Here's why London gets so much of Britain's transport funding

It's all the fault of these fellas. Image: HBO.

“Whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance,” reads a particularly depressing verse of the Book of Matthew. “Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them.”

So seems, at least, to be the case in transport policy. London, which by most standards has a pretty extensive public transport system, has been very successful in persuading the government it needs a bigger one. Other cities, which don't, often haven't. Is this just because the people who make the spending decisions have to take the tube?

Well, yes, that probably is a factor, if we're honest. But there's something else going on too. I suspect there might be maths at work here, too.

To explain, let's fire up our copy of Microsoft Excel and start modelling this baby. Imagine a country with three significant cities. Because I am a geek, we'll call them King's Landing, Winterfell and Lannisport.

To keep things simple, let's assume that, at the start of our experiment, all of them have economies worth one billion gold pieces; and, all else being equal, their economies grow by 1 per cent a year. So, ten years down the line, you get this:

Equality reigns. It’s all very predictable.

But in year 10, Ken Targaryen, the mayor of King’s Landing, somehow manages to find the money to build a metro line. (Doesn't matter how, he just does.) Public transport investment makes a city more prosperous – people can get to a wider range of jobs, that sort of thing – and also attracts more people to move to the city. So let's say that it boosts the city’s total growth rate by, say, 0.5 per cent.

Thanks to its wise investment strategy/stroke of good luck, King's Landing is now growing faster than the other cities. So, in year 20, the economic map looks like this:

King's Landing is now richer than the other cities – not by much, but it is.

So. The Westerosi national government (which is based in King's Landing, but that's just a coincidence) is now deciding where to make its next public transport investment. This, too, will improve the potential growth rate of any city by 0.5 per cent.

Now the fair thing to do would obviously be to send it to one of the provincial cities – let's say Winterfell – so that it has half a chance to catch up with King's Landing. If it does that, then two of the three cities would be growing at 1.5 per cent a year, and the third by just 1 per cent. A decade later the chart would look like this:

But the Westerosi Treasury is charged with making sure it gets maximum bang for its buck with every investment it makes. So, it decides to check what would happen if it instead invested the money in adding a line to the existing King's Landing transport network.

If it did that, the King's Landing economy would be growing at 2 per cent a year; the other two would be stuck stubbornly on just 1 per cent. Here's where we are ten years later:

Well, would you look at that? Turns out that building another line in King's Landing is better for the national growth rate than building an entirely new system in Winterfell. Only by 6m gold pieces – that barely buys you anything, these days – but it counts, nonetheless.

And so the Treasury, being the committed guardians of the public finances it is, goes with option B.

You're getting the point now, I'm sure, but let's roll this forward 50 years to hammer things home. Every ten years, the Westerosi Treasury announces that one lucky city will be getting a new transport line. Every ten years, it runs the numbers and finds it'll get the best result from investing in King's Landing yet again. Here's year 80:

King's Landing is now a booming metropolis with seven metro lines and an economy worth 5,808 million gold pieces. Its GDP grows by 4.5 per cent every year.

The struggling cities of Winterfell and Lannisport, though, are still sluggishly trundling along at growth of just 1 per cent, and their economies are worth barely a third of that of the capital. King's Landing's new mayor, Boris Baratheon, is starting to ask irritable questions about whether it's fair that his hard-working citizens should be expected to support lazy provincials through their taxes.

In year 80, Winterfell asks the Treasury for money for public transport once again, but the numbers just don't stack up. If they build line one of the Winterfell Metro, it'll add 352m gold pieces to the city's GDP over the next ten years. But if they build the much needed King's Landing Crossrail, it'll add 5.4bn gold pieces to the capital's GDP. The latter will cost a bit more – quite a lot more, actually – but even so, with benefits like that, it's a no brainer, really, isn't it?

One last graph to sum the situation up. Here's the GDP of King's Landing, with its ever growing public transport network, plotted against a provincial system without one.


Now this is, very obviously, a massive over simplification (it's a model, that's what they're for). For one thing, we’ve conflated population growth and productivity. For another, not all transport investments will have the same effect on GDP growth: perhaps the boost a city gets from moving to zero to one metro lines would be bigger than the boost it gets when it goes from seven to eight. And it’s far from clear that you can keep adding half a point to growth rates just by building new metro lines.

But the point, nonetheless, is clear. If transport investment is assumed to add to a city's potential growth rate; and if the people deciding where to make transport investments are focused on getting the maximum impact from that investment; then it's always going to seem more sensible to invest in the place that's bigger and faster growing. It's simply a property of the maths: it's better to increase the growth rate of the big thing than the small thing.

This is, to my mind, the single strongest argument for some kind of devolution. The national Treasury may never feel it’s a good investment to build a metro line in a struggling city; that city's residents and government almost certainly would.

Otherwise you'll get to the end of the century and find that Winterfell and Lannisport are still stuck in the economic doldrums, while the economy of King's Landing is so over heated that Bravosi oligarchs have started buying up patches of the place and nobody can afford to buy a house. And who wants that?


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.