Op-Ed: Preparing for the Next Disaster: Looking Beyond COVID-19 Toward Multi-Hazard Approaches to Transportation Planning

Transportation systems play an important role in responding to a range of disasters, from aiding evacuation from hurricanes and wildfires to helping to deliver resources after earthquakes. COVID-19 demonstrates the critical role these systems can play in a pandemic to ensure that essential workers can reach their jobs, freight mobility can be maintained to deliver critical resources, and transit-dependent populations are able to carry out necessary everyday activities. Planning for increased built-in flexibility of these systems now could enable governments and agencies to prioritize the modes and services needed to adapt to dynamic situations in the future.

In the months following the initial outbreak of COVID-19 in the U.S., transportation departments, transit agencies, and other organizations have been implementing a variety of rapid response initiatives to help adapt transportation systems to the conditions caused by the pandemic. These adaptations include pop-up bus and bicycle lanes, automobile-restricted streets, and suspension of parking fees in addition to the development of street design guidelines for pandemic response and recovery. While these actions have re-shaped a range of public spaces and services to address some short-term problems stemming from COVID-19, they could also be considered as part of a broader, long-term approach to addressing a variety of potential hazards, both acute and chronic.

Prior to 2020, pandemics did not top the list of greatest risks for many municipal hazard mitigation programs, and many pandemic response plans that did exist were out of date. While threats like hurricanes, earthquakes, and cyberattacks tend to elicit the greatest concern, future pandemics in a globalized, well-connected society are likely to occur. We also face risks posed by overlapping disasters, including those amplified by the effects of climate change. Amidst the ongoing pandemic, parts of Michigan have been devastated by flooding; wildfires are raging in California, Oregon, and Colorado; heat waves are scorching cities across the country; and the Atlantic hurricane season, which has already produced nine named storms, is predicted to intensify.

Resources for disaster mitigation are sparse, and it is particularly difficult to prioritize funding preparedness for uncertain events, but the consequences of such events can result in loss of lives and widespread damage. Responding to COVID-19 and preparing for future pandemics is likely to increase the strain on available resources for hazard mitigation, which heightens the appeal of developing robust strategies that can be used to address multiple types of disasters.

One aspect of such an approach is ensuring that transportation systems can adapt in response to unexpected disruptions by leveraging built-in redundancies and flexible deployment of services. Redundancy in transportation networks is beneficial for disaster response, and redundancy can in some cases be accomplished without compromising efficiency, as in localities where transit service can be provided within a high-efficiency grid system. But we can look beyond strategies based on spatial organization and test more creative solutions that leverage emerging technologies and develop new partnerships. These might include interventions like designing robust micro-mobility networks, working with employers to stagger work hours to help avoid overcrowding on vehicles, or using mobility-on-demand services to provide deliveries that replace passenger trips, as LA Metro has recently done. Although many of these measures are being developed in response to the pandemic, they would likely provide benefits both in other disaster scenarios and on an everyday basis.

Adopting a multi-hazard perspective, which considers multiple hazards affecting a place as well as their potential interrelations and interactions, would help to support the development of more robust preparedness strategies. Although multi-hazard approaches are admittedly more complex, they provide a more resourceful and effective approach to reducing risk. The benefits of multi-hazard approaches are not unrecognized the transit world, but the majority of agencies were unprepared for the challenges posed by COVID-19. In addition to preparing with material resources like PPE and developing contingency plans, multi-hazard approaches might be expanded to include strategies like providing hazard pay and adequate leave policies for employees – policies that would provide benefit to the overall system both in the case of an acute disaster and on an everyday basis.

Physical transportation infrastructure is one important resource that could be viewed more flexibly. For example, transit plays an important role in evacuation from both hurricanes and wildfires, and transit infrastructure can be appropriated for uses other than its intended purpose in the case of a disaster such as an earthquake. After the 2017 Mexico City earthquake, separated bus rapid transit lanes served as emergency transportation corridors because they were not congested with traffic. In the days following the earthquake, walking, cycling, and riding motorcycles became the primary means of transportation, providing a mobility option for navigating obstructed streets, enabling the transportation of medicines and supplies, and allowing responders to scout heavily damaged areas.

The effects of disasters cannot be fixed with physical infrastructure alone, but where changes in physical infrastructure are made, they should be done with an eye toward multiple hazards and long-term resilience. Furthermore, these changes should be viewed not just as a reactionary response to COVID, but as a long-term investment strategy in both transit-dependent populations and in future transportation system resilience. Public spaces, such as the right of way, should be flexible enough to equitably serve the public both on an everyday basis and during times of disaster. Best practice shows that cities should prioritize actions that benefit the most vulnerable communities – those who experience the brunt of most disasters. Responsive actions should be developed in coordination with communities on the ground so that considerations of racial equity and the needs of otherwise marginalized populations are embedded in the adopted strategies.

In the U.S., the places that were arguably best prepared to respond to the current pandemic were those that had experienced a similar public health crisis in the past – for example, San Francisco, which has kept its COVID-19 case count low. The city, which battled the AIDs epidemic in the 1980s, was able to recognize the legitimate threat of COVID-19 early on and was one of the first U.S. cities to declare a state of emergency. Proactively leveraging its tightly-knit public health and medical research networks, the city was able to provide health care and sanitation support to the most vulnerable by working closely with trusted leaders within those communities. In the transportation sector, Dallas Area Rapid Transit, which had installed specialized ventilation and air filtration systems in response to the city’s 2014 Ebola outbreak, was one of the only transit agencies equipped with such devices when the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded.

Although these examples point to unique and specific solutions to disasters learned from specific past experience, the outfall from COVID-19 demonstrates that we cannot afford to learn anew with every disaster. Rather, more research is needed so that we can better anticipate the disasters that lie ahead and advance creative and interdisciplinary solutions that ensure the most vulnerable people have a range of options for meeting their basic needs.

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