London's mayor wants to start putting major roads into tunnels

Before and after: the A13 at Barking. Image: TfL.

Roads! Everyone loves roads, right? With their cars and their tarmac and their air pollution and that. Vroom vrooooooooooooom.

One man who has definitely decided we should be building more roads is London mayor Boris Johnson. This week he's in Boston and New York, because reasons, and has decided now is the perfect time to announce a clever plan to start burying bits of London’s trunk roads.

This is not as a crazy and idea as it might initially sound. They did it in Boston, byreplacing a six-lane elevated highway with an eight-line underground one. They're doing it in Hamburg, where the autobahn is being replaced with a park. They did it in that episode of Pigeon Street, too.

Sticking big roads in the ground has a number of advantages. It can reconnect neighbourhoods currently severed by main roads. It can make cities more attractive, if only because almost anything is more attractive than a great big bloody motorway.


And it can free up land for other uses – housing, office space, parkland, and so on. That, we suspect, is one of the reasons London's government is currently leaping on the idea. Not only does this mean more space to cope with London's population growth, but, with land values so high, the development opportunities will make any project a lot easier to pay for.

This morning City Hall said in a press release that it had examined "more than 70 locations... where the introduction of tunnels, fly-unders and decking could deliver benefits". That number looks a bit optimistic, though, and only five have been identified as "suitable for further feasibility work"; and several of these don’t sound terribly ambitious.

Nonetheless, here they are:

1) "Decking or a mini-tunnel" over the North Circular in New Southgate;

2) Turning the Hammersmith flyover on the A4 into the Hammersmith tunnel;

3) A "small fly-under" on the A316 at Chalker's Corner, where it meets the South circular near Mortlake;

4) "Decking of the A3 in Tolworth";

5) "A mini tunnel of the A13 in Barking Riverside", to connect one of London's biggest potential housing developments with something that resembles civilisation.

Here's a map, on which we've essentially highlighted the proposed developments in red crayon. (In an attempt to make them visible, our versions are almost certainly bigger than the real thing would be.)

To give a sense of the full scope of Boris' petrolhead ambitions, we've also included the three proposed East London river crossings: the Silvertown Tunnel, and Gallion's Reach and Belvedere bridges.

The really big one, though, is one Johnson has been talking up for a year: the proposal to create a whole new ringroad underground at a cost of £30bn.

What that would look like is not exactly clear. This is the version that was floating around when TfL first broached the idea last spring...

Image: TfL.

...but that doesn't seem to fit with TfL's response to a Freedom of Information request made by the blogger known as Boris Watch. That suggested the tunnel would be 70km long – roughly twice the length of the network shown in the map above. It also lists 10 junctions, including one labelled A10/A503, and another A23/A205, which strongly suggests that the loop would go as far north as Seven Sisters and as far south as Streatham Hill.

If that's accurate, then it seems likely the final tunnel would look a lot more like this. (We've labelled the junctions included in the modelling.)

The bottom line is that we don't actually know; neither, we suspect, does Transport for London.

But what is clear is that, for the first time in a generation, expanding London's road network is seriously back on the agenda – for better or worse.

 
 
 
 

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.