Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Takeaways from a game-changing conference on transportation and climate change resilience

Veterans of transportation conferences would probably rate most of them as useful, some of them as important, and only a few rare ones as game-changers.  The recent Transportation Research Board conference on transportation resilience (officially the First International Conference on Surface Transportation System Resilience to Climate Change and Extreme Weather Events, website here) rates as a game-changer in my mind.  A key group of about 250 academics and practitioners presented and discussed the latest findings in this critical area and demonstrated a remarkable level of agreement on the current state of knowledge and practice, pressing issues, and next steps.  The progress being made in grappling with these complex and urgent problems was heartening, especially when we are so often subjected to the discouraging spectacle of climate change denying, anti-science politicians holding high office.
I won’t attempt to summarize everything that happened at the conference, but I will discuss three takeaways that seem important to me.
1. Plan for failure
Planning FOR failure doesn’t mean planning TO fail.  It means that no matter how well you design and build your system, there is every likelihood that some flood, fire, hurricane, avalanche, or plague of locusts will knock some pieces of it out of service at some point in time – and possibly sooner rather than later.  Instead of hoping or pretending that that won’t happen, the new thinking is that you should anticipate that it WILL happen and plan for it.  Planning FOR failure means that you have strategies in place to make your systems more robust in order to minimize failure, to respond to failures with rapid recovery actions, and to keep your system going even when bad things happen.  A great example presented at the conference is New Jersey Transit’s TRANSITGRID.  Superstorm Sandy knocked out the power to NJ Transit’s rail system for days, contributing to the virtual shutdown of the state.  Now NJ Transit is preparing to build an independent “microgrid” -  a separate, robust power generating system that will be able to supply power to the core rail system, maintenance yards, and bus depots and keep trains and buses moving, even when the regional grid goes down.
2. Making your system more resilient may not be as expensive as you feared
A lot of scary things can and will happen in the coming decades, but one piece of good news is that advances in science, engineering, and planning mean that the cost of “defending” your infrastructure may be manageable.  Two examples from presentations at the conference:
·      A comprehensive study of 135 culverts in northwest Connecticut, which used both flooding predictions and field engineering assessments, found only a handful of culverts with a high need of replacement.
·      A very detailed study of future flooding possibilities in the Big Dig tunnel system in Boston found only a few likely entry points for water that need upgraded protection.
The increasingly sophisticated scientific and engineering tools are being linked up with new and improved planning tools – dynamic learning, collaborative planning, risk management, robust decision making, etc. – to make smarter investments possible.
3. Communications and collaboration on transportation resilience issues is strong and growing
For a subject area that is new and that overlaps a lot of very different fields and interests, it is encouraging to see increasingly robust communications and collaboration between and among scientists, engineers, practitioners, and policy makers.  There was much talk at the conference on the importance of “boundary” organizations – groups that translate needs and resources between academics and practitioners.  Emblematic of this growing trend is the fact that TRB itself has established a new “section” – a group of topically focused committees – to concentrate on resilience.  This sort of collaboration is the meat and potatoes of TRB, and the agreement to concentrate resources on resilience will have significant consequences for years to come.  At a smaller level, the ICNet group is modeling pathbreaking collaborative techniques.  ICNet is a loose group of about 75 academics and practitioners in New England that works on resilience questions right at the mine face of practical concerns.  There is also growing collaboration crossing governmental boundaries.  FHWA has demonstrated a very smart approach to resilience by funding pilot projects and sharing the results, rather than prematurely attempting to impose national policies.  The Transportation and Climate Initiative – now 5 years old – continues to promote collaborative climate change work among the transportation, energy, and environment agencies in the Northeast.  And in Europe, the 29-nation organization of highway agencies will soon move toward adoption of a uniform framework for highway resilience strategy.

I hope, as I’m sure many of the conferees do, that this session will be the start of a series of equally productive sessions.  My congratulations to FHWA, TRB, and the whole conference staff for a great success.