Preparing Transportation for Climate Change: We Are Not Ready

Photo of flooded NY subway stop after Superstorm Sandy hit.


Courtesy of MTA

This past Sunday at church, my daughter and I heard a story based on a children’s book that delighted her and caught my attention too. You may have heard of it – “Ming Lo Moves the Mountain.” It’s a clever parable about a family frustrated at the effects of a mountain looming over their home, including lack of sunlight and occasional boulders crashing through the roof. They determine they have to move the mountain, and after consulting the village wise man repeatedly they finally figure out how to get the job done. They deconstruct their house, pack it up, close their eyes, and take enough steps back that the mountain magically becomes smaller!

It’s a cute story which resonated with me because I’ve been thinking and reading up on climate preparedness. Being prepared requires, first of all, respect for Mother Nature so we can adjust to reality when necessary (i.e., move away from the mountain).

Based on my research so far, I can’t help but conclude that we are not ready, at least not in the transportation sector. Far from it.

First of all, it helps to diagnose the situation – just how far-reaching and intense might the effects of climate change be? As part of its latest, statutorily required initiative to determine this via a National Climate Assessment, the Department of Transportation held a two-day workshop last fall about the “Systemic Impacts of Climate on Transportation.” Here’s the final report from the series of presentations by government and academic analysts, followed by a facilitated discussion with our whole group. The presentations are sobering. Sea-level rise scenarios of 0.2 to 2.0 meters (anywhere from 8 inches to 6-and-a-half feet!) by 2100; more extreme events including droughts, floods, storms, heat and cold waves and hurricanes; as well as challenging “slow-motion” shifts like crop migration.

Some of this is echoed in the National Climate Assessment (NCA) draft itself (a nearly 1200-page report which is currently available for public comments here). The transportation chapter (pdf here) provides the first hint that we aren’t prepared. There is some useful diagnostic information here, including the bald assertion that changing climatic conditions “are reducing [not will reduce; emphasis mine] the reliability and capacity of the U.S. transportation system in many ways.” There’s also a useful matrix for illustrating risks of climate-related impacts, with “magnitude of consequences” and “likelihood of occurrence” plotted out; this could be a diagnostic tool for state and local transportation agencies.

But other than some generic advice regarding adaptation and coping techniques, and a few interesting success stories -- no surprise that the transit agency in the progressive haven of Portlandia has already installed expansion joints for rail in vulnerable locations – the chapter is thin gruel when it comes to assessing preparedness at the local, state or national levels. We have to look elsewhere to determine how ready we might be.

So I searched the thousands of papers from this year’s Transportation Research Board conference for ones on climate adaptation and preparedness. How many did I find? Just 5.

Transportation is a notoriously close-knit industry so as expected one of the papers was co-authored by one of the authors of the NCA transpo chapter, Professor Michael Meyer (the co-author’s a grad student, Thomas Wall). The paper is a “synthesis” examination of infrastructure-specific adaptation frameworks in Australia, Canada, the EU, New Zealand, Scotland as well as the U.K. and U.S. An eye-catching conclusion is a “broad agreement on the limitations of the frameworks developed, and the barriers preventing their further development and implementation.”

The other two that were most interesting include one explaining a “sensitivity matrix,” a tool for gauging the vulnerability of infrastructure assets to damage based on possible storm surges on the Gulf Coast. The team at ICF consulting developed this with the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA, and it’s consequently available on the FHWA site here), and unfortunately as the authors note it may not be applicable to public transportation assets.

The other one, entitled “Assessing Public Transportation Agencies’ Climate Change Adaptation Activities and Needs,” is all about public transportation, and is co-authored by (who else?) two Portland State University professors. In addition to an inventory of climate adaptation projects funded by smart staff at the Federal Transit Administration (I wrote about FTA’s work in previous blog entry), the paper reports on the results of a survey of public transportation agencies coordinate with the American Public Transportation Association (or APTA; NRDC is proud to be a member of it). 64 transit agencies from 28 states filled out a survey, and the findings are frankly alarming. Fully 92 percent say they’ve already been impacted just in the last decade by major storm events, and 60 percent “felt it was somewhat important for their organizations to prepare for future impacts of climate change…” and 28 percent “indicated that their organization feels that climate change is currently impacting their community…”

The good news is that at least 38 percent of agencies are “collecting cost data and/or other information and data about weather events or climate projections to assess the impact on their infrastructure and operations” and 57 percent have “identified assets and infrastructure that are vulnerable to extreme weather events.” But “only 21 respondents indicated that their agency was currently involved in adaptation climate change planning activities” and “nearly 34 percent of the agencies are not collecting or using any data related to extreme weather or climate change.” [emphases mine] The three big barriers to doing more identified by those surveyed include lack of funding, low institutional priority and need for better data and tools. And these are the subset of 300 agencies surveyed who chose to respond, self-selection that probably entails a higher degree of commitment and preparation than those who ignored the questionnaire.

To be clear, there are examples of leaders in climate preparedness as profiled in the NCA as well as in resources such as the National Academies new report on Disaster Resilience: A National Imperative (report and handy, brief executive summary available here) and U.Va. Professor Tim Beatley’s well-written book Planning for Coastal Resilience. And in response to hurricane Sandy, New York City and State have pulled together impressive plans including one looking way out to the year 2100.

The bottom line though is that laggards outnumber leaders in climate preparedness, and policymakers must get to work in order to change that for the sake of our transportation system’s future.

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