Why are there almost no bridges across Amsterdam’s largest river?

If only: one of the proposed designs for a bridge across the IJ. Image: Fons Alkemade.

What is Amsterdam famous for? Besides being Europe’s Sin City, and having one million bicycles, it’s also known as “Venice of the North”. The city has more than a hundred kilometres of canals and more than 1,200 bridges.

With that in mind, this picture looks a bit odd:

An aerial view of the IJ. Image: NASA.

This is the IJ river, which divides the north and south of Amsterdam. The IJ is a pretty odd river. For one thing, its name is a single letter in Dutch, which is why IJ is fully capitalised. (To be more precise, IJ is a digraph which behaves like a single letter).

The IJ is also not a real river. It’s a former bay which changed in shape, thanks to the Dutch national hobby of reclaiming land. Technically, it’s a long lake, which connects a canal to another lake, which itself was formerly a sea.

But let’s not make things too complicated: the Dutch say the IJ is a river, and so will we.

None of that, though is what’s odd about that picture. For a city known for its bridges, very few span its major river. In fact, there’s just one single bridge, the Schellingwouderbrug, and a set of locks right next to it. They are about 5 kilometres away from the city centre. There is a tunnel closer by, but pedestrians and cyclists can’t use it.

The only way Amsterdammers can ride their bicycle from the city centre to the northern part of the city, is by using a network of free ferries. These are very cute and quite convenient: the ferry right behind Amsterdam Central Station leaves every six minutes and takes about five minutes to cross the river.

A ferry on IJ. Image: Wouter van Dijke.

But a ferry is no bridge, and cycling across the same stretch of river would only take about 45 seconds (and burn a little over eight calories). So why has no bridge ever been constructed across the IJ?

I asked Bas Kok, the author of Oerknal aan Het IJ (“Big Bang on the IJ”), a new book about the history of Amsterdam-North. He says that there is no technical reason why a bridge couldn’t be constructed. The span of the IJ is between 200m and 300m, similar to the Thames. But for a long time, there was simply not enough demand. As Kok explains:

“Between about 1300 and 1795 the north bank of the IJ was a field of gallows. In the 1800s and 1900s, the area was transformed into an industrial estate. It wasn’t a very nice area: you wouldn’t go there unless you absolutely had to. The North was the ugly duckling of the city, so why would you build a bridge there?” 

That’s not to say the idea hasn’t been raised before, he adds. But the maritime lobby managed to deter these plans, on the grounds that obstacles in the river would harm trade.

“In the 20th century, people in Amsterdam looked down on the inhabitants of Amsterdam-North. They were working class people, who didn’t have much business in the city centre. It was decided that they wouldn’t need the convenient connection a bridge would offer.”

But now, the north bank is booming. After a Shell research facility just across the river from the Central Station moved to another area in the borough, development of a new neighbourhood started in 2007.  A beautiful new film museum opened in 2012, a cultural centre and concert venue opened in 2014 and a new dance music hub is currently being developed in a hundred-metre high tower.

Across the rest of the northern borough, houses and entire new neighbourhoods are being constructed. The population of the borough is expected to rise by thirty to fifty per cent in the next ten years. 

 

The north bank skyline. Image: Wouter van Dijke.

Those free ferries are having a hard time coping with the increased use. Recently, demand has risen by ten per cent per year and during rush hour the traffic on the ferries is extremely chaotic.


This led a group of Amsterdam-North based entrepreneurs to campaign for a bridge across the river. Their idea was picked up by the city council, which is now researching the possibility of making the so-called “leap across the IJ”.

Traversing the river is no easy task: the Amsterdam harbour still draws a lot of traffic, and a large cruise terminal on the south bank opened in 2000, which means any bridge would need to be able to let cruise ships pass. The latest idea is a set of two bridges across the river, on either side of the city centre. The council is expected to decide sometime next year, after which constructing of the first bridge might finish by the end of the decade.

In the meantime, however, architects are having a field day coming up with what these bridges might look like. Several more and less serious proposals for colossal bridges are popping up. Such as this, from Urban Echoes:

Or this, from Xoom Lab:  

In a few years time, when Amsterdammers are cycling across the IJ, it seems they’ll be doing it in style.

 
 
 
 

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.