OPINION: Transportation and its important role in climate disasters

Written by: Madelyn Collins, East Tennessee Clean Fuels

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Photo by Alex Boyd on Unsplash

Approximately 24.6 million people live in transit deserts across 200 metro areas, and more than one million households live without a car in rural America.  

As a society, we have a vast and deadly issue on our hands.

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According to a study conducted by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, climate disasters have been increasing since the 1960s, with a steep 35% increase recorded since the 1990s. In 2020 alone, the United States endured 30 record-breaking named storms during the hurricane season.

Do we currently have reliable transportation and infrastructure to handle this? 

The answer is no.

In the 2021 transit report card, 45% of Americans have no access to transit services. This statistic coupled with the fact that the number of registered vehicles from 2012 to 2019 has declined by over 25 million spells out more disaster and tragedy for those unable to flee. In New Orleans, it was estimated that as many as 30% of residents did not have the ability to evacuate before Hurricane Katrina struck, and for Hurricane Ida, roughly 200,000 people rode out the hurricane in New Orleans.

Access to reliable transportation is a major public health issue, and a push for reliable and sustainable transportation has to be championed.

Mobility on Demand as a Solution

Since many Americans do not have access to personal vehicles, public transit has to close the gaps. As mentioned above, 45% of Americans do not have access to transportation, and, also reported in the same report, over a 10-year period across the country, 19% of transit vehicles and 6% of fixed guideway elements like tracks and tunnels were rated in “poor” condition.

Currently, there is also a $176 billion transit backlog, a deficit that is expected to grow to more than $270 billion through 2029. Overall, the transit report card totaled a low grade of a D-.

The role of public transit systems in the U.S. is to provide safe and reliable transportation for their communities. This role is doubly important during critical emergencies. The U.S. can’t have a D- system during worsening climate times. 

One way transit systems have been trying to mitigate this problem is Mobility on Demand (MOD).

MOD combines traditional public transit with private enterprise options into a single mobility service. This includes using ridesharing services, micromobility and other modes of transportation to increase the range, quality and quantity of transit services.

Varied forms of transportation would help resolve some of the equity challenges like the woes of transit deserts mentioned above. There would be no concerns about whether bus routes enter your neighborhood or on your schedule. As the name entails, transportation is yours to demand.   

Another way MOD would help is with the actual transportation of evacuees in states of emergency.

A case study was done in Xi’an, China found that shared mobility was effective in decreasing the total trip time of the evacuation network by reducing the number of intermediate trips and helping emergency officials to identify locations of vulnerable evacuees via one-to-one communication between evacuees and drivers.

These added seats and communication pathways through shared mobility could save thousands of lives as buses can only take so many people at a time. And a MOD plan included in an evacuation strategy also means more options, capacity and access for vulnerable populations to be seen, heard and transported to safety. 

A service like this would help those who are part of vulnerable populations in climate danger zones to not only flee sooner but also survive better on a day-to-day basis.

Many places have already begun to see the potential in a MOD system.

Seattle’s Department of Transportation is currently developing an on-demand ride to transit by and for older adults and people with disabilities set to pilot this winter.

Big Blue Bus, the City of Santa Monica’s bus transit system, has a Mobility On-Demand Everyday Program. This program partners with Lyft to provide curb-to-curb, on-demand services for older adults and persons with disabilities Monday through Saturday.

If more places see the value of this multi-faceted system, it can give people the type of access that they need to carry on with their day-to-day lives and make sound choices during times of distress.

Alternative Fuels as a Solution

Modes of transit, however, are only part of the puzzle. Another thing to consider is the fuel itself. 

One of the first scarcities during climate disasters is gasoline and diesel. According to GasBuddy, nearly 20% of local gas stations are out of fuel on the day a state of emergency is declared. This number increases each day to the point that virtually almost no gas stations have fuel.

In 2018, Hurricane Michael caused such devastation in the Panama City area that more than 50% of the area’s gas stations still had no fuel 13 days after the disaster was declared.

Emergency vehicles need fuel to complete rescues and help in other capacities during climate disasters. Alternative fuels lend energy resilience in these types of situations.

When Hurricane Harvey caused a 30% reduction in refining capacity, compressed natural gas stations operated with no interruption. During Hurricane Sandy in Atlantic City, New Jersey, a fleet of 190 CNG buses transported residents to safety. Plus, lots of natural gas fueling stations come with emergency natural gas-fired generators, which means blackouts would not affect its operation. This could mean everything when the electric grid shuts down, as it can take weeks for power to come back on. 

Propane vehicles have also shown their usefulness in hurricane effort reliefs. In 2012, during Hurricane Sandy, there was a diesel shortage in New York, but propane supplies weren’t interrupted. Because of this, propane autogas school buses were able to get first responders and medical personnel to emergency situations and to hospitals. Similarly, during Hurricane Irma in 2017, a county in Florida used propane school buses to evacuate residents, including vulnerable residents in nursing homes who were transit-dependent.

The benefits of alternative fuels in climate disaster scenarios are undeniable. Some organizations and states have been taking steps towards pushing the use of alternative fuels more in disaster preparedness.

In 2008, an initiative was created after major flooding in the state of Indiana. An alliance was created called the Northwest Indiana Information Sharing and Security Alliance (NIISSA) that shares security preparedness and resilience information, best practices to resist the impact of hazards, like climate disasters, and shares how to recover rapidly when impacted. This initiative includes the police and fire department, EMA, EMS, the Coast Guard, South Shore Clean Cities and over 20 other partners committed to community safety and response.

In 2015, the National Association of State Energy Officials (NASEQ) launched a nationwide program called Initiative for Resiliency in Energy through Vehicles (iREV). The initiative created tools for emergency management decision-makers to assist the integration of alternative fuel vehicles into their plans. Through iREV, emergency plans from 50 states were reviewed, and alternative fuel vehicles are now included in emergency planning certification programs among their project partners.

As climate disasters become more frequent and worsen, transportation and its access to people, especially vulnerable populations, will need to be addressed.

Hopefully, more programs and systems like the ones mentioned above will be put in place to face these disasters before they hit and before folks are put in potentially life-threatening situations.

Reliable transportation during climate disasters is a public health issue and it’s not on the horizon. It’s here.

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