Public Transit

How Does Weather Affect the Transit Industry?

No matter where you live, you’ve most likely experienced drastic weather conditions at one point or another. Certain areas receive harsher conditions, of course, but any kind of extreme heat, cold, or precipitation can potentially cause delays or damage to vehicles and infrastructure. And thanks to environmental changes, historical climate metrics can’t easily predict future weather conditions, though they’re still useful to consider. Mother Nature will continue to impact how cities invest in infrastructure.

Inclement weather causes delays, as people drive more slowly in snow or rain and it will continue to get worse if changes aren’t made. A study of Ho Chi Minh City predicts that delays will increase 620% over the next 30 years. In the United States, approximately 800,000 auto injuries every year are associated with poor weather conditions. As a result, insurance claim costs for bodily injuries have risen 42% and collision coverage costs are up 17% over the past decade. Most insurance companies won’t accept “but the weather was poor” as an excuse – it’s still up to the driver to make the right decisions in bad weather.

Some people aren’t willing to take the risks though and are looking for alternative means to get around during inclement weather. In cities like Chicago, that means utilizing the subway system. On rainy days, riders on Chicago Transit Authority’s “L” trains use subway routes at a 2% higher rate than above ground routes. However, when people live farther away from train stations it limits their mobility during inclement weather. Because bus stations are usually congregated more closely together, those who take buses aren’t affected as much. Meanwhile, a Deloitte report suggested nearly a quarter of current commuters in the U.S. (about 28.3 million people) could switch to bikes as their main commuting method if biking barriers were removed. While it would seem that rain or snow would be the biggest barrier, most bikers cited incomplete or unsafe paths as their major deterrent from biking.
rainy bus
Not a bike rider? Then perhaps this next situation has had more of an effect on you. You’ve probably experienced a delay at an airport thanks to some nasty weather, but the damage goes much further. As we witnessed with Hurricane Sandy and Hurricane Katrina, storms can force entire airports to close. Storms are a big problem particularly in the Northeast, where about 30 percent of the 47 largest airports in the U.S. have at least one runway that’s within 12 feet of sea level. Major hubs like LaGuardia and Newark lie within the range of current and projected 50-year coastal storm surges. These airports need to prepare for when (not if) they’re hit by storms in order to mitigate the damage done. In Alaska, they’re experiencing the opposite effect. Alaskan airstrips are built on permafrost and climate change has thawed the soil beneath, damaging the foundational integrity of important infrastructure.

While we can’t control the weather, the transit industry can combat its effects. The most important way to prepare is to plan ahead. Across the country, cities are preparing for the worst, and it’s helping reduce the damage caused.

– During Hurricane Sandy, New York and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority worked aggressively to stop operation of the subway system and move cars out of flood-prone areas before the storm hit.
– To stay clear of flood zones, authorities are building new rail stations, like the one in Bridgeport, CT, farther inland.
– Using networks that can monitor an earthquake as it starts, San Francisco can prepare in advance of an earthquake striking. The city’s mass transit system is using current sensors to halt trains should an earthquake occur. Furthermore, these sensors would allow utilities to shut off power and pipes along the San Andreas Fault to prevent damage. There’s even more ties between big data and earthquakes, such as analyzing tweets in the immediate aftermath of a quake to integrate sensor data.

Other examples of sensor capabilities include satellite-based sensing systems that can track the potential occurrence of high wind and blowing dust, which is often a byproduct of heavy showers and thunderstorms. These systems can then alert dynamic roadway signs, which can activate cautions to vehicles on the road. And airports are already beginning to utilize computer algorithms that determine the expected precipitation levels in certain areas. This can eventually roll out to every county so cities can know the frequency, timing, and severity of icy precipitation, and make adjustments accordingly, whether it’s in directing commuters elsewhere or changing the infrastructure of known problem areas. We’ve even seen this type of technology in personal vehicles – using big data, a dashboard screen can notify commuters about an approaching storm, giving them a timeframe of when it will hit and the safest areas to park out of harm’s way.

For bikers, cities can take a page out of San Francisco’s book and use paint specifically for roads on bike lanes in order to reduce the risk of slipping during the rain. Cities can also develop regional bike paths. Salt Lake City encourages bike commuting through a regional transportation plan. The city estimates that for the cost of one single interstate overpass, it can instead build out a comprehensive, integrated active transportation system that spans the entire county. If these paths are developed, we can expect more people to take advantage of bicycle commuting in spite of inclement weather.

Weather will likely be a thorn in the transit industry’s side for quite some time. However, with the proper preparations, we can limit its damage. As we work to combat the ill effects of inclement weather, we should look to cities that are ahead of the curve as examples.


Please note that this article expresses the opinions of the author and does not reflect the views of Move Forward.