Transport for London isn’t mapping its new cycling routes. One resident is trying to keep up.

Cyclists on Oxford Street. (Tolga Akmen/AFP via Getty Images)

With Covid-19 still raging in the UK, fewer passengers are travelling by public transport, and Transport for London is rapidly rethinking its streets to accommodate a huge increase in cycling. Anyone hoping for an official map of the city’s growing cycling network will have been disappointed, however: So far, communicating the extent and the quality of the routes has been left to users.  

One of them is cyclist and planner Dermot Hanney, who in 2016 published Route Plan Roll, a sort-of cycling equivalent of the tube map. In recent weeks, Hanney has been tracking London’s new cycle lanes as a Google Maps layer. CityMetric caught up with him to talk about the challenges of monitoring an area the size of Greater London, and why more cities should be mapping their cycle networks. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Let’s start at the beginning. How did you end up doing this?

It was around the time Boris Johnson’s mayoralty was coming to an end [2016], when they started bringing in the really high-quality stuff. But there was a feeling that no one had a clue where these routes were going. There wasn’t really an inventory. It felt like there was a critical mass of routes that you could just about hang together as a network, which allowed a full map to become a thing. 

Transport for London produces the tube map and a load of other maps of the city’s transport network – so why aren’t they doing this in house?

I think there’s a couple of things. Firstly, the problem is that TfL has to work with the boroughs, and don’t want to put their noses out of joint. If TfL produced a map based on quality, it’d mean bad-mouthing some sections of track the boroughs had done.

An extract from TfL’s cycle map, such as it is. (TfL)

Secondly, TfL took the view a couple of years ago – I think this is coming back to haunt them a little bit – that it’s better for third parties to do app-based work and data-led work. So people like Citymapper and Google Maps have taken on that role of presenting wayfinding information. 

But if TfL was more active on that, it’d be in a better position not only to represent the cycle tracks, but also to gather data on where people are actually cycling. So I think TfL really need to develop an app.

Of course, you can’t really keep looking at a map while cycling. How do you imagine people using your maps?

I see the schematic map as kind of an advertisement for cycling. It’s something that’s meant to be there to catch people’s attention, but it’s not really a tool to use as you go out the door. So what I’m trying to do now is put that information in the Google map, so people can follow more of a blow-by-blow account of where they move around.

The schematic version of the map. (Route Plan Roll)

Of course, the vast majority of people need to put their phone away while cycling. But at least with a Google Map, if you do feel you lost, you can stop, open up your phone, and say, okay, well this is where I am.


So where do you get your data from?

It’s a mix. Twitter keeps you up to speed – people tweet, “I’ve seen this new section go in today”, and with videos you can see a lot of what’s going on. That’s combined with things like Open Cycle Map, which have a lot of dedicated people, who put down all the routes. 

And then whenever I get time I go out and try to cycle the routes. But some of them can be quite hard to gauge: You go down on a Saturday and it’s nice and quiet, but then you look on Twitter and find that at 5 on a Monday it’s hell because everyone’s using it. 

Your map doesn’t just show the routes – it also tries to map their quality. How do you make those decisions?

It’s really a personal judgement, mostly based on the level of separation and protection on the route. At the moment I colour code the routes as red, orange, and green. The green, the highest quality routes, are really easy to capture. At the other end of the spectrum, red “routes” where there’s just nothing there, those are really easy to capture, too – I try to avoid highlighting those, but sometimes they’re the only way of getting between two points. Everything else is sort of in a bundle in the middle.

 

A screenshot of the Google Maps version. High quality routes are in green; poor but necessary ones in red; those in between in yellow and orange. Recent additions are blue, and cycling-friendly river crossings in purple. (Route Plan Roll/Google)

My ideal thing would be for people to come along and rate each section on a 1 to 5 scale, and then just use the average number. That’d be less arbitrary and would be a helpful resource to feed back to TfL and councils.

There are a few aggravating places where the official cycle routes just don’t quite link up – on the eastern fringe of the City of London, for example, CS2 gets to within 500m of CS3 but then just stops. But that’s obviously no use if you want to create a network, so how do you decide how to create those links?

I try to think of who’s going to be using the map. The main audience for the cycle map is probably people who are on the edge, thinking “I’ve seen other people do it”, but aren’t quite doing it yet. So I’m trying not to put down any links where people will be intimidated off the road and don’t want to cycle again. I probably err on the side of caution and use links that are a little bit less direct but have less traffic, rather than the quickest route.

Between CS2 and CS3 I think it’s Jury Street, because that has a contraflow cycle lane, and at least when traffic is bad it’s just not moving. So you can just about persuade new cyclists to use this section, but you probably have to be with them and hold their hand.

The map is so far focused on the city centre – how far out do you want to go?

I want to do the whole of London! What you find in outer London is that, a lot of the time, the links kind of exist, they’re just not finished very well, and there’s a lot of gaps in between. But if someone had time and just a little bit of money, there’s probably quite a lot of quick wins.

Also, we’re always focused on just cycling into London – but realistically, unless you’re really dedicated, you’re not going to do that whole cycle in from, say, Bromley. But there’s loads of town centres in outer London – or you could get people to cycle to the railways station and then get the train in from there. The opportunity is there to develop a local network, more focused on trips within the borough rather than into the city. Hopefully with a single map of the whole of London, people can take what they need from us to help their local cause and their local needs.

Are there other cities internationally you’ve been looking at for inspiration?

Not really – that’s one of the reasons I wanted to do the schematic map, it felt like a really big gap. If you go to Paris or Berlin or Rome, the first thing you do is get the metro map out and go, okay, that’s where that is, this is where I’m staying, this is how I’m going to get around town. I’ve always felt there’s no equivalent for cycling.

So I guess one of the things at the back of my mind is that, if I wanted to be super aggressive in expanding, I’d like to have all these different maps for different cities and for people to go, okay I’m cycling in Europe, I need a cycle map – let’s go to Route Plan Roll.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

 
 
 
 

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.