WASHINGTON — Hurricane Sandy exposed decades of neglect of transit systems, and some transit advocates think the storm’s impact has the potential to dramatically reshape how and where people live and how they get to work.
A recent U.S. census report showed an increase in population in city centers across the country. The number of miles Americans drive peaked in 2007 and has since declined, reversing a decades-long increase. And the struggling economy or higher gasoline prices aren’t the only explanation. Younger people are waiting longer to get drivers’ licenses and are buying fewer cars.
Instead, they’re choosing to live in places closer to where they work and riding public transit wherever they need to go.
“Transit has come a long way in the last generation,” said Michael Melaniphy, the president of the American Public Transportation Association. “It’s become a choice. People look for it as a primary choice.”
No city drives less and relies more on public transportation than New York, and Sandy’s aftermath drove the point home for many commuters who jammed into cars, buses and trains this week, or when they couldn’t, walked miles to get to work. The city already had begun an effort find even more alternatives to driving, including expanded public transportation and bike lanes. The storm’s difficulties could accelerate the changes.
“Even if they go back to where they were, things were moving in the right direction anyway,” said Rob Puentes, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a center-left Washington policy group.
The storm’s difficulties highlight the need for a rebalance in transportation investments, experts say. The days of the country building farther and farther out on the exurban fringe are over, and more attention must be paid to long-neglected transit systems such as New York’s, they say.
The city is building a new subway line with protections against the kind of flooding that swamped the system this week. But rebuilding the existing network would be difficult, and expensive.
“It’s an enormous challenge to retrofit a system that’s a hundred years old,” Puentes said.
Drivers and transit riders alike have been tested this week by the storm.
Scenes of chaos erupted Friday over what would otherwise be an ordinary task: pumping gasoline for cars and backup generators. Too many gas stations simply lacked electric power to operate their pumps. Lines of cars stretched more than a mile at some service stations, and police had to break up fights between testy motorists.
Meanwhile, crowding on buses and trains contributed to the frustration, with many commuters left waiting at bus stops and on station platforms. Commuter rail systems got closer to full operation Friday, but New York’s subways remained a jumble of disconnected service.
The New York subway is more than a century old, and parts of it are still filled with water from Sandy’s storm surge. Where tunnels and stations weren’t flooded, the lack of electric power prevented trains from running.
“The aftermath of this storm demonstrates the incredible disruption that happens when we don’t take care of these systems,” said Patrick Phillips, chief executive officer of the Urban Land Institute, a Washington policy group.
With a closely divided presidential election about to take place, uncertainty over which party will control Congress and a looming fight over mandatory spending cuts, a solution from Washington isn’t likely.
Sandy could boost public-private partnerships. About 60 percent of transit trips are taken by people commuting to work, according to the American Public Transportation Association, and companies ranging from financial services firms to airports and hotels depend on a reliable system to function. Phillips said the private sector has been reluctant to invest in infrastructure because of the risks involved. But Sandy may have showed private industry the risks of not investing.
“It’s been very difficult to get these deals done,” he said. “This could be a game-changer for tapping private capital for infrastructure investment.”
It also might reopen a discussion about other measures to pay for improvements or limit congestion, such as charging cars a fee to enter Manhattan or restricting entry to cars with at least three occupants. Cities such as London and Stockholm have imposed congestion charges for years, and New York has considered it before.
“If we don’t see this opportunity, then shame on us for missing it,” Melaniphy said.