Friday, January 11, 2013

More on Sandy

During this past summer, I was fascinated by the urban planning aspects of the London Summer Olympics.  The hopes and goals of the Olympic organizers for the post-games use of the venues and the surrounding neighborhoods.  The political and financial aspects of the redevelopment plans.  The looks back at what other Olympic cities had done and the lessons to be learned.  The Olympics offered a surprisingly sharp look at many of the issues that surround urbanism.  I found it difficult to look away.

Hurricane Sandy is much the same, although without the cheering crowds.  The storm damage and the issues around recovery put a spotlight on urbanism in the U.S.  New York City and the North Bay may not have much in common.  But there are lessons to be learned.  And I again find it difficult to look away.

This will be first of several looks back at the aftermath of Sandy and the ongoing reconstruction.  I’ll return every couple of weeks to share a few more links, a few more comments, and a few more thoughts about how the lessons apply to the North Bay.

In an earlier post, I linked an article in which Sarah Goodyear of Atlantic Cities wrote about her involvement with a team that delivered emergency supplies by bicycle after Sandy.  The staff of the Project for Public Places (PPS) had similar experiences, but takes a bigger look at how bicycling commuters fared in the immediate aftermath of Sandy.

The number of bicyclists increased significantly, with the PPS staff pleased that they were already experienced bicycle commuters.  The average time for a bicycle commute increased, but far less than the increase for car commuters.  PPS notes that New York City has an aggressive goal for increased bicycle commuting by 2017 and argues that Sandy proved the need to meet that goal.

Interestingly, one bicyclist noted that the greatest risk in the days after Sandy was motorists.  Frustrated by continuing traffic problems, including traffic signals without power, they were being less heedful of bicyclists than normal.

The successes of bicycling in the days after Hurricane Sandy came with irony.  The oft-delayed BikeShare program, now scheduled to begin in March, may have to be further delayed because Sandy damaged the electronic docking stations. 

Which in turn raises another question.  If the docking stations were damaged while still in their boxes at the Brooklyn Naval Yard, how would they have done if they’d already been deployed throughout Lower Manhattan?  Perhaps there is no way to combine unmanned, electronic bicycle-share stations with possible hurricane flooding, but it would certainly be perverse if the bike-share stations were to be out of service exactly when they’re most needed.

To a lesser extent, the same question of resilience can be asked of North Bay cities.  Napa and Petaluma are probably the best examples, but numerous North Bay cities are subject to downtown flooding.  As we become increasing reliant on electrical and informational grids, what actions are required to ensure that those grids remain available when they’re needed in time of emergency?

This isn’t an argument for suburban or rural development.  As Sandy showed with function returning to Manhattan more quickly than in many outlying areas, urban centers are more capable of resilience.  But resilience doesn’t come without forethought and planning.

Although not as quickly as bicycling, many were surprised by the alacrity with which transit returned to service.  After the damage that occurred, especially in lower part of Manhattan and in the railyards of New Jersey, the recovery was quick.  But the recovery was only partial.  As this article from Atlantic Cities shows, there is much damage still to be repaired. 

Nor was the recovery cheap.  The bills are now coming due and the cost estimates being submitted for the work still to be done.  And the transit agencies are looking for the funds to help with the reconstruction.  I certainly support getting the subways back into safe running condition as quickly as possible.  However, I also support looking hard at what subway rehabilitation costs can be reasonably justified over the long term.

There are undoubtedly some subway officials who are seeing Sandy as an opportunity to redress deferred maintenance using someone else’s dollars.  And there are probably street maintenance supervisors looking to do the same.  But StrongTowns tells us that much infrastructure is economically unsustainable.  A disaster is no reason to forget that lesson.  Instead, disaster recovery might be an opportunity to start reconfiguring in a more economically sustainable manner.

Someday soon, the same opportunity to look at the financial sustainability of infrastructure will present itself in the North Bay.

Finally, a look at the issues underlying how we make decisions about resilience.  Writing for Project Syndicate, Michael Spence notes that democracies often systematically underinvest in the resilience needed to survive major catastrophes.  He notes that the problem lays in the principal-agent problem.  Our agents, who are our elected officials, may grasp the need for additional resilience, but the principals, who are us collectively represented at the ballot box, don’t have the same understanding and are unwilling to reelect officials who argue for resilience.

Fellow Project Syndicate writer Ian Buruma, doesn’t disagree, but notes the democracies are still better than tyrannies at long-range planning.

The combined wisdom, with which I agree, is that democracies are the best option, but what is really needed is the willingness to reelect officials who have the courage to give us bad news.

I’ll close by noting that the bad news needn’t be limited to the need for more infrastructure resilience.  It can also be a warning that drivable suburbia is increasingly unsustainable and heading for obsolescence.  Indeed, the two are often related.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (


  1. On the issue of under-investment for resilience, this is something I've been struggling with ever since I took a CERT class: What's a reasonable amount to spend on a once-in-a-hundred year chance? If I, as an individual, keep a fully stocked disaster stash, rotating materials through as they expire, that can cost a lot of time and money, and I could very well get through the rest of my life without having to use it.

    A bureaucrat planning for disaster could very well get through their entire career, certainly their stint in a particular post, without having to use disaster preparations, at which point those preparations are money that could have been spent on resources that will be otherwise used.

    And what if the maintenance and preparedness creates a system that's further invested in an obsolete technology track, so that when the disaster comes sunk costs force you to rebuild in an out-of-date way?

    There are definitely no easy answers here. The Sandy scenario was definitely predicted and planned for, it's hard to fault anyone with the response to it, but it's also the case that entities that spend on investments that have shorter-term returns, rather than on resilience, get a leg up. Slow-and-steady only wins the race when the race is longer than the sprint, in this case longer than a human career span, if not life span.

    And I think that this sort of discussion has immediate application to municipal governance. We have very few structure fires any more, and our fire departments are now being dispatched to medical situations that, 50 years ago, wouldn't even have elicited a doctor's visit. There is probably a better structure for that particular sort of emergency preparedness, I haven't looked at the numbers but I could imagine that the costs of retrofitting wiring and sprinklers in to older houses are less than keeping a firehouse in every neighborhood, but the human inability to accurate assess and respond to risk means we're unlikely to do any such optimizations any time soon...

    1. Dan, thanks for the comment. You make great points. And which hundred year disaster should we plan for? Where we live, a 100-year flood is an easily managed emergency. Perhaps downtown is impacted, but a few cans of soup would get us through. But a hundred year earthquake is a very different thing. Perhaps we don't even have a home in which to shelter.

      There are no easy answers. But until we start asking questions and become willing to accept the hard decisions, we're generally under prepared.

      Meanwhile, living in closer proximity, although only a partial and imperfect solution, seems beneficial in most disaster situations.

      I especially liked your point about fire departments.

    2. Re the fire departments: My now deceased grandfather on my mother's side was a volunteer fireman with a career in public safety. Back in the early naughties I went to visit him, and, along with presciently describing the Hurricane Sandy scenario as one of the big concerns of his career, he also mentioned that in the course of his involvement with his town's fire department "emergency" medical calls had increased something like two orders of magnitude from the 1950s, to the '90s and '00s. The town's population numbers hadn't changed all that much, what changed was the attitudes about performing your own first aid vs calling someone else to put the band-aid on the owie.

      And going from a call or two a month to three calls a night was putting a serious stress on the ability of the town to keep the volunteer force interested, and meant they were probably going to have to break down and go to a professional "firefighting" force. At tremendous cost to the town.

      Whenever I'm out cycling with assorted retired firefighters who are quite enjoying the leisure of their golden years, I wonder about the costs of changing notions of what constitutes a (medical or otherwise) emergency.

    3. Dan, your observation is dead on. When I was a teenager, a fire siren automatically meant that something was burning. In my fifties, it means that someone has fallen and can't get up. I'm not sure what drove the change, but it really is remarkable.