Cities across the globe are leading the charge on clean air policies. But British ones can do more

Oh, no: air pollution in action. Image: Getty.

Last 21 June was Clean Air Day – and leaders of the UK’s 14 largest cities, all of which have illegal levels of air pollution, marked the occasion by calling on the government to do more to address these issues. In particular, the mayors have called for the government to accelerate its proposed ban on diesel and petrol cars by a decade, which would mean phasing out these vehicles by 2030; and to introduce clean air zones across the UK and a scrappage scheme to help car owners replace their high-emission cars.

This focus from city leaders is welcome, given that air pollution is primarily an urban problem. As highlighted in the recent Centre for Cities briefing How can UK cities clean up the air we breathe?’, UK cities are home to 88 per cent of roads which are predicted to have concentrations of NO2 above legal limits. The main culprit is unsurprisingly road transport, and in particular diesel vehicles, which are responsible for 80 and 35 per cent of NO2 roadside concentration respectively.

As such, while national government policies to tackle air quality problems are important, the onus is on cities to address these problems – and we’ve already seen progress on this front in recent years. 

London, with its greater devolved powers, has been leading the way – historically, with the launch of the congestion charge zone in 2003, and more recently with the introduction of the Toxicity charge (or T-charge). In addition, mayor Sadiq Khan recently confirmed a forthcoming expansion of the ultra-low emission zone to North and South Circular Roads.

Other cities are also catching on. Sheffield was one of the first places to launch its Clean Air Strategy, including plans to replace existing buses with more environmentally friendly stock. Leeds is due to introduce a new fleet of low-emission buses, and Greater Manchester’s metro mayor Andy Burnham wants to accelerate the timeline for achieving carbon neutrality ahead of the national commitment of 2050.

However, most UK cities could do more to cut carbon and drive efficiency, using the powers at their disposal, in particular with regards to the single biggest contributor: car usage. And with the government having mandated 28 local authorities across 12 cities to develop plans to clean air plans (due at the end of this year), city leaders need to act soon.

Our clean air briefing highlights a number of approaches championed by cities across the globe, which UK cities could also adapt to tackle air pollution in their area:

1. Restricting vehicle access and reducing idling

In Paris, a sticker system is used to restrict vehicle access into city centres. Vehicles are split into six categories, depending on how heavily polluting they are according to European emissions standards, and the most polluting have been banned from the city. Moreover, any vehicle can be refused entrance in response to high levels of pollution on a given day. To mitigate adverse consequences and to encourage low-pollution transport, the city makes public transport free during these periods.

In a similar vein, New-York City introduced an anti-idling law in 2009 to reduce unnecessary emissions from idling vehicles parking or stopping. In particular areas, it is forbidden to idle in a vehicle for longer than three minutes while parking, waiting or stopping. This is even stricter around schools, where the time allowed is just one minute.


2. Changing the flow of traffic and promoting cycling and walking

Barcelona and Copenhagen have both adopted approaches to promote cycling and walking. Barcelona’s urban mobility plan focuses on the idea of superblocks – the idea of redirecting traffic in grids around small neighbourhoods, with space within these superblocks dedicated to pedestrian and cycling public space. Through this, the city hopes to shift preferences from driving to walking and cycling.

Similarly, Copenhagen has invested in infrastructure to make cycling easier, faster and safer, thus achieving its goal to become the best cycling city in the world. Policies include set requirements for bike space per employee for commercial buildings, and bike parking space for residential developments. There are also cycling superhighways connecting the suburbs and inner-city areas, and large areas of the city centre are closed for motor vehicles.

3. Introducing a congestion charge

Milan is one of five cities across the world which has introduced congestion charges in their central area. The €5 tax is charged between 7.30am to 7.30pm. In addition, vehicles entering the area must fulfil a minimum emission standard and diesel vehicles must be equipped with a particulate filter. Electric vehicles have free access and hybrid cars are exempt until a set date. The profits are used to reinvest in policies that promote sustainable mobility and reduce air pollution.

Implementing these ideas in UK cities will not necessarily be easy, as suggested by the response among politicians in Greater Manchester when we proposed a congestion charge in the city region. But as places finalise their clean air strategies, they will need to take tough decisions to get to grips with pollution and the associated health and social problems it brings – and that may mean going against the grain of popular opinion.

Maja Gustafsson is an intern with the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article originally appeared.

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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.