Want to make public transport feel safe in a pandemic? Paris shows the way

Commuters wearing masks wait for a train at the Saint-Laraze platform in Paris. (Philippe Lopez/AFP via Getty Images)

In mid-May, as Parisians took their first steps out from one of Europe’s most restrictive lockdowns, many faced the understandable fear of getting on public transport.

That fear exists in any city right now, and for obvious reason: Cramped, crowded and poorly ventilated spaces offer perfect conditions for the coronavirus to spread. In a city like Paris, whose metro has a reputation for being unclean, people might expect the situation to be even more dire.

But as the city emerged from one of Europe’s strictest lockdowns, residents discovered something else: a metro system that feels rather safe. In a notable departure from its status quo, the Paris metro now takes great steps to show that cleanliness is a priority, and passengers can find some comfort in seeing that public health guidance is being taken seriously.

From the start of France’s lockdown period, the three public transport operators in Paris and the surrounding Ile-de-France region announced that masks would be compulsory on all public transport, including taxis. Steep fines were put in place for noncompliance.

Paris transport agency employees stand by for crowd control and mask compliance. (Philippe Lopez/AFP via Getty Images)

After spending two months in my own apartment, I was hesitant to try the metro myself, but curiosity recently won out. I donned my mask as I stepped into the underbelly of Paris and was pleasantly reassured. Staff from the RATP transit operator checked that everybody wore their masks, and I saw them reminding one person to put theirs on, which they sheepishly did.

The staff dished out hand sanitizer, and my platform had a selection of points where the few would-be passengers stood, all looking slightly ill at ease, but at safe distances. Inside the carriages, the metro was gleaming. The seats looked like they must have been shampooed for the first time in years. The floor was spotless. It was an all-around good experience, putting my worries to rest. It seems this really is doable after all.

For the transit operators, there was no hesitation to ensure that public transport was safe to use, right from the beginning of the state of emergency. The systems acknowledged that there were many frontline workers who had no choice but to use public transport. At the same time, it was nearly impossible for the general public to get a hold of masks, so the RATP began distributing masks to commuters in larger stations, while also adding new social distancing measures in the system. Stickers marked seats as off-limits. Markers on platforms and in train cars suggested places where people should stand to keep distance if things got busier.

“I was hesitant about taking the metro when it first re-opened, but was impressed with the level of cleanliness, the way people were quietly maintaining distance, and the signage that indicated seat availability,” says Mary-Louise Gifford, a Canadian expat now living in Paris. “I felt safe.”

A commuter rides a train surrounded by seats that are marked off limits to fellow passengers. (Philippe Lopez/AFP via Getty Images)

Starting in March, French citizens were restricted to their houses and only allowed outside with a completed permission slip. Exercise, walking the dog and essential trips were allowed, but only within a 1km radius from home, and regular police checks were the norm. The next step to “deconfinement” was to allow excursions around Paris and within a 100km radius from home starting 15 May, with travel allowed within France’s borders since 2 June.

Newly re-elected Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo pledged that masks would remain obligatory on public transport and that hand sanitiser would be made widely available. Since then, dispensers have been installed at bus stops and major metro stations. Metro carriages are also disinfected once a day.

With hospitalisation rates dramatically reduced, Paris has now been declared a Green Zone, and we can travel around the city freely. Some metro stations are still closed, and some bus services reduced, but the new normal is coming into focus.

On buses, passenger boarding has been moved exclusively to the rear door, while the front area is cordoned off to protect the driver. Again, more than half of seats are off limits, and buses serve every stop by default, so passengers don’t have to push the “stop” button. (That said, on longer routes, trams and the RER suburban trains, you still have to push a button for the doors to open.)

An employee of the RATP distributes hand sanitiser to a commuter exiting a metro station. (Philippe Lopez/AFP via Getty Images)

While some may scoff at having to wear masks and not getting a seat, the Paris public transport system seems to have looked at everything and made it as safe as possible for its passengers.

This also is true for the Eurostar service, the regular shuttle connecting Paris and London via the Channel Tunnel. This service adheres to France’s strict measures and the wearing of masks is obligatory, with every other seat on the trains kept empty. Once passengers arrive in London, though, it is a different story.

Pictures of crammed Underground trains during lockdown circulated around the world, and with no social distancing measures made law, London’s approach did little to make passengers feel entirely safe.

Maureen Salamon, who recently returned to London from quarantine in the US, says her first impression on the Heathrow Express was as if there were no pandemic. “Some of the seats on the platform were blocked off for social distancing, however, inside the trains no seats were blocked,” she says. “No masks were for sale or in dispensers, and there was no signage asking people to social distance.”

At the larger station of Paddington, she did spot some signs asking people to stay two metres apart, but all in all, for much of the crisis in London’s public transport all distancing measures were mere suggestions. The Mayor of London had initially issued a statement for people to try and avoid public transport at busy times, to wear a mask and bring their own hand sanitizer, but it wasn’t until 15 June that masks were made mandatory on public transport.

 Cleaners wearing protective face masks and gloves disinfect a coach in a metro station in Vincennes on the outskirts of Paris. (Philippe Lopez/AFP via Getty Images)

In Paris, there is a sense of comfort provided by the fact that the pandemic laws have been clear and in place all along. Recently I witnessed a couple board a bus without masks, and other passengers asked them to put them on. After some initial resistance, the newcomers conceded, and we all went back to standing and sitting at reasonable distances from each other, all wearing masks.

It would delight the 30 million visitors Paris normally welcomes each year to see the metro positively gleaming. The platforms are empty of litter, the floors of carriages are shiny, and the available seats invite you to sit without first wanting to set down a piece of paper to protect your clothes. Alas, the visitors have not returned yet, so the new normal of clean metros is purely for the delight of the residents. Long may it last.

Ulrike Lemmin-Woolfrey is a writer living in Paris.


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.