of take it on, like in a small town.

Universities are key drivers of the knowledge economy. And I know firsthand that Pittsburgh has great ones. Could the city have turned around without these institutions?

There is no question that what sets Pittsburgh apart from our Rust Belt brothers and sisters is the fact so much investment has come out of our “eds and meds” [educational and medical institutions]. At CMU, we’re seeing an autonomous revolution of everything, not just vehicles. The University of Pittsburgh was able to use National Institutes of Health grants to transform a small medical center into the largest employer in Pennsylvania. Without these anchors, it’s hard to imagine how we would be anywhere beyond still digging a manufacturing economy out of a depression.

When I was at Carnegie Mellon, I remember seeing robotic tanks driving around the parking lot, but I never would have thought that self-driving cars and robotic technology would be part of the reinvention of Pittsburgh. It was something that I don’t think anyone could have planned for. Yet now, it’s an industry cluster. How do you think that emerged?

It goes all the way back into the ‘70s, with people like Herb Simon, who created the field of artificial intelligence. It goes back to 1979—ironically, the year Pittsburgh’s old industry died and the steel mills closed—when Carnegie Mellon created the world’s first program in robotics. It continued in the 1990s, through the leadership of people like Raj Reddy [the founder of CMU’s Robotics Institute] and Red Whittaker [the leader of CMU’s winning team in the 2007 DARPA Urban Challenge that sparked the autonomous vehicle industry], who started to look to autonomous vehicles.

A decade ago, Carnegie Mellon was the first institution that was able to have a car drive from California to New York without needing a driver. And I remember celebrating that event with Red Whittaker and his team, back when I was a councilman, thinking how great this is, but never thinking about the application to everyday life.

Then years later, Uber approached us about doing an experiment on public streets, and what they didn’t realize was that Carnegie Mellon had already been doing it on public streets for nearly 10 years. Pittsburgh was already a decade ahead of the rest of the world. And there was the talent that Uber needed. There was the ability to move very quickly in this field, and there was a willingness from city government, because we already had this relationship with Carnegie Mellon.

So we became the first city in the world to have autonomous vehicles on demand. Now we have five companies running autonomous vehicles on our streets. We have Ford with Argo AI; BMW with Delphi; Carnegie Mellon with General Motors; Uber; and Aurora with Audi.

When you come to Pittsburgh, you’ll see them. It’s not something that’s happening in a field in the middle of nowhere: It is happening right on the streets of Pittsburgh.

Our partnership with Carnegie Mellon has actually gone to the next stage. We now have a Memorandum of Understanding with the university, the first of its kind in this country’s history, that allows us to have the university as the research and development arm of city government, and allows the city to be CMU’s urban laboratory. So, if I want to develop the next generation of traffic lights that use real-time data and sensors that are able to move traffic much more efficiently, I don’t have to put out an RFP. I can just pick up the phone, call the university, and say, “I need your team to develop this for me.”

You were a big supporter of Uber’s initial move to Pittsburgh in 2014. But last year, you criticized Uber’s lack of corporate responsibility, telling the Wall Street Journal that “they have a moral obligation to society.How has Uber’s relationship to the city evolved since then?

I would say that they are learning. There is a completely different culture between Ford—which has been around for 100 years, which stands in partnership with its workers and unions, understands workers’ rights, and is from Detroit—and Uber, which has a Silicon Valley background. It’s going to be in places like Pittsburgh and Cleveland and Detroit where Silicon Valley learns the lessons that we had to learn the hard way for 100 years. What that means is that workers can’t be treated as interchangeable “parts” of a new emerging industry. They have to be looked at as partners. If you look at Ford’s bus service, Chariot, none of the drivers are 1099s [independent contractors]; they are all W-2 [full-time] union employees.

When we had early conversations with Travis Kalanick, it was not simply about how we were going to create jobs and new mobility options, but how we would create a ladder of social mobility. What we saw after the first couple of years was that Uber’s words were there, but their commitment to financing it fell greatly short. Today there seems to be a greater commitment from the leadership of Uber to understanding that. But, unlike Ford, they haven’t put it into their business practice yet.

How has Pittsburgh managed to fuse its blue-collar culture, its sense of local solidarity, with its emerging knowledge and innovation economy?

We have and we haven’t. Even during my reelection campaign my one opponent said that if they were elected they would have Uber leave Pittsburgh. We have a vocal community that is opposed to Amazon coming to Pittsburgh. There are those that look with negativity towards what the new economy has brought to Pittsburgh, even though the neighborhoods it has changed have gone from blight and crime to investment. In those same neighborhoods, we lost more people through disinvestment than we have lost through gentrification. More people were leaving those neighborhoods in the ‘80s and the ‘90s because there was no hope.

To the vast majority of people, especially those who lived in Pittsburgh through the hell of the ‘80s and who watched family members and friends forced to leave the city and region because of economic collapse, there is a newfound enthusiasm for seeing a city that’s starting to reach its potential. Despite the backlash from some who hold a litmus test that is impossible to ever [reach], there is an optimism that Pittsburgh’s best days are still ahead.

But here’s the challenge. Go 30 miles outside of Pittsburgh and you are taken back to the 1990s, and you have people who were the most progressive force in America—people who created the Mine Workers Union, who created child labor laws, who created the weekend, people who are multigenerational Democrats, who fought for social justice—now, all of a sudden, they’re turning and voting Republican. Why is that? Because we have given them no indication of where their place is in the future.

What we have failed to do as Democrats is to bring that message out of the cities into the outer-ring suburbs, in the areas that are going through exactly what Pittsburgh went through. What we need is a Marshall Plan for those parts of America. We need to be able to say, we’re going to develop and manufacture solar panels in your town, we’re going to invest in building wind turbines.

You have an incredible knowledge of national politics and the Democratic party. Would the party be better off eschewing a national figure like Bernie Sanders or Kamala Harris, and instead nominating a mayor?

Going back to conversations we’ve had for decades, it’s finally here: Cities and metros are the impetus of change. They are where this country is seeing its greatest potential. There are conversations happening on a daily basis between mayors from all over the country in a way that has never happened before. It’s even crossing over the oceans into international conversations. The new normal is not relying upon federal or state governments; it’s figuring out how to creatively solve all problems on a local level, whether it’s homelessness, economic development, or transportation and mobility.

So do you think it would be a good idea to have a mayor in the White House?

Having a mayor as the president would be probably one of the best options that we could pursue; second would be a governor. Being in an executive office and being in a position where you have to work with a legislature or council, and understand the business of government, is really important. The presidency is not a job you should just walk into without experience.

I would urge Democratic leaders not to fight fire with fire. Don’t go after a reality TV star with a Hollywood type. Find the water that can combat fire, that is professional, in the model of a Macron or Trudeau. I certainly would like to see diversity on the ticket, but I would like to see it not through personality but through professionalism.

The knowledge economy is spiky, divisive, and unequal. Perhaps the biggest issue facing cities and the nation today is how to create a more broadly shared and inclusive prosperity. You’ve tried to do that with your Roadmap for Inclusive Innovation. Tell me about that.

First off, there’s no easy fix. If there were, everybody would be doing it. It requires hundreds of smaller initiatives. The digital divide is real. And if it isn’t addressed proactively, it will grow wider and it will leave people out of the economy.

What we have to do is be able to promote the lower-skilled workers and lower-income people and provide better opportunities. In Pittsburgh, we are converting our rec centers, where we have kids playing basketball after school, into “rec to tech,” where we are doing after-school programs in coding, where digital awareness is opening up new opportunities that haven’t been seen before.

Pittsburgh has been blessed in that we haven’t seen the same issues on affordable housing that other cities have. But if we continue to progress, we will. So we have to have the largest per-capita affordable housing trust fund, that has to assure that seniors in the neighborhoods that are seeing great investment aren’t being pushed out of their homes. These are the stresses that we’re seeing as our economy improves, and if we’re not proactive in addressing them, we’ll fail.

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