• 10.31.12

Everybody Walks In NYC. Because Sandy Has Left No Other Transportation Choice

Historic damage to New York City’s immense public transit system has left millions of riders out of options. Why is it so hard to find a ride?

Everybody Walks In NYC. Because Sandy Has Left No Other Transportation Choice

The verdict is in: Hurricane Sandy wreaked the most havoc on New York City’s transit system that the Mass Transit Authority has experienced in 108 years, interrupting service for the 8.7 million New Yorkers who depend on the city’s backbone of subways, buses, and trains every day. And until MTA officials finish inspecting the 600 miles of track that make up the transit system–which could take weeks–the subways won’t all be up and running as usual. (Limited service starts tomorrow.)


What caused such widespread mass transit damage? According to Bloomberg, the subway system’s pump rooms aren’t equipped to handle much more than your garden variety storms, much less hurricane-grade flood levels. And when the subway’s complex electrical system–which powers everything from equipment to lights to switches and signals–floods with seawater, it’s being exposed to tons of salt damage. In other words, pumping out all the water isn’t the only top priority–MTA workers still need to make sure all the different components affected are cleaned of salt and tested to make sure the system won’t short-circuit and fail.

The other problem is that many components that make up the subway system are antiques, with many vendors now out of business. This is directly tied to the fact that, prior to the city’s most recent 2nd Avenue Subway construction initiative, the last major expansion was in 1956, according to the NYC Department of City Planning. And although the MTA plans for the need for replacement parts from time to time, they’re not necessarily stocked to replace every single part in the event of a total-system failure.

And even though New York City is projected to add nearly 1 million residents by 2020, the options for alternative transportation still run few and far between. The city attributes the stall in transportation innovation to decades of focusing on maintenance and repair to its existing system, rather than major change. The problems happen when the existing system goes out of commission, with few reliable alternatives.

According to Mayor Bloomberg, about 4,000 yellow taxis were on the streets as of late yesterday afternoon, of 13,000 total.

And then there’s Uber. The app, which connects would-be riders with cars and drivers, has been intermittently implementing its surge pricing policy over the past day or so, temporarily charging twice as much as they normally do. This, Uber says, is to encourage more of its drivers to get on the road and pick up passengers. (In response to some disgruntled customer comments, Uber has since turned off surge pricing, but says it’s paying drivers twice their normal rates.) But part of Uber’s DNA is the ability to order a car straight from your smartphone, meaning it’s not even an option for people who are still without power, and who are also the ones most likely to need rides to get out of their respective areas.

[Image: Flickr user Michael Tapp]

About the author

Christina is an associate editor at Fast Company, where she writes about technology, social media, and business.