One Lesson From Sandy For Cities Outside the Hurricane Zone

Hurricane Sandy has dominated the news cycle for several days now, meaning publications that cover cities have had a strong focus on the East Coast, and New York specifically.

But even for those of us far from the destruction, the hurricane’s impact offers some important lessons about city building. The biggest of those lessons have to do with emergency preparedness and climate change, but I’d like to focus here on the built environment and getting around.

The importance of New York’s public transit system has never been more apparent — at least to a non-New Yorker like myself — than it was in the hurricane’s aftermath. With the subway gone, crippling gridlock ensued and people struggled to get around:

In other words, Sandy showed what happens when there are a lot of people coupled with insufficient means to move them. What resulted won’t come as a surprise to those living in dense metro areas with great public transit, but for cities in the West looking to grow it suggests that transit is integral and everyone can’t drive their own cars all the time. And over reliance on cars doesn’t just cripple the streets; it also cripples the economy by slowing down connections or eliminating them all together.

In other words, transportation should be dense, diverse and resilient. It’s ultimately part of a successful growth and prosperity strategy.

Relatedly, Sandy also emphasized the importance of having internal transit that works for short trips, in addition to transit for longer trips. I argued a similar point in September, but the gridlock that ensued after the storm reemphasizes the importance of transit for cross town travel.

In the coming days, New York will have to repair its existing transit systems, but other experts also pointed out that Sandy offers a chance to beef up and improve infrastructure:

Though New York itself will likely emerge from Sandy better off in the end, there’s no reason the lessons it emphasized should be restricted to that city. Specifically, if a city wants to start moving people around more efficiently — something growing Utah cities like Provo should be considering — they need to actively encourage better types of transportation.

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