Post-Irene Open Thread 2: A Teachable Transportation Moment

Grand Central stood eerily empty as the MTA shut down all transit service. Photo: ##http://www.flickr.com/photos/mtaphotos/6086067175/in/photostream/##MTA/Marjorie Anders.##

Sometimes the best way to understand the ordinary is to examine the extraordinary. Watching Hurricane Irene wreak havoc on the entire transportation system from North Carolina to the Canadian border brought certain patterns and questions into high relief. Here’s some of what we thought about while the power was down.

Most striking to me was the palpable absence of the transit system in New York City. The New York Times called the closure of the subways “perhaps the most unsettling element of a prodigious storm preparation effort.” Even on national television, the idea of New York City existing without transit was held up as the ultimate symbol of the seriousness of the storm. A lot of people seemed only to realize the absolute centrality of the transit system in its absence.

Life without transit also highlighted the value of building places with multiple transportation options. In the streetcar suburb where I was during the storm, people ventured out on foot to see neighbors, survey damage and even head to the few open stores long before most felt safe driving or transit service had resumed. Taxis provided a backup transportation option for normally transit-dependent New Yorkers who really needed to get somewhere.

In contrast, those with only one means of travel — such as drivers in upstate New York, where floods rendered hundreds of roads and bridges impassable — are stuck at home. Irene helped us see the value of multiple transportation modes, or even multiple options within a single mode.

The hurricane also cast the decisions we make about transportation safety in a different light. Storm-related incidents killed 21 Americans, six of whom died in their cars. With most people holed up, though, and those behind the wheel proceeding slowly and carefully, it’s possible that more than six people might have died over a weekend of driving in the affected area, or that the hurricane kept overall traffic injuries down. If that were in fact the case, what would it tell us about efforts to prevent people from being killed and maimed in traffic crashes?

Along those lines, as of last Friday, New York City considered shutting down taxi service on safety grounds. It was ultimately decided that the need for mobility outweighed the need for caution — an interesting case of transportation goals in conflict. It was instructive to watch drivers and pedestrians negotiate normally signalized intersections with the power off — when does the motorist decide to yield? — and to observe the natural traffic calming effects of fallen tree branches.

What did Hurricane Irene make you think about the way we get around?

  • Holly Hudson

    Yesterday was a great day to bike in Manhattan with the reduced traffic.  I rode all over with my husband looking for good coffee, and then later we biked to the LES to meet a friend for dinner.  We had a great time, I wish the roads were always that peaceful. 

  • It made me think we should have a hurricane threat every weekend. It was nice being able to cross the street without having multi-ton vehicles bearing down on me for no other reason than spite. Having no one trying to go anywhere in a frantic hurry was a good thing.

  • Rider

    I think it helps show how much advance notice plays into transportation planning.  People often think that shutting down a road or bridge will lead to chaos, but as long as people are aware of it ahead of time the chaos never follows.  Much like LA’s “carmageddon” that wasn’t, fears of a disastrous, traffic-choked city didn’t materialize.  Subways are routinely shut on weekends for repairs, yet you rarely see hordes of people outside of stations wondering what the heck is going on – that’s because the MTA, for all its faults, makes this information widely available.

    Maybe there’s a lesson here for the naysayers who believe shutting Central Park and Prospect Park to cars will lead to gridlock and pollution in surrounding neighborhoods.  If drivers are told about it in advance through multiple channels, they’ll find other routes or even leave the car at home.  Then we can leave the parks as the traffic-free sanctuaries they were intended to be.

  • Anonymous

    It was instructive to watch drivers and pedestrians negotiate normally
    signalized intersections with the power off — when does the motorist
    decide to yield? —

    I don’t know about New York State, but where I was taught to drive, when the traffic signals are offline, the intersection becomes a four-way stop.

  • Driver

    “In contrast, those with only one means of travel — such as drivers in upstate New York, where floods rendered hundreds of roads and bridges impassable — are stuck at home.”

    Even with an extensive transit network these residents would be stuck at home.  Impassable roads and bridges (and also train tracks),  as well as wide spread power outages, affect all modes of travel .  Transit would not provide a viable option in these circumstance.

  • Driver

    “In contrast, those with only one means of travel — such as drivers in upstate New York, where floods rendered hundreds of roads and bridges impassable — are stuck at home.”

    Even with an extensive transit network these residents would be stuck at home.  Impassable roads and bridges (and also train tracks),  as well as wide spread power outages, affect all modes of travel .  Transit would not provide a viable option in these circumstance.

  • Station44025

    Took a tour by bike of the lower lying parts of Brooklyn yesterday, and it was nice. There were very few cars on the road, but those that were driving seemed to be having their “I am Legend” moment, going about 50-60 down 3rd and 4th aves. A couple of drivers treating 3rd ave and 9th (signal functioning normally) as a “four way go” got into a crash, while several cyclists looked on in amazement. Kind of hilarious, as it didn’t appear anyone was hurt.

  • You have to understand that people in rural areas (and not all of upstate New York is rural, by the way), unless they’ve just arrived, realize that not being able to get everywhere you want to go, every time you want to get there, is part of life.  If it snows hard enough you either have to dig yourself out or wait a couple days for someone else to.  If it rains and washes out the road, you need to be prepared to eat until the weather abates so you can go out and survey the damage.  It’s not the end of the world when you can’t travel anywhere as long as you’re prepared.

  • gloriahill34

    Your post made me think a lot about disasters, our reaction and how much transportation means to all of us. The modern world is not possible without all kinds of transportation, what do you think?

  • Rw Rynerson

    I once had to write a history class paper defending historians’ obsession with wars, crises, disasters.  It was an assignment that I disagreed with (some others drew the assignment to oppose that idea).  It was illuminating, because it turns out that a crisis forces issues to the surface that otherwise are ignored (example here, whether daily traffic deaths might be as high or higher as those attributed to Irene).  As I listened to WINS 1010 from the high ground of Denver and gleaned e-mails from family and friends who had electricity on the scene, I was able to learn a lot about the diverse transportation in the Irene regions that otherwise would not have been commented on.

    As for the rural areas, they once had alternatives, too.  A friend of mine recently moved from a small town in eastern Colorado to an inner suburb of Denver.  She is mind-boggled by how much she is saving on transportation costs for everyday life.  Though she was not a commuter to the big city, even the most routine events like a trip to the library were costly.  Now, her autistic son is going places independently on buses, walking to stores, and her older son has less than half the miles to his suburban workplace.  50 years ago, their small town had all the same highways and county roads, but also had three buses a day between there and Denver, continuing on to the towns where the boys’ grandparents live.  The town also had a mail train stopping there on its way between Denver and Chicago.  And the train ran through all sorts of prairie weather disasters that closed the highways or made them risky to drive.  Sometimes the highway was open and the trains were stopped.

    What the Irene story reminds us is that urban America is much better positioned to offer options to all sorts of people’s needs, while rural America has put all of its eggs in one basket (often by the policy choices of their own auto-oriented elected officials).  For those with different needs, leaving is the best choice.  For those preferring the hardy pioneer lifestyle as described by Matt BK, the lack of alternatives provides a good substitute for eugenics.

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