“A remarkable achievement”: the environmental case for building HS2

A train in some woods. Image: Getty.

At the end of December, activists and celebrity supporters relaunched their #RethinkHS2 campaign opposing the UK’s new high-speed line. The re-launch involved a rather glossy video voiced by Emma Thompson, featuring the music of Annie Lennox and fore-grounding the bauble-hanging skills of Chris Packham.

But the video, and the whole premise of this campaign, is based on a single mistruth: that HS2 will destroy over 100 ancient woodlands. (It won’t.) The result is a typically misguided “green” attack on HS2 – and hopefully I am about to explain why.

Firstly, let me make a crucial point: the money spent on HS2 cannot be better spent on upgrades to the existing railway network because building HS2 is an upgrade of the existing railway network.

By segregating high speed trains onto their own line, you untangle the complex mixture of slow and fast services that currently constrain capacity, allowing the remaining services to bunch up more closely together. This enables a doubling or tripling of capacity for the remaining services into cities like Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds without any additional infrastructure spend.

The proposed HS2 network. Image: Cnbrb/Wikimedia Commons.

Build the new railway for modern-day high speeds and you don’t just do this for the West Coast Main Line, but also for the Midland Main Line, East Coast Main Line, and several other cross-country main lines. That means lots more local, commuter and freight services across the country.

But why do we need that extra capacity in the first place?

Transport is now the UK’s biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions – and while there are lots of underlying reasons for this, fundamentally it is because too many people/things use road transport.


While lots of the “people” journeys are short, urban ones that should be shifted from cars to modes such as walking or cycling, these efforts would also bring more people onto our public transport networks.

This also doesn’t fix the “things” journeys – those goods hauled on the road network, in other words. Even a diesel railway emits significantly less CO2/km than road transport, so a fully-electrified one wipes the floor with road, even if you use electric cars or HGVs. (No, rail electrification isn’t happening fast enough, but that’s another story.)

So we need rail to absorb a hefty amount of traffic. Unfortunately our railways are already reaching their maximum capacity so fare prices remain high and we can’t carry more people/stuff anyway. As I’ve already described, the quickest and cheapest way to create the required extra capacity to run more local, commuter, regional and freight trains is by building HS2.

This isn’t about growth for growth’s sake. It isn’t about “business as usual”. HS2 is all about emptying our roads of cars, vans and HGVs, getting our urban spaces and clean air back, and doing our best to mitigate against the impending climate disaster.

Anyway, back to that #RethinkHS2 video: It is basically a series of slow-motion shots filled with downy-cheeked kids and soft-focus adults vandalising a young tree with seasonal decorations – in a woodland they’ve presumably reached using an SUV. It’s an odd visual theme to hang your pro-ecology, anti-HS2 campaign hat on, in all honesty.

The only message that appears on screen is the “over 100 ancient woodlands [will] be destroyed by HS2” claim, which I’ll just reassert is a complete fabrication.

HS2’s route was very carefully selected to minimise damage, such as by weaving through SACs and SSSIs. Some loss of ancient woodland was inevitable given that they are very spread about, and that the definition of ancient woodland is pretty loose. However, nobody has ever shown me a section of the HS2 alignment that could be altered to reduce the impact on ancient woodland in one location without increasing the impact on ancient woodland in another.

If you look at a map of ancient woodland, it is scattered around like polka dots.

HS2’s route through the Chilterns has been optimised to minimise its impact on properties, habitats and the overall landscape. Image: HS2/Gareth Dennis.

Besides, if you increased HS2’s weaviness, you’d increase its whole-life carbon cost, as more curves means more accelerating, braking and maintenance of both track and trains. More pressingly, by slowing trains down you would end up needing to build three new lines instead of one to match the overall benefit of HS2 on the railway network, and that will clearly be much more damaging.

Widening existing railway lines would also have a much greater impact on ancient woodland (and everything else for that matter), as many well-established habitats back right onto or run parallel with these century-old routes.

A closer look at the adjacent London to Aylesbury railway line shows the impact of widening existing lines on ancient woodland. Image: HS2/Gareth Dennis.

As a result of years of design refinement, the whole HS2 route from London to Leeds and Manchester will impact on less than 0.01 per cent – that’s less than one ten thousandth – of the UK’s ancient woodland.

Compare that to the damage done by a short length of new motorway. According to the Woodland Trust’s own figures, the proposed Lower Thames Crossing motorway will impact on about as much ancient woodland as HS2 (54 hectares versus 58 hectares), yet it is only 14 miles long, compared to HS2’s 470 miles.

I’ll quote from one of the normally rather hostile House of Lords committees scrutinising the project:

“All ancient woodland is irreplaceable, but the loss of less than one [hectare] out of about 11,000 in the [Chilterns] AONB is, we consider, a remarkable achievement.”

As the #RethinkHS2 video bounces around inside the internet, our new government is pressing ahead with a £28bn road building programme that will have an appallingly significant impact not only on the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions, but also on habitats and biodiversity throughout the country – and to a much greater degree than HS2.

When HS2 finally gets the go-ahead next year, I look forward to seeing the combined energies of Packham, Lennox and Thompson go straight into opposing the National Roads Fund instead.

 
 
 
 

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.