Handling tomorrow's mega-trends means rethinking today's infrastructure.
By Jonathan F. P. Rose, May 29, 2014
Over the rest of the 21st century, cities will face many forces far
beyond their control: mega-trends such as dramatic shifts in population,
the financial vulnerability of a globally connected economy, resource
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 are our urban
transportation systems. It's essential that we begin now to plan,
finance, construct, and renovate transportation systems that can respond
to these emerging mega-trends. Here are five ways to rethink today's
infrastructure for a successful tomorrow.
1) 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 plan now for sea level rise
and increased storm surges, but to anticipate a wider range of coming
extreme circumstances. How might agencies design for extreme heat,
energy shortages, changing settlement patterns? City transit managers
are tasked with estimating a range of future demands, stresses, and
opportunities, and fighting for the funds to prepare for this uncertain
2) Design 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, has said, "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 it's been stressed. For example, the bridge's shock absorbers can
be restored in a few hours after an earthquake — spare parts are stored
under the bridge, so even if other road networks are down, the
necessary material is 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.
3) Shift 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 than 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
4) Personalize 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.
5) Change 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 limit their integration with other city
services and objectives — preventing them from responding more
effectively to rapidly changing climate, economic, housing, and work
For example, transit agencies are often obligated to obtain the
highest price for land near new transit extensions, even if that land
could have been used to serve the community with affordable or senior
housing. The HUD sustainable community planning grants began to assist
communities in seeing the benefits of coordinating housing,
transportation, and environmental goals, but they were often hampered
because cities and regions didn't have the integrated governance to
implement these plans.
To serve our ever-changing cities, we need to develop more flexible
governance and operating systems. That should help loosen the rules that
can prevent our transportation networks from fulfilling the needs of
the 21st century.
Meanwhile, NextBus and other mobile apps are increasing the public's access to transit information, increasing ridership and rider satisfaction.
These systems are more financially efficient for both the manger and
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. Two examples are San
Francisco's smart parking system, and Stockholm's congestion pricing system.