Is Israel on the verge of a rail revolution?

A vehicle on the Tel Aviv Light Rail network. Image: Ynhockey/Wikimedia Commons.

In December, regular services began on the first high speed rail line from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The news is emblematic both of Israel’s growing rail infrastructure, as well as the problems that have dogged public transport in the country.

The double-decker high-speed line is an engineering feat, encompassing eight bridges, of up to one hundred metres tall, and five tunnels of a collective length of 38km. Most importantly, the 30 minute commute is nearly twice as fast as an equivalent bus journey.

The route also stops at Ben Gurion International Airport, meaning that for the first-time international visitors can travel directly from the airport to either Tel Aviv or Jerusalem without having to battle Israel’s notorious traffic via shuttle bus or taxi.

The Tel Aviv-Jerusalem line is representative of the new wave of public transport infrastructure to be built in Israel in recent years. The Jerusalem terminus of the line, at Yitzchak Navon Station, is across the road from the central tram station: the first line in Jerusalem’s first sleek, if controversial, light rail system opened in 2011. Two further tram lines are currently under construction and scheduled to open by 2025.

The Viaduct over the Valley of Ayalon on the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem rail line. Image: DMY/Wikimedia Commons.

Meanwhile, after decades of plans for a metro system, construction on the Tel Aviv light rail system finally began on the first line in 2011. The red line is due to open in 2021 and contains ten stations along its 25km route. When operational it is expected to accommodate 70 million passengers a year and remove 50,000 cars from Tel Aviv’s streets – a substantial number for a city of only 450,000.

Some 3.9 million people live in the greater Tel Aviv metropolitan area, 44 per cent of the country’s population, and two further lines are also being built to connect cities such as Rishon Lezion and Herzylia to central Tel Aviv. The green line will have 62 stations, with annual ridership estimated at 65 million, while the purple line will have 45 stations for 60 million passengers. Both are scheduled to open over the next decade.

Despite local anger at the disruption that the construction is causing in parts of Tel Aviv, the light rail project is vital to safeguard the city’s continued functionality. Israel’s population is scheduled to double in the next 30 years, and much of that will be concentrated in the already high-density economic centre of Tel Aviv. In 2017 the government announced a target of building one million new housing units in the Tel Aviv area by 2040.

The opening of multiple new rail lines and light rail systems, however, marks a sharp change in public policy that for decades has under-invested in transport infrastructure. Analysis from the Taub Center shows that Israel spends less on transport than other OECD states. Other small OECD countries having three and a half times more kilometres travelled by rail per person than Israel. In addition, until the 1980s, investment in railways focused on cargo trains for heavy industry rather than passenger usage, which only increased reliance for commuters on road usage.

The spate of new construction in rail infrastructure is not without its problems. The aforementioned Tel Aviv-Jerusalem line opened 11 years late and four times over budget, while there are also doubts about whether the Tel Aviv light rail system will open on time.

In addition, last year the state comptroller released a damning report accusing the transport ministry of mismanagement and warped priorities. The lion’s share of transport spending was dedicated to car usage, the report claimed, while the ministry failed to adequately invest in rail leading to overcrowding on the rail network. The then-Transport Minister, who held the role from 2009-19, disputed the report, and has since been promoted to Foreign Minister.

Nonetheless, the report also emphasises the negative effect of Israel’s overreliance on cars, with the country having the worst traffic in the OECD – with knock on effects on GDP as well as noise and air pollution. While a healthy scepticism should be held over the delivery of rail infrastructure projects, that Israel is now committing to large scale public transport infrastructure can only be welcomed – if the state can deliver on its promised projects.


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.