Adapting Transportation Systems in 2021

A proactive and reactive approach is needed to address transportation systems in 2021

By Malcolm Dougherty

After a year of unprecedented challenges, the term resilience has never been more relevant as we head into 2021. When we talk about resilience in relation to transportation systems, we’re really focusing on the system’s ability to move people and goods in response to disruptive or unexpected conditions, which often come in the form of natural disasters. From 2016 to 2018, the average number of billion-dollar disasters in the U.S. totaled 15 each year, while the average for 1980–2018 was just 6.2 events per year and 2020’s $16 billion disaster events included the Western Wildfires that devastated parts of California, Oregon and Washington, and Hurricanes Isais, Laura and Sally. 

In reflecting on the notable increase in natural disasters in recent years, 2021 will be a year that we focus more closely on flexible reactive recovery coupled with proactive measures, including identifying design features that will enhance preparedness and infrastructure resiliency.”

The need for resilience in the wake of disaster is apparent – routines need to be reestablished and functional infrastructure is essential in this respect. In the past, resilience was most closely associated with rebuilding. A hurricane damages a highway and so that route is rebuilt. In reflecting on the notable increase in natural disasters in recent years, 2021 will be a year that we focus more closely on flexible reactive recovery coupled with proactive measures, including identifying design features that will enhance preparedness and infrastructure resiliency.  This approach provides the benefits of protecting lives and infrastructure from loss and reducing the burden on federal, state and local governments in the wake of these events. 

Take a Holistic Approach

When approaching the creation of a reactive and proactive plan for resilience, it is important to understand that this is not just a task for your planning department, or environmental, or water, or transportation. It requires engagement among all of them and we need to bring the right professionals to the table. To provide the best plans for clients and projects, people with diverse expertise need to come together. It is through this collaboration that we can be more thoughtful about the solution that is being presented and ensure that we are not just thinking about our individual contributions to the project, but holistically, beginning with planning through design and construction and on to asset management. 

As we increasingly discover and can quantify indirect risk, we are also developing solutions that create multiple and synergistic benefits, including indirect benefits. Such efforts can only be successful through interdisciplinary and holistic approaches. Investors (and taxpayers) expect investments to pay off on multiple fronts and not just improve one aspect of an issue, but to consider resilience in a proactive way as well.

Prepare Thoroughly

We do not need to wait until disaster strikes to be prepared and we should approach infrastructure design by focusing on performance specifications that will allow infrastructure to maintain acceptable service levels in the wake of a climate event or impending sea level rise. As we plan, design, build and operate new infrastructure assets, we need to account for the current weather activities taking place as well as those that may occur throughout an asset’s lifecycle and employ hazard-resistant design and construction. With existing infrastructure, we may need to retrofit or differently manage these assets based on conditions. We must also be flexible in our approach and identify what additional measures can be taken to address changing needs. 

As we build out these proactive resilience strategies, and in all infrastructure investments, social equity is becoming more important, as vulnerable populations are disproportionately impacted by projects and climate risk and have fewer resources to mitigate the effects and have been historically impacted. Our strategies moving forward will need to address the needs of community members to ensure equitable access and opportunity. 

Rebuild Smarter 

When rebuilding is necessary, we can use it as a chance to rebuild in a way that is smarter and more likely to meet the community’s future needs. Communities should rebuild in a way to accommodate future usage, access patterns or extreme weather by hardening infrastructure. This may involve more of an upfront investment and surpassing current standards, but in the long-term will ensure less burden following the next environmental event.  

A Plan for Action

Michael Baker International recently supported the State of New Jersey and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) with the release of the state’s first Scientific Report on Climate Change. The report provides a robust platform to support adaptation, mitigation and preparing New Jersey for future opportunities and complements the ongoing resilience initiatives of the State.

 In the new year, we will see more strategies mirroring these efforts to bring together diverse experts to not only think about what happens after disaster strikes, but also to determine the best ways to proactively protect infrastructure and populations. 

Malcolm Dougherty is the National Practice Executive at Michael Baker International.

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