Matthew Robare

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The Importance of Transportation Infrastructure Resilience

Transportation infrastructure resilience can not only help mitigate climate change, it can also create adaptable, more livable cities.

These days it’s not enough work on lowering a city’s climate impact. Experts agree climate change is already here, so the challenge is to blunt its impact by reducing carbon emissions and making the city more resilient.

By making the city, especially the transportation system, more resilient, public services and city life can continue, whether in the midst of a heatwave or lots of rain.

Resilience is about redundancy, anticipating future conditions, and planning for the worst.

In the past, 100-year floods did not worry people, businesses, and the government as much. Unfortunately, researchers now believe they could happen every year in some parts of the country instead of approximately once a century.

Adapting requires changes to flood insurance, stormwater runoff, road and bridge engineering, and even how buildings are built — just this year when Hurricane Ida hit New York, 11 people were killed by flash floods in their basement apartments. 

Evolving transportation infrastructure

Transportation infrastructure is one of the key areas that must become more resilient. Not only does transportation account for 29 percent of carbon emissions in the United States, but between streets and parking, cities devote as much as 60 percent of their land to cars.

Not only is land valuable with the potential of generating tax revenue for a city, but it’s now all hardtop asphalt. This means it’s impervious to water, increasing runoff and contributing to flooding. According to Planetizen, cities devote 2000 to 4000 square feet of land to roads and off-street parking per car. 

Fortunately for cities, there are a number of ways to make transportation more resilient and reduce the impact of cars on the environment.

Land utilization

Land utilization is becoming increasingly popular, often with putting in native plants or planting street trees. These plantings can absorb excess water while reducing loss to evaporation, provide habitat and food for bees and other animals, and help slow cars to increase safety.

Moreover, they can help reduce the urban heat island effect, a must for cities where heat levels are predicted to regularly get dangerous.

Extreme heat is one of the most dangerous forms of weather and is becoming more common. For this reason, cities are also using white, reflective coatings on rooftops to reduce heat absorption. Some cities, such as Los Angeles, are painting their roads white for the same reason.

Evaluating electrification

Electrification of the transportation system is also drawing increased attention.

Some cities are investing in using wires to power light rail systems while others are hoping battery technology continues to improve at a rapid pace.

Battery electric vehicles are especially attractive for cities in warmer climates since one of the limitations of battery technologies is that charges run out faster in the cold.

While electrification can result in decarbonization and mitigate climate change, the additional infrastructure can decrease resilience. This is because batteries and overhead wires still need to draw power from the grid, and trolley poles can be knocked down in storms.

However, the gains in air quality and mitigation might warrant that particular risk.

Leveraging solar power

One way electrification can be used to increase resilience is by piggybacking on the trend of installing solar panels on rooftops and selling excess energy to the grid.

This helps decentralize electricity generation, can produce income for an agency while reducing costs, and can provide a backup for electric vehicles in the event of an outage.

A similar idea to use public assets for green energy is to build solar roadways that generate power, which can be used to charge vehicles driving on them.

Transit agencies could also potentially put solar panels on bus stops, although the amount of electricity generated may not make that worthwhile. 

Mitigating sea level rise

For coastal areas, paying attention to sea level rise is an important part of resilience — especially as storms get more powerful, leading to more intense storm surges.

In 2012, New Jersey Transit’s entire train fleet was temporarily out of service because they were stored at a yard in the Meadowlands that was flooded out during Superstorm Sandy.

Similarly in Boston, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority’s Orient Heights Yard, which serves as the maintenance and storage facility for the Blue Line, is vulnerable to flooding due to its location at sea level. 

But even interior cities can be vulnerable to floods — from rivers, ground saturation, or even ground that’s too hard.

For example, Las Vegas, with its combination of hard, impacted soil and a tendency to get what little rain it gets all at once, has built a set of massive flood tunnels under the city to avoid damage from flash floods. 

Transportation equity

Creating options for people to get around without cars or even without transit can also promote resilience.

Neither bicycles nor manual scooters will run out of gas or need to be recharged; however, the same can’t be said for e-bikes or e-scooters.

Bike lanes protected by on-street parking or another kind of barrier are excellent at getting people out of cars and onto bikes.

Bike paths can be used to re-purpose abandoned rights-of-way and paved with a permeable material while trash can be removed and native flora planted. Bicycling infrastructure also has the advantage of being very cheap compared to building roads or any electrification efforts.

A bike-share system can also help promote cycling as an alternative to cars, especially if it is integrated with the transit system, as in Pittsburgh’s mobility hub system

Dealing with climate change may eventually require drastic alterations to our way of life and economy. But before we get that far down the river, planning for resilience can be done incrementally, with small, adaptable changes that support more livable cities.

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