Europe’s cities are tackling their air pollution – but national governments need to do more

Paris. Or possibly Blackpool. Hard to tell. Image: AFP/Getty.

Despite three quarters of Europeans living, working and travelling around the continent’s cities, it’s fair to say we don’t always give a thought to the quality of the air we breathe. Perhaps it will cross your mind as you weave through rush hour traffic on your bike; but for the most part it’s a hidden threat.

Yet it’s also a serious one, estimated to cause 400,000 premature deaths in Europe and costing our economies €1.4trn each year. We’re risking our health and spending vast amounts - so what’s being done to address the problem?

At EU level, MEPs have just approved binding reductions targets on some of the most harmful pollutants in our air. While this must still be agreed by EU member states, it means that national governments will be obliged to reduce these pollutants within the limits by 2025. The targets are fixed, but they can choose how to meet them.  

This is a really important step for cities and their citizens. Air pollution doesn’t respect borders, and many pollution sources are beyond city control – so setting binding limits at national level will help back up clean air measures at local level, too.

And there are many of these. Think of cyclists’ paradise Copenhagen. When the city realised that cycling was not as popular for journeys of over 5km, it set about creating a network of bike “superhighways”. These are designed to provide maximum comfort and convenience, with staggered traffic lights and footrests at regular intervals. It’s no wonder so many Copenhageners choose to travel by bike.

Public transport is also an important part of the solution. Cities are working hard to make sure that taking the metro, train, bus or tram is as easy as possible. The Spanish city of Gijon is one of a number of cities that have introduced smart city cards. This single card allows users to do anything from taking out a library book to hiring a bike or paying a bus fare.

Edinburgh has unveiled a fleet of hybrid buses covering some of its most polluted commuter routes. They are not only environmentally friendly, but offer the kind of luxury travel many commuters can only dream of, with comfy seats and on-board wifi. Taking the bus doesn’t seem so bad now, does it?

Despite these and local measures all over Europe, our air still won’t be clean enough: there is only so much cities can do. So it’s important that national governments to do their bit – and while the new EU targets are a step in the right direction, they could be more ambitious. This is an expensive issue, not just in terms of money but health - so surely it’s worth aiming high?

A lot of the responsibility falls to the national level, whose decisions directly impact on the air we breathe in cities. Motorways are a national competence, but when they cut through cities, the implications are felt locally. Setting speed limits on the motorway? That’s decided at national level too.

And the impact of emissions from agriculture needs to be looked at too. Ammonia from fertilisers and manure is jeopardising our air quality, as is methane from livestock “emissions”. Both of these pollutants are covered by the new EU targets, though not as strictly as we’d like.  

And if you haven’t heard enough about car emissions lately, you’re about to hear more. Cars on our roads are emitting up to seven times the pollution allowed by EU legislation, because official lab tests are unrealistic. More effective testing is needed to reflect the reality of urban driving conditions, where start-stop driving is the norm.

EU member states have agreed on a “real driving emissions” test procedure, which will be implemented in two progressively stricter phases between 2017 and 2021. But these rules still mean that only one sample vehicle will be tested, after which millions of the same type are approved for sale. Spot checks on cars on the road would help reveal if they really are all clean enough. Stricter testing would help make low emission zones, like those in London, Milan and Berlin, more effective.   

So while these new targets are good news, Europe’s big cities are aiming higher. We are doing what we can - but with more ambition at national and EU level, we can do more. Because surely we all want to breathe clean air?   

 Anna Lisa Boni is the secretary general of EUROCITIES, the network of major European cities.


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.