Pittsburgh skyline
Pittsburgh skyline

It’s been said some Pittsburghers don’t like to cross a river, even to get to the emergency room. Well, now there’s real data to back up that familiar adage.

Pittsburgh-based data analyst Conor Tompkins crunched U.S. Census data and found that about 105,000 Allegheny County commuters don’t cross the Allegheny, Monongahela or Ohio rivers to get to or from work. Fewer than 72,000 cross one river, and fewer than 7,000 cross two rivers. Nobody, for the record, crosses all three.

About 105,000 commuters cross no rivers on the way to work. Fewer than 72,000 cross one river and fewer than 7,000 cross two rivers. Chart courtesy of Conor Tompkins.

“I think I had an idea of what it would look like, but it was more exaggerated than I thought it would be,” Tompkins says laughing. “It is always reassuring when your analysis doesn’t stray too far from conventional wisdom.”

Tompkins looked at 2017 U.S. Census data organized into three types: Origin-Destination (OD), Residence Area Characteristics (RAC) and Workplace Area Characteristics (WAC). His findings, which he analyzed mostly for the fun of doing it, are published on his website.

This sort of data crunching is not new to Tompkins.  A South Hills native who grew up in Charleston, W.Va., Tompkins first fell into the field when he took a data entry job after graduating from the University of Pittsburgh in 2013.

After starting to apply the lessons of his day gig to the Pittsburgh Penguins — looking at a goalie’s save percentage versus trends in the salary cap, for example — Tompkins started toying more regularly with numbers. In 2017, he launched his website, which features everything from an analysis of Allegheny County car crashes to the Twitter habits of Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto. (He tweets about 15 times day, most frequently on Tuesdays.)

Today, Tompkins analyzes data for insurance companies and pharmacies as part of his current job. Despite what many may assume, he doesn’t dream of analyzing Pens’ stats for a living.

“I don’t think sports is right for me,” he says. “Frankly, the culture is still not open to data analysis. Largely, they’re still not where they need to be.”

Data analysis like this is a valuable commodity for transit agencies like Port Authority of Allegheny County, according to Ellie Newman, Port Authority’s manager of transit analysis and a strong believer in the power of information.

“It’s extremely helpful to have other locals analyzing transportation data and sharing their code online, as we can use their code as a jumping-off point for further analysis,” Newman says. “I would love to foster more connections between Port Authority and the data analysis community.”

Conor Tompkins

To that end, Newman encourages amateur data enthusiasts to take part in a Code for Pittsburgh “Work Night” from 6 to 8 p.m. on March 18. Due to the coronavirus, the meeting will be held virtually via Slack. For more information, click here.

At the meeting, Newman says data analysts “will spend the evening overlaying [Tompkins’] network with existing Port Authority routes to see what gaps may exist in transit service.”

You have to dig a little to find someone who crosses two rivers to get to work. But eventually, you’ll find someone like Amanda Sloane. Every day, Sloane crosses both the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers as she commutes from Bellevue to work on the South Side.

“I look at Google Maps when I leave and I never get more than a 16- or 20-minute commute,” says Sloane, a program specialist who works in food security issues for a nonprofit group. “That’s why we moved to [Bellevue] — best-kept secret in Pittsburgh.”

Sloane sees Pittsburghers’ resistance to crossing rivers in the region’s farmer’s markets.

“Pittsburgh’s number of farmer’s markets — it’s one of the most saturated in a market of its size,” Sloane says. “If we had one big farmer’s market, then the other 80-something neighborhoods would feel left out. Because they wouldn’t cross a river to get to it.”

Justin Vellucci

A former news reporter for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and Asbury Park (N.J.) Press, Justin Vellucci currently freelances for a number of Pittsburgh publications and works as a staff writer for the music magazines PopMatters and Spectrum Culture. He has been contributing to NEXTpittsburgh since January 2020. He lives in Greenfield.