Handling tomorrow’s mega-trends means rethinking today’s infrastructure.

Jonathan F.P. Rose


 Flickr user MTAPhotos

In the 21st century, cities face many forces far beyond their control: mega-trends such as dramatic shifts in population, the financial vulnerability of a globally connected economy, resources scarcity, rising income inequality, and an increase in the droughts, floods, heat waves, cold waves, sea level rise, and storm surges caused by climate change. Preparing for all these stresses won’t be easy, but a critical place to start is with urban infrastructure, an area where many U.S. cities are most vulnerable.

Infrastructure is the platform of the common good. It connects us in nested networks of systems, integrating homes, neighborhoods, cities, regions, and nations. Cities thrive with internal and external connectedness, and the backbone of this connectivity is our urban transportation systems. It’s essential that we begin now to plan, finance, and construct or renovate transportation systems that can respond to the emerging mega-trends. The following are five ways to rethink today’s infrastructure for a successful tomorrow.

Plan for an uncertain future

In 2005, New York City’s MTA began work to reconfigure the South Ferry subway station at the tip of Manhattan. The goals of the project were fine ones — to solve long standing American Disabilities Act issues, to reconfigure the platforms for longer trains, and to create better connectivity between lines. The $530 million project was completed in 2009, and as projected, significantly increased the throughput capacity and comfort of the station.

However, because of the very long planning, engineering, funding and procurement cycles, the project was set in motion before the risks of a more volatile climate and rising seas were being taken seriously by the transit community. As a result, only three years later, the rising seas of Superstorm Sandy swept across Lower Manhattan and flooded the South Ferry station with salt water, destroying much of what had just been built. The repairs are projected to cost $600 million and won’t be completed until 2016.

The lesson is not only to now plan for sea level rise and increased storm surges, its to anticipate a wider range of coming   extreme circumstances. How might agencies design for extreme heat, for energy shortages, for changing settlement patterns? City’s transit managers are now challenged to plan for an uncertain future, to estimate the range of future demands, stresses, and opportunities, plan robust, repairable, resilient and responsive systems, and then fight for the funds needed for the transformation.

Designing Robust, Repairable, Resilient and Responsive Systems

In 1989, the Loma Prieta earthquake caused the collapse of the San Francisco- Oakland Bay Bridge. The original bridge was designed to be stiff, to resist the seismic movements of the earth. But the earthquake overwhelmed that design strength and the bridge failed, a tragic example of robust but fragile infrastructure. The bridge’s replacement has been designed to be ductile, strong but also flexible enough to absorb almost any shock. Its lead engineer, Marwan Nader, writes, “The idea is to build a structure that can stretch and deform without breaking.”

Nader and his team also designed the new bridge to be easily repaired after its been stressed. . For example, the bridge’s shock absorbers can be restored in a few hours after an earthquake — its spare parts are stored under the bridge, so even if other road networks are down, the necessary parts are on site. Sensors allow for continuous monitoring of the bridge, and its structure can be adjusted for various loads and stresses. The bridge is robust, resilient, repairable, and responsive.

As cities plan and rebuild vast amounts of critical infrastructure, these principles should be applied to all infrastructure improvements.

Shifting from Lines to Networks

A century ago, when many American cities built their first streetcar and commuter rail systems, metro regions were organized around central hubs, with the lines running as spokes from suburbs to the city. But the automobile-oriented suburban revolution that followed World War II changed all of that. No longer shaped by rail lines, suburbia could sprawl in all directions. As a result, many destinations that Americans need to reach everyday can only be accessed by car.

As our regions become more layered and complex, and metro area residents want more options then just cars, our transportation systems need to function as integrated networks, not just lines. Americans marvel at the elegance of interconnected European systems, which tie together airports, long-distance high-speed rail, local rail, street cars, buses, bike systems, and walking paths. We deserve the same.

Personalizing Mass Transit

America’s transportation needs are further changing as Millennial transportation preferences shift from driving to biking, walking, and mass transit. The emergence of services like Megabus, CitiBike, Zipcar, Uber and Lyft, and their many variations, reflect a desire for a more affordable, personal, and pervasive range of transportation options.

Meanwhile, NextBus and other mobile apps are increasing the public’s access to transit information, increasing ridership and rider pleasure. These systems are more resource and financially efficient for both the manger and the users. The next step is to use the information from these apps and adjust transportation services in real-time to meet demand, just as Uber tells drivers and customers each other’s location. Just two examples are San Fransisco’s smart parking system, Stockholm’s congestion pricing system.

Changing Oversight

Resilient, responsive, and adaptable transportation technologies are rapidly evolving. Technology is not a constraint — but our rigid ways of planning, designing, building, operating, and funding transit systems can be. Too often, transport agencies are bound by rigid federal, state, and local regulations that constrain their ability to integrate with other city services and objectives, so as to more effectively respond to rapidly changing climate, economic, housing and work patterns. For example, Transit Agencies are often obligated to obtain the highest price for land near new transit extensions, rather then the most community serving uses, which may include affordable and senior housing. The HUD sustainable community planning grants began to assist communities in seeing the benefits of integrating housing, transportation and environmental goals, but they were often hampered because our cities and regions didn’t have the integrated governance systems to implement these plans.

To serve our ever-changing cities, we need to develop more flexible governance systems and operating systems to loosen the rules that rigidly bind our transportation networks to the needs of the 21st century.

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