Post Hurricane Sandy: From New York City

Flooded 86 Street Station – courtesy of Inhabitat New York City via

Hurricane Sandy hit Monday night and dealt a devastating blow to New York’s mass transit, especially the subway system. Sea water rushed in from the lower tip of Manhattan and filled the subway tunnels from Bowling Green all the way uptown to 86 Street, and further north.

However, there were parts of the system which were not submerged in water like the elevated lines, and the tunnels in the boroughs of Queens, Brooklyn and Bronx.  The question is: why some of these lines that were unaffected, are not in service four full days after the storm? In a city of 8 million, the New York subways carry 5.3 million people a day.  If anything should be functioning at its most optimal level, it should be the public transportation system; without it the city cannot function.

In Queens one of the busiest lines, Number 7, could have been running from Flushing to Queensboro Plaza on elevated tracks by now, which is four fifths of the line’s route. The G line is not working which connects Queens to Brooklyn, by-passing Manhattan; Line E in Queens is also out of service.  I am sure the MTA has good reasons for this delay, reasons to which I am not privy, but as we move forward post-Sandy we reevaluate how our transportation system can be more reliable in times of crisis? How can we refurbish our subway lines to withstand such natural disasters? Though Irene was not as severe, this is the second hurricane we are seeing within one year.

Some ideas about protecting the most vulnerable parts of the transit system, barring the consideration of financial costs:

  • The entire subway system should be split up into different flood zones, based on potential for flooding similar to what happened and will likely happen again in the future.
  • The most vulnerable parts of the system should be isolated prior to a storm by locks and gates installed in the tunnels to stop the flooding waters from spreading throughout the system, unchecked. (In fact, all tunnels should adopt these gates, functioning somewhat like Panama canal gates during times of natural disaster) This would be the only way to preserve the existing subway system while also making it more efficient for disaster recovery.
  • Dig deep silos in these tunnels as water retaining tanks and connect them to pumping stations with independent generators to pump out the water.
  • The parts of the system most prone to flooding should be upgraded by moving electrical parts to higher locations within the tunnels.
  • Make all the electrical systems in these parts as water resistant as possible.
  • The remaining parts of the subways system, which can be isolated from flooding  should be brought back into service as quickly as possible. That may require storing a percentage of the rolling stock not in the allocated yards of the city, but in pre-designated locations on elevated lines; in safe subway stations or new yards from where the subway cars can be pulled back into service quickly.
  • Last but not least MTA’s information delivery system is archaic and unresponsive to the rider’s needs, especially in emergencies like this.  The MTA should have video screens at the entrance of each station, and at street level at elevated train stations. These screens should give the up to date information about the change of service on that line and offer alternate service options in graphics not just text. The MTA still uses text heavy printed posters in its system to inform riders of service changes. These posters reflect information posted many hours ago or sometimes from days past.
  • Bus stop information displays are woefully inadequate for modern day needs.  There should be electronic signs under the roof of glass bus shelters, like the ones installed  in subway stations announcing not just the arrival time of the next bus but changes,  suspension or the delay in service.
  • Furthermore, the major transfer points in the bus transit system, where several bus lines converge, such as Union Square or Camden Plaza in Brooklyn Downtown, should have maps of the entire intersection of crossing streets showing where each bus stop for different bus lines is.  This map would make it easier for people to locate bus stops without unnecessary crossing of streets in busy intersections. This is crucial to tourists who are new to the city, to older people, to mothers with small children, and many others.

Riders know that our subway system is extensive, complex, overburdened and critical to our lives.  On most days it serves our needs adequately but it can be improved and can be protected in substantial ways from the ravages of future hurricanes. Perhaps, we should take Sandy’s devastation as an opportunity to rethink and rebuild our City’s subway transit system.

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