Redundancy in Transportation after Hurricane Sandy

November 1, 2012 at 8:10 pm

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, which ravaged much of the East Coast of the U.S. earlier this week but left New Jersey and New York particularly scathed, we’ve seen the degree of resiliency that people are able to exhibit after such a tragedy. Of particular interest not only to myself and others who are interested in transportation, but also to anyone who needs to move from point A to B, is how transportation is affected during natural tragedies like this.

According to the constantly-updating wealth of articles by The New York Times on the subject, walking and biking have become the only efficient way to get around Manhattan (or between closer points in the adjacent boroughs/New Jersey). Mayor Bloomberg initiated a 3-person minimum on all cars entering Manhattan and the MTA ceased collecting fares.

NYT: Long Lines for Shuttle Buses

Long waits for shuttle buses at the Barclays Center. Credit: Seth Wenig/Associated Press.

Many parts of the New York City Subway, including all service connecting Brooklyn and Manhattan below 34th St. are out of service and MTA buses are replacing service. Apparently the streets of Manhattan are so congested, buses are having a hard time running on the streets normally – also certainly due to much-increased demand.

Post-Sandy NYC Subway

A temporary New York City Subway map. Click for full PDF. Credit: MTA.

To be honest, I don’t know why Mayor Bloomberg is allowing any cars into Manhattan. The whole City would do better to clear the streets for use by emergency and very-high demand vehicles (i.e. buses). But the decision is the result of strategic emergency planning, and officials can only learn from situations like these.

With the sudden increase in biking to get around in light of the disaster, could New Yorkers be awakened to the benefits? I can’t tell if this is Copenhagen or New York City:

New York Cyclists

Biking and walking over the Queenboro Bridge. Credit: Clarence Eckerson Jr./Streetsblog.

With major disruptions in New York City’s greenest asset – its Subway – come major changes in how people get around. Without a doubt, the bicycle is a great tool in getting people moving again. No infrastructure to replace or repair, no concern about space usage (bikes are smaller than humans, unlike single-occupancy vehicles), and no real possibility of running out of fuel (or the conflict that ensues). The only problem might be the lack of dedicated space for cyclists!

It seems odd to ponder the post-disaster effects so quickly after the disaster, but the resiliency of people in America’s most populated megaregion is fascinating. With each of the two presidential candidates silent on climate change, sustainability, public transportation, or even cities at all, something good that can come out of a disaster in the international spotlight is a discussion about the future of the environment and how we can make our cities even more resilient in the face of disaster. And something else we can think about is the future of transportation – not just during a disaster, but all the time.

Few are talking about it yet, but a hurricane of this proportion (the storm system extended to Lake Michigan) was probably so big because of climate change. Such dramatic change in weather can be mitigated by less/more efficient energy usage. This doesn’t mean switching to electric cars, like many politicians think (because it is an easy way to sound “green” without telling people to stop driving so much), because electric cars still use energy, no matter what it’s generated from. Walking and biking don’t use anything except human energy. They also seem to be the only reliable way to get around in desperate times, for no other reason than their simplicity and inexpense.

South Ferry Station Flooded

New York City Subway’s relatively new South Ferry Station is flooded. Luckily, residents have more than one way of getting around. Credit: Craig Ruttle/Associated Press.

Technological advances, like the automobile, also have the downside that complete and total investment and dedication to their use doesn’t create redundancy. Your bank stores data in multiple data centers just in case disaster strikes one. In the same fashion, New York City and other dense cities have redundancy in mobility – you can walk, you can bike, you can take a bus or train, or you could drive. You can’t say the same about most suburbs and rural areas, which have been developed because of and for the automobile. There is no redundancy in mobility when the automobile is the sole way of getting around.

Lining up for gasoline is not redundancy in transportation. Reports of conflict among gas-hungry motorists have surfaced. Credit: Reuters.

Just a thought about the future of transportation and people moving. Redundancy is key not only in times of disaster, but also in quality living. A community that offers several ways of getting around is healthy, safe, and built to withstand even major challenges. This isn’t about radicalizing the roadways. It’s about changing the infrastructure to accomodate more diverse uses. Many communities have realized this and began to change accordingly. The future depends on it.