In one of Europe's most car-dependent cities, lockdown offers a chance to rethink the road

Before the coronavirus, traffic jams were a staple of Brussels' streets. (Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP via Getty Images)

Before March 14 of this year, Brussels had well and truly reached peak car.

Pre-coronavirus lockdown, Brussels drivers spent an average of 7 days and 6 hours each year in traffic. But emergency measures brought a 42% decrease in motorized traffic, and with that came a chance for inhabitants and policymakers alike to discover the joys of cycling. It’s a story playing out on streets around the world, but it carries special significance in an unusually car-dependent European capital.

“Brussels is the capital of Belgium and Europe, yet it lags behind when it comes to mobility,” says mobility expert and author Kris Peeters. “This has been changing in recent years, largely due to pressure from civilian movements and the example set by other cities. Progress in Paris certainly influenced the French-speaking part of Brussels to step up its mobility ambitions.”

There are a few reasons why change has been slow. Under the Belgian tax system, handing out a company car is more attractive than giving a pay rise. A lack of funding for national railway service SNCB-NMBS means train transport to Brussels is often hindered by strikes. And so many Belgians, who generally prefer to live in suburbia, undertake a daily commute by company car to offices in Brussels. Those who do cycle in the capital must brave loose cobblestones and half-finished bike lanes.

The coronavirus crisis has sped up the timeline for change. Since the emergency measures went into effect, 16 Brussels municipalities have installed low-traffic zones to increase the safety and comfort of cyclists. Parking has been removed to create more road space, while speed limits on busy avenues have been lowered to 30 km/h (18 mph). To allow for social-distance walks, cars have been banned from several parks and forests, including Laeken Park and Bois de la Cambre.

“25% of journeys undertaken in Brussels are less than a kilometre, two-thirds are less than five kilometres. If we encourage journeys on foot and by bicycle, it can only be positive,” Brussels Minister of Mobility Elke Van den Brandt told local newspaper Bruzz. As the city starts moving again, Van den Brandt has decided to install 40 km of new cycling paths, most of them permanent.

Among these newly bike-friendly streets is Rue de la Loi, a congestion hotspot lined with Belgian and EU governmental buildings. Reassigning one of those car lanes for cyclists marks an important symbolic change, Peeters says.

“These kinds of choices require either political courage or opportunity. The crisis presented such an opportunity,” he says. “However, politicians don’t have to wait for exceptional circumstances to make space for pedestrians and cyclists. The ‘build it and they will come’ mechanism has been proven many times over when it comes to bike use.”

Brussels offered free use of its bikeshare program during lockdown. (Selma Franssen)

To further encourage cycling, the Brussels municipality of Uccle has extended a €250 bonus to residents who purchase an electric bike. Brussels Mobility has also launched a poster campaign #BlijvenTrappen (“keep pedaling”) and temporarily offered free use of shared bicycles from the city’s Villo scheme, resulting in 7,000 new subscribers.

In the short run, biking in Brussels seems to be taking off. Bicycle shops sell faster than they can replenish their stocks. Bike shop Velofixer noted a fourfold increase in bike sales in the weeks after lockdown orders went into effect. And Swapfiets, a company that rents out bicycles for €17.50 ($20) a month, went from 1,500 to 2,500 customers in two months. In a survey among 3,130 respondents, nearly half of public transport users indicated that they plan to make more journeys by bicycle after the lockdown.

But perhaps a survey conducted in summer paints too sunny a picture. Will the people of Brussels flock back to their cars come autumn? Peeters says a lot depends on how public transport providers respond to the current challenges.

“Taking public transport and traveling by airplane pose similar health risks, yet the responses of airline companies and public transport companies couldn’t be more different,” he says. “Airline companies demand to be seen as a necessity and proactively look for ways to continue to exist. Public transport services should adopt a similar attitude, emphasizing their social value, so they won’t be downgraded to ‘transport for those who have no other choice’,” as Belgian prime minster Sophie Wilmès referred to public transport in a press conference of the National Security Council about Covid-19 measures on 6 May.

In any case, Brussels can’t handle more cars, Peeters says. Between 19 March and 3 May, a 75% drop in carbon monoxide was measured in Brussels and road traffic decreased by 90%, in comparison to data from the past 10 years. But as Belgium and Europe take steps toward reopening, car traffic is picking back up.

The Grand Place was used as a parking lot until 1971. (Selma Franssen)

“Before the crisis, the city was gridlocked multiple times a day, leading to dangerous levels of air pollution. Even now that there are fewer cars on the road, air pollution levels are still too high,” he says. “With droughts and climate change looming, the city will have to be more ambitious.”  

Today it’s unimaginable to citizens and tourists alike that up until 1971, Brussels’ landmark the Grand Place was used as a parking lot. Perhaps equally, in a few years’ time, we won’t believe that motorways used to cut through the city parks.

Selma Franssen is a freelance journalist based in Brussels.


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.