Should Manchester pedestrianise Deansgate?

Extinction Rebellion on Deansgate. Image: Getty.

For four days at the end of August, Extinction Rebellion (XR) took over Manchester Deansgate, closing off a section of the road to traffic. Protesters pitched tents, set up marquees and hay bales, and held talks and workshops about combating the climate crisis. Far from a stereotypical protest, the atmosphere was that of a community street festival. Children printed T-shirts, free food was served, and the samba band regularly paraded up and down the street to much fanfare.  

The stretch was designated an alcohol- and drug-free zone, attracting young families to take part in the festivities. Several shopkeepers I spoke with liked having XR as neighbours, with one saying, “I actually enjoyed coming to work,” while another said, “I don’t think everyone realises how many people are depressed. This was a change of scenery for the community. It was uplifting.”

However, the street closure was contentious, with concerns it would hurt businesses and cause major travel disruptions. The beauty of the four-day closure, however, is it provided a low-risk opportunity to trial closing the street to traffic. This is a move cities around the world are making to tackle the pollution and climate crisis.

So now that the dust has settled, let’s look more objectively at what impact the street closure had on three key metrics: air pollution, business and transport.

The red line represents ‘very high’ pollution levels. The amber and green stretch is where the road was closed to traffic. Image: Walkide.

The impact on air quality

Deansgate is one of the city’s most polluted roads, with “lethal and illegal” levels of air pollution. This is one of the reasons why XR chose to occupy the site to raise awareness about the climate crisis.

Members of WalkRide, a campaign group lobbying for improved walking and cycling infrastructure in Greater Manchester, carried out air quality readings on a handheld device borrowed from the University of Manchester.

The results, visualised above, are striking.

On the fourth day of the closure, when the readings were taken, air pollution levels in the occupied stretch were significantly lower than those further down on Deansgate, where the road was still open to traffic.

Black carbon measurements during and after the occupation. The red bar shows levels when the street was closed to traffic; the blue bars show a significant increase after the street reopened to cars. Image: University of Manchester.

The device WalkRide used captured the levels of particulate matter (PM2.5 and PM10), a form of air pollution that results from brake dust and tyre wear. Microscopic plastic particles penetrate the bloodstream, lungs, and heart and are linked to a variety of health problems.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends a safe annual mean limit of 10. Where Deansgate was still open to traffic, PM2.5 levels were 86. Along the stretch closed off to traffic, they fell to 19. 

The University of Manchester also measured levels of black carbon – the material emitted from petrol and diesel engines – during and after the occupation. They showed levels were significantly lower when the street was closed to cars. 

From the perspective of air quality, pedestrianising Deansgate is a no-brainer. The quickest and easiest way to dramatically improve air quality is by closing the street to traffic, and hopefully those levels would be brought down further if permanently pedestrianised. 

The impact on businesses

After all the hoopla about the potential impact on businesses, I wanted to take a more systematic approach to the issue. Once the protesters had gone, I went into each business along the stretch that had been closed off and carried out a quick survey with two questions;

What impact had the street closure had on business compared to what they would normally have expected? And to what extent would they support the pedestrianisation of Deansgate?

A few quick caveats: this survey is neither rigorous nor scientific. That said, this approach is more thorough than popping into a few shops at random or just reporting the most extreme positions.

All in, 37 businesses took part in my survey. The remainder either didn’t have a manager on hand or directed me to their head office.

Two thirds reported business was the same or better than expected. These were more likely to be casual food and drink establishments. The third who reported lower than expected takings were more likely catering to a high-end market, such as fashion retailers and fine dining establishments.

What’s particularly interesting, though, is that over half of those reporting lower takings say they would definitely support pedestrianisation. They attribute the lower sales not to the street closure but to their customer base being put off by reports of protesters.

Faye Levenson is the store manager of Hobbs, a female fashion brand. She reported lower takings during the protest and a 6 per cent drop in footfall-to-sales conversion. Nevertheless, she’d like to see Deansgate pedestrianised and thinks it would improve business. “Look at Market Street,” she says, “It’s packed. Those businesses are doing really well.” 

Faye is confident the street closure and transport concerns aren’t what kept her customers away. “The protesters put people off,” she explains, “although it turned out to be more of a celebration.”

This is a refrain I heard from several businesses who were anticipating trouble from the protesters and street closure. 

“I was dreading it,” the manager of Toni & Guy says, “but it was fine.” There were few cancellations for hair appointments, no more than usual, and the protest was actually enjoyable. “It was a great atmosphere, really friendly,” she says with a smile.

Regarding pedestrianisation, she says, “It would be lovely to have no cars,” and references a Toni & Guy location in Chester that saw business improve following pedestrianisation.

This is what studies have shown time and time again. Although businesses are often concerned removing cars will lead to a fall in sales, research shows otherwise. 

The most famous example is New York’s Times Square, which was initially opposed by local businesses who feared closing the street to cars would hurt business. However, the trial pedestrianisation proved so successful, it was made permanent.

Another study by New York’s Department of Transport of three pedestrian plaza projects found adjacent retail sales went up by 47-50 per cent after three years. They concluded: “It is clear that rolling out safer, more inviting, and sustainable streets is rarely detrimental to local businesses and in the majority of cases can be a boon to them.”

Back here in Manchester, only three of the 37 businesses I surveyed said they definitely wouldn’t support pedestrianisation. The majority were open to closing the road to traffic and thought it could improve sales – evidence from other cities is on their side.

The impact on transport

When the Northern Quarter closed Stevenson Square for five hours in June, local media went to town reporting live updates of the chaotic traffic delays the closure caused. It turned out a major factor was actually a bus that had broken down at the Oldham Street junction – although obviously this didn’t make it into the headlines. 

I anticipated similar news reports off the back of the XR street closure. After all, Deansgate is a major rat-run through the city centre.  

And yet there were no such reports. Once the protest ended, I contacted TfGM to get the official word on traffic disruption over the four days. A spokesperson said:

“We worked with our agency partners such as Manchester City Council, Greater Manchester Police, local authorities and city centre communities and businesses to develop and deliver a comprehensive plan. 

“The measures introduced – which included live updates, a dedicated travel advice webpage, road diversions and bus re-routes – ensured the event passed with minimal travel disruption.”

Extinction Rebellion had contacted the Council and police 2.5 weeks before the protest, giving them time to reroute buses and for businesses to plan how they would receive deliveries. As a result, the diversion didn’t bring the city to a standstill.

The Council appear to be on board with pedestrianising Deansgate. Re-routing buses is the only sticking point.   

In a statement to the MEN, Cllr Angeliki Stogia said: “The only thing that is currently preventing us from implementing this long-term aspiration to pedestrianise a section of Deansgate is resolving how buses could be re-routed, with bus transport of course also vital to reducing car journeys to and from, and within, the city centre.”

When it comes to making cities car-free, the bigger picture is radically increasing investment in public transport provision, as well as developing comprehensive walking and cycling infrastructure.

Closing the road for four days provided a low-risk opportunity to test pedestrianising Deansgate. We’ve learned that removing cars is popular with the public, significantly improves air quality, and is unlikely to hurt businesses or cause major transport issues – if done right.

WalkRide are calling for monthly street closures to provide more opportunities to trial and test what a car-free Deansgate would be like. I say bring it on.

Follow Andrea Sandor @wordstoseeby. This article originally appeared on Manchester Confidential.


Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.

Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.