I swapped the tube for the bus and it helped to lift my depression

The horror! The horror! Image: Getty.

I’ve been living in London for just over a year, but I’ve got to be honest: I feel like a bit of a fraud.

This is because I don’t worship the underground system that dominates the capital’s transport network. In fact, I think it’s a bit rubbish, really.

Don’t get me wrong – I know how useful the tube is. I’ve always been in awe of the technology that allows us to step into a carriage and zip across the city in next to no time.

But taking certain forms of transport can have a long-term impact on mental health that overshadows the short term convenience. And if there’s one thing that is guaranteed to have no positive effect on those with depression, it’s standing in a dark tunnel on a tube, pressed up against a guy who badly needs to shower, as you cling on for dear life.

The logic is fairly simple: if you spend a chunk of time during each working day stood in cramped, dark conditions, you’re more likely to generally feel down. Spare a thought for the people stuck down there, operating the tubes for hours at a time: in March, City AM reported that Tube drivers were the largest group of staff referred to counselling for stress, anxiety and depression in the 2015-16 period. As Finn Brennan, from the Aslef rail union, said:

“Tube drivers spend eight hours a day working in a small metal box deep underground while coping with the pressure of a demanding job... It’s not surprising that some suffer from stress or depression occasionally.”

“Small metal box” is exactly how I’d started to feel about the underground every time I stepped onto a carriage. After a few months of near-daily tube usage, it became hard to muster the energy to get out of bed in the morning, as the prospect of spending half an hour in a sardine tin on the Central line made me want to slap my alarm off, roll over and throw the duvet over my head.

One afternoon, I finished work to discover that my usual tube station was out of action, and realised I’d need to take a bus instead.

And, taking a seat on the top deck, I was struck by how different I felt. I didn’t feel like I was in a rush. There were no hordes of arrogant people pushing their way past me to get on first. And I could actually sit down, instead of resigning myself to a corner of the carriage that had just about enough room for me to breathe.

After I’d spent some time on the bus watching London speed by, I felt a strange sense of calm. I was reminded of long car journeys as a child, where I’d plug in my Walkman, switch off and stare out of the window at the scenes around me.

An hour later, and my usual feelings of lethargy and listlessness had lifted. Not eradicated, of course: a single bus journey is not a miracle cure. But I definitely didn’t walk into my flat feeling like my only option was to get in bed and refuse to leave until it was time to climb back into a metal box.

Over the last three months, I’ve been shunning the tube wherever I can and taking the bus instead. Now that I’m spending less time rushing to jump onto a metal box, and dedicating more of each day to chill-out time during my commute, my energy levels have risen and the feelings of general sadness don’t crop up as often.

The impact of living in crowded spaces has long been known to have a negative impact on mental health. During an Anxiety UK summit on mental health and transport, Alastair Campbell commented that, “The world of public transport can be an intensely... anxiety-provoking experience.” So many of us feel we have to rush onto crowded carriages each day, often suffering with feelings of melancholy or stress as a result.

Increasing your commute time may not seem like a great prospect, with many Londoners feeling they don’t have time to do anything but dash around – but if you’re generally feeling down and can’t pinpoint why, it’s possible that rushed and cramped travel that’s getting to you.

So take it down a notch: make extra time in the morning to get on a bus instead. Standing outside and breathing in fresh air while you wait, then being almost guaranteed a seat where you can take in your surroundings as you’re driven through London, is a reminder that the city is actually quite pretty.

That’s much better than standing in a box, being hurtled through the dark, then rushing into the office.


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.