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Alexis Petru headshot

Two Years After Sandy: NYC Plans for Transportation Resiliency


Editor’s Note: This article is part of a short series on creating resilient cities, sponsored by Siemens. Please join us for a live Google Hangout with Siemens and Arup on October 1, where we’ll talk about this issue live! RSVP here.

When Superstorm Sandy swept through New York City on Oct. 29, 2012, the storm completely upended one of the busiest transportation networks in the country -- flooding and cutting off power to streets, tunnels, subway stations and airports. Even after the flood waters receded, it took city workers up to two weeks after the storm hit to get almost all of the Big Apple’s transit network up and running again – although some services, including portions of the subway system, are still out of commission to this day.

According to the city’s estimates, Superstorm Sandy resulted in a whopping $8 million of physical damage to the region’s transportation infrastructure and affected nearly 8.5 million public transit riders, 4.2 million drivers and 1 million air travelers.

But nearly two years after Sandy, New York City has not only worked to repair and restore its transportation infrastructure from the storm’s damage, but is also taking steps to improve the resiliency of its transit network. The city outlined its plan to better prepare for future natural disasters – including the effects of climate change – in its report, A Stronger, More Resilient New York, released in June 2013.

The Big Apple is initially focusing on protecting transit infrastructure that is especially vulnerable to extreme weather events, city officials said in a progress report on sustainability and resiliency initiatives that was published on Earth Day this year. Toward this end, city workers have elevated traffic signals in particularly at-risk locations; loss of power to traffic signals, or damage from flooding, can disrupt traffic and imperil drivers, cyclists and walkers after a natural catastrophe occurs.

City officials are also preparing a transit backup system – in the event of major subway outages during an extreme weather event, according to the progress report. The city had already established select bus service routes to relieve overcrowded subways and improve and expedite bus transit – by giving these select buses an extended green light at traffic signals and their own bus lanes, for example. But these select buses, which often cover the same areas as the subway system, can also serve as an alternative transit option if a natural disaster closes down the subway. This year, the city launched select bus service on two more streets and is planning to add three more streets in the near future.

New York City is also making preparations to quickly restore service to its transportation system after a severe weather event, the report said: Its Department of Transportation and Office of Emergency Management have collaborated on a transportation “playbook” that officials can refer to during a crisis. The emergency guide includes strategies to set up temporary transit services and better manage traffic.

As for next steps, the city plans to concentrate its efforts on its network of urban commuter ferries, including making physical improvements to floating infrastructure, piers and gangways, as well as expanding capacity of the ferry systems with deployable landings and barges.

Beyond New York City: How other cities can plan for resiliency

How can other cities make their transportation networks more resilient and better prepare for the impacts of climate change, including sea level rise and extreme droughts and floods? One new resource for local governments is the Toolkit for Resilient Cities, prepared by engineering company Siemens, New York's Regional Plan Association and consulting firm Arup: This study offers recommendations to make cities’ infrastructure, including transportation networks, more resilient.

Cities must have robust transportation infrastructure that can withstand extreme weather events like droughts and floods, as well as the gradual effects of climate change including sea level rise, according to the toolkit. In New York City, this meant resurfacing the roads damaged by Superstorm Sandy and elevating traffic signals to prevent damage from future storms.

Cities must continuously monitor the condition of their infrastructure, the toolkit’s authors advised, and they should investigate technologies to assist them. The authors pointed to a two-mile suspension bridge between Istanbul and Izmir, Turkey, as an excellent example of government agencies using technology to assess their infrastructure. The cities are planning to install state-of-the-art monitoring technology and communication and camera equipment, so that any damage to the bridge will be detected and reported to them immediately.

The toolkit’s authors found that cities with decentralized resource supplies and distribution systems tend to fare better during natural disasters. For example, the London Underground is usually powered with electricity from the grid, but the system also has a backup power system – a separate power supply at the Greenwich Power Station – in case a catastrophe shut downs the grid.

Investing in resilience can bring many benefits to cities, the toolkit’s authors said – enabling them not only to better respond to and recover from natural disasters, but also to reap savings from energy and operational efficiencies, reduce environmental impacts and create safer, more secure communities.

Making improvements to transportation infrastructure now to prepare for future calamities may seem like a challenge for cash-strapped governments. But, with the toolkit’s authors estimating that natural disasters caused $1.7 trillion in damages around the world between 2000 and 2012, how can cities afford not to become more resilient?

Image credit: Flickr/Metropolitan Transportation Authority of the State of New York

Passionate about both writing and sustainability, Alexis Petru is freelance journalist based in the San Francisco Bay Area whose work has appeared on Earth911, Huffington Post and Patch.com. Prior to working as a writer, she coordinated environmental programs for Bay Area cities and counties. Connect with Alexis on Twitter at @alexispetru

Alexis Petru headshotAlexis Petru

Passionate about both writing and sustainability, Alexis Petru is freelance journalist and communications consultant based in the San Francisco Bay Area whose work has appeared on Earth911, Huffington Post and Patch.com. Prior to working as a writer, she coordinated environmental programs for various Bay Area cities and counties for seven years. She has a degree in cultural anthropology from UC Berkeley.

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