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More on Sandy

A look back at Hurricane Sandy yields insights, including the need to supplement bike facilities, to upgrade subways, and to have a stronger disaster preparedness approach if democracy will allow it.

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 (davealden53@comcast.net)

Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. He has worked on energy and land-use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He was also the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and three dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at http://northbaydesignkit.blogspot.com. He can also be followed on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter.

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