Atlantic Cities

Why New York's Transit System Fared So Well During Sandy

Why New York's Transit System Fared So Well During Sandy
Reuters

Make no mistake: New York City transportation still has a ways to go before it resumes life like Hurricane Sandy never happened. A number of transit services will be hoppled for months, particularly the A train going out toward the Rockaways. And the MTA needs a stunning $5 billion in repair funds. Still the sense one gets from a new pre- and post-storm review of city transportation [PDF], released earlier this week by NYU's Rudin Center, is that things could have been much, much worse.

The review, based largely on news reports, offers a few recommendations but has mostly high praise for both the official response to the storm and the adaptability of city residents. "While transportation stoppages would have crippled other cities, New York was able to provide alternative services," write four NYU co-authors, led by Sarah Kaufman. The takeaway is that New York's general reliance on multiple transportation modes made it more flexible during extended periods of disrupted subway service.

Kaufman and colleagues point to an August 2007 flash flood that interrupted morning commutes as the genesis of the subway's preparation for Sandy. After that storm, a task force [PDF] commissioned by then-Governor Eliot Spitzer identified several major problems to be fixed before the next one. Those included a lack of MTA coordination, inadequate flood prevention infrastructure and pumping equipment, and poor outreach to riders.

By the time Sandy hit, the MTA had addressed those concerns to a great extent. Some $30 million in flood prevention projects had been completed, according to the NYU report, from raising 30 station entrances to replacing old flood pumps to creating an emergency response center. Before Sandy's arrival on October 29, the authority suspended service, moved trains and equipment to higher ground, blocked entrances and covered grates to limit flooding, and prepared pumps for post-storm use.

After the storm surge, the MTA immediately began pumping flooded stations (with some eventual help from the Army Corps of Engineers). None of its rolling stock was damaged, buses resumed service the following day, and limited subway service was possible by November 1. By November 3, about 80 percent of the system was operational, and by November 16 all lines were operating except the R and A trains.

The MTA also kept the public informed through online updates, published emergency service maps that were updated frequently, and released videos of its efforts to enhance transparency. It also worked with other transportation modes to provide alternative commutes. An "impromptu Bus Rapid Transit" service sprouted between Manhattan and Brooklyn, with hundreds of buses crossing Manhattan Bridge on exclusive lanes. Emergency ferry service was established to parts of the Rockaways and Staten Island.

The MTA's preparedness was matched by the "inventiveness" of city commuters, writes the NYU report. With the L train out of service, some 7,400 commuters took the East River Ferry on November 1, doubling the typical daily ridership for the season.* That day some 30,000 people also commuted by bicycle, more than double the daily average, a feat enabled by the city's expanding bike infrastructure. Private commuter vans played a helpful role as well.

Here are the adapted commute figures, based on a survey conducted by NYU:

The review misses a few chances to be a bit more critical. It more or less gives New Jersey Transit a pass, despite recent reports that the agency's rolling stock wasn't moved to high enough ground and suffered a great deal of damage as a result. It mentions in passing the dire predictions about a storm of Sandy's magnitude, but (perhaps understandably) avoids a larger discussion of potential major flood prevention plans.

That said, it does offer a number of recommendations for emergency and non-emergency service alike. Before the next storm, the city would be wise to secure backup power sources for subway pumps, install more flood gates and raised entrances, test those giant tunnel "plugs" making the news rounds, and lay down porous (read: flood friendly) pavement in high-risk zones. In the meantime, M.T.A. officials should seriously consider maintaining priority bus lanes over Manhattan bridges — especially during short-term service outages — and keeping that adaptable, often-updated service map. Might as well improve while we recover.

Top image: MTA employees work around the clock to remove seawater out of the L train's tunnel under the East River in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. (Reuters)

* Correction: An earlier version of this post stated that ferry ridership on November 1 doubled the season total.

Eric Jaffe is a contributing writer to The Atlantic Cities and the author of A Curious Madness (2014) and The King's Best Highway (2010). He lives in New York. All posts »

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