Last September, New York City was so flooded by Hurricane Ida that some commuters waded through waist-deep water to get in and out of subway stations. Across the country, extreme heat has ravaged the West Coast, melting Portland’s streetcar power cables. This summer is seeing similar headlines with heat waves in San Francisco and on the BART train tracks. sudden rain It cuts off the north-east routes.
— Rick (@SubwayCreatures) July 18, 2022
These extreme weather events, which are increasing in severity and frequency due to climate change, pose a challenge for millions of Americans who rely on public transit to get to work, school, the grocery store, the hospital, and social events.
— Rick (@SubwayCreatures) September 2, 2021
According to Maria Sipin, former Transportation Justice Specialist at the National Association of Urban Transportation Officials (NACTO), public transit is a “lifeline” for many groups of people who already face disproportionate challenges due to historical discrimination or marginalization. People with disabilities, residents of low-income communities, and Black and Brown communities have less access to a car, are more likely to live farther from jobs, and tend to use public transit to commute (in part a legacy of revitalization and ongoing investment in minority neighborhoods). When extreme weather affects public transit, it has the potential to deepen existing inequalities.
It also threatens the country’s ability to meet its climate goals: Transportation is responsible for 27% of US carbon pollution, and public transit is a key tool for reducing these emissions. If train and bus service is disrupted by extreme weather, people may turn to more emissions-intensive roads, creating a negative feedback loop that drives the rise in global temperatures that caused the disruptions in the first place.
“Transportation is the largest source of emissions in the United States, and 85% of them come from people driving themselves in private cars,” said Alex Engel, NACTO’s senior communications manager.
While switching these private rides from fossil-fueled cars to electric vehicles is getting a lot of attention and is poised to receive significant support from the federal government through the Inflation Reduction Act, public transit will often be overlooked as essential to meeting climate goals.
“A bus, even if it’s diesel, is a better climate solution and emits less emissions than a private car – even if the car is an EV,” says Engel.
Even as climate change-induced extreme weather increases, what can cities and transit agencies do to ensure that public transit remains a viable option for riders? The answers are as numerous as the transit agencies themselves, but many point to approaches that yield a number of co-benefits.
Some of the most obvious solutions are structural. “Subway lines in many U.S. cities are very vulnerable to flooding,” says Yonah Freemark, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute. According to Kate Slevin of the Regional Plan Association (RPA), this is especially true in the New York area, home to 40% of the nation’s public transit riders. This means that it is critical to address any potential entry points where water can enter the system, whether from seawater, as New York City saw in Hurricane Sandy, or extreme rainfall, such as Hurricane Ida.
Since Sandy, New York City has invested $2.6 billion in a wide range of permanent protective measures, including doors that can be locked behind subway ventilation grilles and raised barriers around subway entrances. – to prevent water. Temporary measures, such as inflatable dams that block subway entrances, can also be implemented during extreme storms.
According to the American Public Transportation Association, while rail dominates transit conversations, just as many trips are made by bus in the U.S. as by train. From Engel’s point of view, this means that climate adaptation should include building high-quality bus shelters that protect drivers from extreme heat and the elements during storms.
Sipin adds that ensuring equal access to public transit also means ensuring that infrastructure to and from train stations or bus stops is accessible and well-maintained. When sidewalks are poorly paved, curb ramps are prioritized, and bike lanes aren’t protected, riders who need public transit the most—those who are visually impaired, wheelchair users, or anyone who lives far from where they need to go—can’t make it. to get to and from public transport stations safely.
“I think it’s often overlooked because transit and walking and bicycling and wheelchair use aren’t always addressed together,” notes Sipin. “It may not seem sexy or innovative, but these core investments really do help.”
Of course, all these measures cost money, and Freemark notes that adequate financing is a significant barrier to building climate-resilient infrastructure. Slevin points to New York’s planned congestion pricing program, which, once implemented, would charge drivers to enter Manhattan’s busiest streets and use the money to fund MTA repairs, as one approach to addressing the issue of limited funds.
“The congestion pricing plan would raise a billion dollars annually, with 100% of that revenue going back into the transit system,” says Slevin.
Other cities have adopted different approaches. Rob Freudenberg, RPA’s vice president of energy and environment, describes Philadelphia, which receives an average of 47 inches of rainfall per year, as a leader in stormwater management. He notes that part of the city’s strategy is to assess properties for stormwater management. In addition to giving the city extra money to fix the problem, developers are encouraged to incorporate green infrastructure and water storage into their building designs through exemptions and rebates, which help mitigate the problem in the first place.
Planting trees, building bioswales (which use landscaping to absorb stormwater) and otherwise greening streets can also help public transit flood because vegetation and soil absorb water that concrete cannot. Although extreme heat requires different management than flooding, greening streets offers a solution in both cases: Vegetation shade can reduce temperatures by 45 degrees F, according to the EPA. A large temperature difference may have prevented a BART train in San Francisco from partially derailing due to extreme heat this summer. If it is not possible to plant tree cover to reduce the temperature, there may be other solutions, such as painting the train tracks white to reduce the heat.
Slevin notes that the most robust solutions will not be implemented by a single agency. If the sewer department cleans the sewers of garbage and the parks department maximizes the parkland’s ability to absorb excess water, etc.
“There’s coordination required to solve this problem because it’s all interconnected,” he says.
But on the plus side, the solutions can also be linked together. Congestion pricing can inject money into a cash-strapped transit system while reducing air pollution and traffic. Greening streets can lower temperatures, absorb excess floodwater and improve air quality. Climate-resistant bus shelters can make riding the bus more comfortable. And all of the above—anything that makes public transportation safer, more accessible, or more enjoyable to use—ultimately helps fight climate change.
“It’s pretty amazing how much you can reduce emissions by making transit a more convenient option,” says Engel.
By Whitney BAUCK
Reprinted from Nexus Media.
Image courtesy of New York State Metropolitan Transportation Authority/Patrick Cashin (CC BY 2.0).
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