Here’s why the UK should start closing school streets to traffic

The Big Pedal in action at St Richard Reynold’s Catholic College, London. Image: Sustrans.

How do we improve road safety near schools? How do we get children fitter, healthier and happier through being active? How do we increase the numbers of children walking, scooting and cycling to school? How do we stop children dying from invisible polluted air?

These questions are some of the thoughts that run through the minds of many parents, teachers and policy makers – and us at Sustrans – on a regular basis. There are many answers but perhaps the most important when talking about getting a happy, healthy child to school is to close streets directly outside schools at drop off and pick up times.

This is something that we are doing with 40 schools to launch our annual cycling, scooting and walking school kids competition ‘Big Pedal’ this week. It is the biggest event of its kind in the UK and this year a record number of over 2,200 schools are taking part.

Air pollution is linked to up to 36,000 premature deaths in the UK each year and more than 2,200 schools and nurseries are near to roads with damaging levels of motor emissions. As children’s lungs are still developing, roadside emissions make them particularly vulnerable. Public Health England has recognised this, calling for a targeted reduction in traffic emissions and increased access to and use of non-car traffic such as cycles.

‘School Streets’, the process of closing streets outside of schools at drop-off and pick-up times, is a great way of reducing children’s exposure to air pollution at the school gates and in the playground. Tailpipe pollution dissipates fast, which means distances of only a few metres can greatly reduce children’s exposure to pollutants. With no cars idling outside the gates and no congestion, the air is cleaner.


Car-free school streets reduce overall traffic

What School Streets also does is reduce traffic levels overall. In Edinburgh, where a pilot of school streets has been running across nine primary schools, the car ban has resulted in a vast drop in traffic levels. Interestingly, the traffic didn’t simply dissipate into surrounding streets, thereby just shifting the problem. Overall, only a third of traffic was displaced to surrounding roads. The other two thirds of car trips stopped altogether.

By closing streets outside a school you are not just reducing children’s exposure to pollutants: you are reducing road danger by removing children’s interaction with cars outside the school gates. Safer streets mean more parents are happier to let their child walk or cycle the school run. School streets effectively helps those parents who can to think differently about the school run and how their child could get to school by making other, more active, forms of travel more convenient and safer.

As part of the launch of Big Pedal Sustrans conducted a YouGov survey of 840 teachers across the UK and found that nearly two thirds (63 per cent) of teachers support car-free streets outside of schools. If this is the case, the logical question to ask is why there are not more school streets, outside of Hackney in London and other dotted pilots across the nation.

The answers are complex. In the same survey, 36 per cent of teachers stated they needed more support from parents and 27 per cent said they needed the backing of local authorities, who have the power to push school streets through. It can be hard to win parents over when car travel is often perceived as the most convenient option. Whilst local authorities can put in place school streets, their ability to enforce them varies across the UK, and the cost of putting them in place can be a prohibitive factor.

This is why Sustrans is calling on governments across the UK to actively support local authorities in rolling out school streets, particularly in England outside of London, where they don’t have the powers to enforce them. More widely large scale investment in walking and cycling infrastructure is needed to really offer families an alternative to the car. The small, localised action of closing streets outside schools to cars when rolled out across a nation really can make a difference to everyone’s health and wellbeing.

Rachel White is senior policy and political advisor at the transport charity Sustrans.

 
 
 
 

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.