Home View from Underground A subway system vulnerable to climate change

A subway system vulnerable to climate change

by Benjamin Kabak

With Irene heading toward the city, the MTA had to shutter the subway system. Could it be worse the next time? (Photo by flickr user ccho)

Earlier this week, when the MTA finally secured state approvals for the rest of its three-year capital plan, we viewed it as a victory for the transit authority, but in reality, it should be a warning sign. Since New York City has largely washed its hands of its own subway system, we are dependent upon the state to deliver money, and the state has been a reluctant funding partner for a while now.

To gain approval for MTA funding from Albany Republicans, as Dana Rubinstein wrote yesterday on Capital New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo had to usher in significant road expenditures and further infrastructure commitments for upstate New York. I scratch your back, and you scratch mine even harder. That seems to be the way of things in Albany.

For the MTA and for New York City, though, securing capital money and the ability to raise the debt limit is just the beginning. On Wednesday night at the Transit Museum, Andrea Bernstein led a panel on the subways that I unfortunately could not attend. The topic focused around transit and sustainability in light of rising sea levels. A recent article by Katharine Jose covered similar ground, and experts pain a rather dire picture of the MTA’s future.

The threat from Irene last August was just the beginning. A direct hit from a major storm or a surge from rising sea levels could make things much, much worse. Jose wrote:

Imagine a scenario in which a 100-year-storm flooded all of the parts of the system that are most susceptible—the tunnels that carry trains under the East River to and from Manhattan, and the major connection points in Lower Manhattan. Then Brooklyn, Queens and Long Island would essentially be cut off from the mainland for the millions of commuters who pass through those links every day. And not for a short time. “Essentially the subway system will be shut down and the restoring time will be at least a month,” [Professor Klaus] Jacob said. “And probably many months.”

In the same way that many people, during Irene, didn’t understand why it took so long to shut the system down and so long to start it back up, if there is that kind of flooding, they will have to pump all the water out of the tunnels, take out the signal systems, wash them off (because they will have been in touch with brackish water), dry them, put them back together, test them, and reinstall them. And since much of the subway system is as old as 100 years, new parts cannot exactly be ordered up immediately; new ones would probably require starting from scratch…

[The M.T.A.] is an agency that does not get its money from New York City; it’s the state legislature that decides how much public money will go to the authority. This, historically, has been a problem for transportation networks that don’t stretch beyond the limits of the city, and it still is. For massive capital projects, the political will could be hard to assemble for significant projects. And in the meantime, the M.T.A. has been in financial trouble, funding much of its ongoing operation and “state-of-good-repair” work with bond issues, which is not feasible in the long term and doesn’t leave much room for large capital projects that would normally depend on such financing.

So far the M.T.A. has been taking smaller, less expensive measures to prepare for flooding and sea-level rise. They are raising sidewalk grates that vent stations and tunnels and putting bicycle racks on top of them, anad building concrete platforms a few inches high in front of the entrances to stations.

Jose’s piece is a sweeping examination of the way the city is responding to the threat of climate change, and it sounds as though the MTA is relying more on hope than concrete investments. The agency can perform mitigation efforts along with support from the New York City DOT. The raised grates can alleviate flooding from routine storms, and a more efficient pumping system can better assist the MTA in readying service after a storm.

The authority however has no protection against flooding in the tunnels, and many of its rail yards are in low-lying areas around the city’s edges. The Coney Island Yards is particularly susceptible to a storm surge, and the East River tunnels could be vulnerable to a rising tide. Without a firm commitment from the state, then, the authority is left where it often has been. It can’t invest in any sort of storm shutter system or true mitigation efforts.

So in the meantime, we too must hope. We’ll have to hope that our system, started in 1904, can withstand the challenges of 2012, and we have to hope that one day Albany will realize the uniquely vulnerable position we’re in. I’m not holding my breath on either issue.

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pea-jay March 29, 2012 - 1:00 am

This is a real long term problem we need to tackle and as history has shown us, we’re not real good at those. Sea levels are heading up and absent some kind of nightmarish collapse of the Greenland or West Antarctic Ice sheets, this rise will be relatively manageable during at least the rest of this century. So what to do? Build some kind of seawall/dikes at the periphery of the city in combination with raisable sea gates akin to what London and the Netherlands use to allow for shipping.

Stopping the Atlantic waters at the Narrows and the Sound north of La Guardia could protect the city and it’s infrastructure from both catastrophic flooding and expensive piece-by-piece retrofitting. What’s easier? Stopping water from entering NYC area waterways in the first place or finding every subway opening within four feet of sea level and closing it off?

How would we do this? For starters, it has to include NJ. Look at the waterways. One of the waterways that needs to be closed up during flood events is shared by both states. And stopping catastrophic benefits NJ residents too along the Hudson river and shared tributaries. So have them participate and pay. Have the PA carry out the project (as they already deal with bi-state issues and have a huge amount of exposed infrastructure). Fund it through increased property taxes by all properties that stand to benefit from this protection. Higher rates for lower lying areas, lower rates for higher elevations and locations inland. But everyone in the region would need to pay as economically we would all suffer from a traumatic disruption in services. Besides, increased protection should help lower insurance costs and increase our competitive advantage over port cities that don’t protect their infrastructure.

Like I said, probably beyond the grasp of today’s political environment. But we should consider it before it’s too late.

kantor March 29, 2012 - 5:08 am

I agree with Alon.. spending money to protect the NY subway from a (very, very hypothetical) flood is a bad decision. The money is needed to maintain the system (and possibly to expand it).

I personally do not believe much in climate change but I am a follower of Nassim Taleb, in that you should rank hypotheses not according to the benefit you can ripe if they are true, but rather to the damage you get if they are wrong.

In this sense I’m totally for an “aggressive reduction in emissions” even if I am not totally sure there is a real causation. In a way the best anti-flood policy for MTA is to improve the system and convince more people to ditch their cars and use public transit.

This idea of building gigantic dams is just a display of the techo-grandiosity that is plaguing our current world.

The Cobalt Devil March 29, 2012 - 6:30 pm

A little water on NYC subway platforms wouldn’t hurt. At least it would get rid of the piss smell.

John Paul N. March 30, 2012 - 4:04 am

Dilute it, yes. Get rid of it, I’m not so sure.

Anyway, one day last month, on two separate instances, I saw two men pissing on the platform within my sight. And last night, I was waiting at the station and I smelled cleaning chemicals. (When I go into the station at that time, I expect and appreciate that.) A few minutes later, suddenly, there was the scent of number two. I don’t know where the source of it was, but the train came in moments later, thank goodness.

Sorry to bring this up, it was not pleasant for me either.

Alon Levy March 29, 2012 - 1:02 am

It is so much simpler to push for aggressive reduction in emissions, so that this flood protection won’t be so necessary. Rapid transit in cities is an integral part of this. What the subway needs to fight climate change is money for expansion and for a faster mode shift from cars to transit, rather than money for flood mitigation.

pea-jay March 29, 2012 - 1:29 am

Conceptually yeah I agree, but remember we’ve already got a hundred + years of past emissions baked in (pun intended) already and even if we cut back tomorrow, we’d keep warming for a while. But realistically I think it is MUCH more likely that this region could come together to build a seawall to protect our own interests rather than depend on 200+ nations to agree to lower their emissions (and NOT cheat on it). Heck we cant even get 40% of the population on board with the idea that CO2 not only changes the climate but that change might infact have some bad side effects. Mitigation IS our insurance policy here.

Alon Levy March 29, 2012 - 3:57 am

“Our insurance policy”? Dude, the US is globally about a quarter of the problem, and far less than a quarter of the pain. The places that need an insurance policy are in Vietnam, Cambodia, Bangladesh, and Nigeria first, and second in other tropical locations that are seeing more heat stress. New York isn’t even all that vulnerable by first-world standards (try Amsterdam, or Miami).

QueensBill March 29, 2012 - 12:38 pm

Since you don’t “believe” in the fact of climate change, your opinion on the matter is pretty much irrelevant.

QueensBill March 29, 2012 - 12:41 pm

Whoops, replied to wrong post. Sorry.

kantor March 30, 2012 - 5:01 am

I believe you are replying to my post…

Listening only to opinions of people who agree with you can be reassuring, but it does not improve at all your understanding of the problem.

My point is that we should cut CO2 emissions irregardless of climate change or global warming or whatever; climate change is not something I consider proved beyond any reasonable doubt but I really don’t care, since I can find at least ten true and logical reasons to cut the emissions anyway.

By the same token, spending money to prevent flooding FROM climate change in the NY subway is borderline insane. Spend the same money to improve the system, attract more riders and have more peopple ditch their cars. In this way you really contribute to the more general cause and it is probably the wisest anti-flood policy you can deploy.

Bolwerk March 30, 2012 - 7:59 am

Given the high probability of at least some additional flooding and higher storm surges even if things go (relatively) well, it’s not insane at all. The cost of building a second tunnel to serve as a backup in case the first one is flooded greatly exceeds the cost of flood protecting the first one.

Eric F March 29, 2012 - 8:54 am

CO2 emission, if you believe cause the “climate change”, are spread out globally from global sources. China already produces half again over U.S. emissions and India is rapidly increasing it’s output. If you really believe the CO2 theory, barring China and India deciding to reduce themselves back to 1970s GDP levels, no amount of U.S penance is going to save you. The U.S. could reduce Co2 emissions to zero, barring any industrial output altogether and outlawing us all from breathing, and CO2 emissions will still be on a rocketship up.

QueensBill March 29, 2012 - 12:40 pm

That’s why we need to protect the subway system and the low-lting parts of New York. The city is too important to lose.

Eric F March 29, 2012 - 2:11 pm

“climate change” is in scare quotes because: (1) they changed the name to climate change from global warming a while back and never really explained why and (2) to say that climate changes is to say nothing. Climate is always changing. There are extensive references to visible climate change in Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, in fact Gibbon goes into length as to how the climate encountered in Germany by successive Roman administrations changed, and how the German climate was different in Roman times from the time of Gibbon’s book. The notion that climate is static and changes only because bad people drive SUVs to Walmart is prejudice disguised as science.

Bolwerk March 30, 2012 - 7:20 am

It was not changed. “Climate change” has entered the popular lexicon because it is descriptive of the problem. Global warming is the effect driving the problem, and has been under way for quite some time. As global warming alters the climate, many places will see changes in their climates, in vastly different ways (e.g., much colder in northern Europe, much hotter in the Sahara).

The notion that climate is static and changes only because bad people drive SUVs to Walmart is prejudice disguised as science.

And like many of these strawmen, it’s a notion unlikely to be carried by anyone who has any remotely developed opinion on the matter. Walmart and SUVs are symptoms of a larger problem with consumption, one that cannot be ignored. The problem doesn’t go away when people drive Priuses and shop in less the ubiquitous suburban tract malls.

Besides, you don’t need to be an expert in the nuances of every global epoch to credibly acknowledge there is a problem.

Eric F March 30, 2012 - 10:32 am

“Walmart and SUVs are symptoms of a larger problem with consumption”

Good grief, consumption is not bad.

“you don’t need to be an expert in the nuances of every global epoch to credibly acknowledge there is a problem”

The media adopts an implicit premise that any climate change is the result of anthropogenic factors. It takes a knowledge of history to blow apart that premise. You literally have 8 year olds propagandized into thinking that any temperature change is the result of “consumption”, as they troop off to see the move Ice Age II, with no one explaining that in fact, yeah, climate changes quite substantially and no SUVs are necessary to cause it.

Bolwerk March 30, 2012 - 12:38 pm

Jesus Christ, did I even address the morality of consuming things? Consuming some things is bad, as in harmful, possibly to people besides the consumer. Consuming some things is fine. Not all consumption is the same.

Okay, so the same MSM that spent years doing free PR for Sarah Palin isn’t the best source of information. You can, however, do better than that, especially given that same media culture that you’re complaining about is responsible for disseminating most of the FUD surrounding what is essentially settled science. Given the topic is in the context of human contribution to climate change, it makes sense to frame the discussion in terms of the effects human behavior is having.

If you really need more detail than that, go to your local library and peruse some of the decades of excellent research on the topic the media glosses over, misconstrues, or ignores.

It takes a knowledge of history to blow apart that premise.

And just how does a knowledge of history do that? Nothing about history dictates that human behavior can’t affect the environment. There is a long history of factors not related to humans effecting [sic] all kinds of outcomes on our planet. It doesn’t mean humans can’t induce outcomes on their own.

The fact that there is a history of climate change – oh, and drastic social upheaval related to it like this and this – hardly does your case any favors, and in no way diminishes the probability that human activity could, can, and/or is driving a changing climate. If anything, all you’re doing it pointing to evidence that we could be exacerbating an existing, natural problem.

Alon Levy March 30, 2012 - 6:23 pm

What you’re missing with those historic examples is that none was global. For example, the Medieval Warm Period and the Little Ice Age are not attested outside Europe. Thus, there was never a threat to coastlines.

The other thing you’re missing is that the sort of climate change that’s happening is not just “cold places like Europe get warmer.” It’s also affecting rainfall patterns and warmer regions, boiling Africa. Of course desertification also happened in history – but this destroyed entire civilizations.

JE March 31, 2012 - 5:36 pm

Alon, this might be of interest to you:


Lu says that his research did not measure global temperatures but showed that the warm period experienced in Europe was also felt in Antarctica.

Bolwerk April 1, 2012 - 2:28 pm

My understanding is that it was always (at least for the past decade or two) understood to be widespread in the northern hemisphere. Places like Greenland – and it probably really was green, not just a propaganda technique as people like to say – and Iceland became outposts of civilization during this time period. And it’s fairly certain now that European colonization of continental North America, however brief, was at least attempted.

I may not be an expert on climate science, but I don’t see a scenario where a warmer North Atlantic doesn’t have global implications. Probably the main reason we don’t have written records of it happening in the southern hemisphere is that there is such a paucity of written records about the southern hemisphere during that time. (I don’t think many, if any, of the civilizations in those places were literate.)

Dumbass pro-Ron Paul sites were running something about how “global warming” happened with no CO2 emissions during the Medieval Warming period. As if that’s supposed to mean CO2 emissions can’t be a factor driving it now.

Alon Levy March 29, 2012 - 10:04 pm

Why, oh, why, do you keep peddling the myth that breathing has a nonzero contribution to CO2 emissions? Note: the contribution of breathing is not negligible. It’s not orders of magnitude less than that of driving. It’s exactly zero, because the carbon generated stays in the biosphere when you think about it right (i.e. it comes from food sources, which got their carbon from photosynthesis with atmospheric CO2).

China and India will do what China and India will do. For what it’s worth, Chinese cities are beginning to limit the growth in the number of cars (Indian cities are not there yet – may never be, given India’s political dysfunctions). But it’s not our problem. China and India are both a significant part of the problem and a significant part of the climate-threatened regions of the world. They’re destroying themselves The rich world, which has per capita emissions several times those of China (and the US has twice the first-world average), is purely a problem; it’s destroying countries too poor to be part of the problem.

Eric March 30, 2012 - 8:51 am

“They’re destroying themselves”

Um, no. Carbon dioxide emitted by anyone raises the average temperature for everyone. China/India are destroying us just as much as themselves. And while global warming is one of the biggest issues now facing Western countries, it pales in significance compared to the mass extreme poverty present in much of Asia. Meaning that it’s worth it for us to reduce our emissions, but not worth it for China/India to reduce theirs (keeping in mind the expected economic cost). We can’t command China/India to follow our bidding, so the world will keep warming, and all we can do about it is mitigate the damage.

Eric F March 30, 2012 - 10:29 am

Nice name. Agreed, pretty much. CO2 is only “pollution” if you buy the anthropogenic global warming theory. CO2 is not toxic, not harmful, not even interesting, which is why they have to call it “carbon” in order to make it sound bad.

Anyway China and India will NOT do anything to reduce their CO2 emissions. They will gladly enter into treaties under which the USA kneecaps itself, but they won’t do anything different in order to expiate the imagined sins of economic development. In other words, any wrenching economic change the US imposes on itself will be an expensive and futile gesture.

Bolwerk March 30, 2012 - 1:30 pm

Water isn’t harmful either, until you drown in it.

Alon Levy March 30, 2012 - 6:14 pm

There’s literally not a single sentence in your comment that is true.

1. Uranium is only dangerous if you buy the radiation theory.

2. As for carbon vs. CO2, it’s about three things. First, carbon is shorter than carbon dioxide. Second, the process of emitting CO2 is about taking carbon that’s currently bound in hydrocarbons and extracting energy out of it, converting it to CO2 (and breathing doesn’t do that because it’s in a closed system) – and so people talk about carbon cycles. Third, when talking about pricing emissions, the price per ton of carbon is different from the price per ton of CO2 for obvious reasons. Strictly speaking people should be talking about greenhouse gases, including e.g. methane, but

3. China is already taking measures to reduce emissions, for example Beijing’s car quotas. There’s a pervasive myth in the first world that the third world doesn’t care about the environment or human rights or inequality; chalk it up to Kony2012-style do-gooders. (If you want to feel superior to the hippies, ask the average American labor liberal what he thinks about the strikes in China since 2010. He’ll have no idea what you’re talking about.)

4. The US is only going to be kneecapping the oil industry. The economy will do fine, thank you very much. Sweden has a carbon tax that translates to about a dollar per gallon of gas; its unemployment over the last decade has been about the same as in the US, and its GDP per capita has grown a lot faster.

Larry Littlefield March 29, 2012 - 7:11 am

It may be worth installing gates in some locations to limit the extent of the flooding, and having a plan in place to run limited service during repairs.

Remember how the city adapted after 9/11. The MTA could probably figure out the lowest cost way to have the maximum service and then the minimum recovery from a worst case scenario if it put its mind to it.

I worry more about the disaster we already had — losing service over the bridges due to deterioration. They should build that connection from the BMT tunnels to the Rutgers Tunnel to protect against that. And if gates could prevent stations like Canal Street and Grand Street from taking water, the bridges would provide an alternative if the tunnels were temporarily lost.

John-2 March 29, 2012 - 9:04 am

This is kind of in line with wanting to earthquake-proof Memphis and St. Louis due to their proximity to the New Madrid fault. You know the mother of all mid-continent quakes hit there 195 years ago, just as you know lower-lying levels of New York could suffer a catastrophic flood (though likely more from just a direct Cat 5 hurricane strike than global warming sea level rises). The question in both cases is with the limited funds you have, what is the risk/reward benefit to diverting those funds to a flood alleviation project?

If the MTA and the state want to start up a new fund to build up capital to eventually put in preventive measures (I.e. – if you toll the East River bridges, setting aside part of that new revenue stream) that’s one thing. But given the needs of the aging system, to reallocate existing funds to combat an eventually-it’s-going-to-happen-but-we-don’t-know-when threat is probably not the best use of the subway’s scare financial resources.

Streetsblog New York City » Today’s Headlines March 29, 2012 - 9:11 am

[…] Irony: When Climate Change Wipes Out Your Subway System (Second Ave Sagas) […]

Christopher March 29, 2012 - 9:41 am

Wouldn’t this be something that is more an Army Corp of Engineers project? Who should be protecting us from global sea level changes? The NYC transit system or a federal agency? This seems like a misplaced priority. Should the MTA be involved and advocating? Absolutely but should it being footing the bill and planning the project? I’m not so sure.

pea-jay March 29, 2012 - 10:40 am

The Army corp would be a good agency too. Never suggested the MTA do this…their resources are limited and they don’t serve areas outside the city anyway. I suggested the PA mainly because they already have authority to tax and build in both states and have a multitude of infrastructure at risk of sea level rise as well. But the corps would be good too. I just don’t expect much out of the feds in terms of leadership.

This is just a conceptual idea. Realistically, it’s probably going to take some flood event that knocks out subway, PATH and road tunnel service (they’re vulnerable too) for while before anything really might get done.

Today’s Headlines | Body Local NYC March 29, 2012 - 10:13 am

[…] Irony: When Climate Change Wipes Out Your Subway System (Second Ave Sagas) […]

Clarke March 29, 2012 - 2:23 pm


In 2002 the Prague metro flooded, suffering huge service disruptions (19 stations shuttered). Some photos there, Google has more (including this one of a station flooded to the brim http://www.flickr.com/photos/4.....764108534/). $200 million in damage and 5 months for most damaged station to get back online.

Obviously NYC is at a different scale, but this is definitely a case study in transit flooding.

Clarke March 29, 2012 - 2:25 pm

http://www.flickr.com/photos/4.....763266325/ (Sorry, direct link to photo of station flooded to brim)

Al D March 29, 2012 - 4:20 pm

I don’t know, the G is like an underground aquafer/grotto. It has 2 raging brooks, is very humid, dripping water and has stalagtites all over. And it’s still ‘standing’, so we’re gonna be fine!

Corey Best March 29, 2012 - 6:46 pm

The PATH system has installed water tight doors on all its Underwater Tunnels….a few other systems are doing the same or have plans….

Ed March 29, 2012 - 10:50 pm

This sounds defeatist, but I think what they should do is as follows:

1. Have a contingency plan on what to do to protect the system when a bad flood threatens, including shutting it down as with Irene (which should be examined for lessons on how and how not to do that).

2. Have a contingency plan for substitution transit services if the system is badly hit by flooding.

3. Add some projects to handle the low hanging fruit to the list of capital projects, eg if a bus yard is too prone to flooding, a new bus yard on higher ground or additional protection for the current yard, whichever is more effective.

Given the funding realities, I think some of the ideas above are too ambitious, and to the extent climate change is real the economic hit the world will take will also make the more ambitious schemes impossible. Its better to learn how to make do.

Driveway Cleaning Birmingham March 30, 2012 - 2:26 am

Sounds a little worrying though. I certainly wouldnt want to be down there when tons of water start flooding in.

Urban Omnibus » The Omnibus Roundup – Holly Whyte Way, NYU Compromise, Upstate/Downstate, Infographic Central and This Side of Paradise March 30, 2012 - 6:57 pm

[…] threatening a $770 million funding cut, and Governor Cuomo. The agreement is good news, but, as Benjamin Kabak points out, the negotiations should also serve as a troubling reminder of the MTA’s reliance […]


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