WASHINGTON -- Millions of people each day rely on transit, yet few urban area emergency plans have focused on its role in an emergency evacuation, says a new report from the National Research Council's Transportation Research Board. Transit systems could play a significant role in transporting carless and special needs populations in times of emergency, but these groups are inadequately addressed in most local emergency plans and evacuating them could easily exceed limited transit resources.
"For transit systems to be successful partners in an evacuation, they need to be part of the emergency management planning process and command structure; have real-time communications capability with local emergency managers, other transit providers, and their customers; and participate in annual exercises and drills," said Richard White, executive vice president, DMJM Harris, and chair of the committee that wrote the report. "To the extent transit agencies are asked to take on a major role in an evacuation, they should be considered essential personnel and be eligible with other first responders for cost reimbursement."
After reviewing 38 urban areas' emergency response and evacuation plans, the committee found that transit has a role to play in each of the four major elements that make up an emergency response plan -- mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery. The committee then conducted in-depth case studies of Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, New York City/northern New Jersey, and Tampa, Fla. The five case studies illustrate the roles transit could play in an evacuation, including transporting those without a car to area shelters or outside the affected area, bringing emergency responders and equipment to emergency incident sites, returning evacuees to their original destinations, and restoring service as expeditiously as possible.
Emergency managers should be realistic in their expectations for the use of transit during an emergency, the committee noted. Transit systems' capacity to assist depends on the nature of the incident and its location. Damage from an earthquake or other incident may prevent the use of affected transit systems. Transit operations could also be hampered by unavailability of drivers and lack of equipment, especially at off-peak times. During peak periods, congestion impedes travel in many urban areas even in normal conditions. Evacuating special needs populations by transit poses a major challenge that requires advance planning, working with nonprofits and social service agencies to identify groups that need assistance, and a targeted public information campaign and sheltering strategy. It may also require mutual-aid agreements with other transit providers to help meet surges in demand.
Local governments are required by law to develop emergency plans for evacuations and mass departure routes, and, since 2006, for populations with special needs, such as people with disabilities. Local governments also have the primary responsibility of responding to emergency incidents and ordering an evacuation, if necessary, and transportation and transit agencies play a supporting role. If an incident overwhelms local capability, state and federal assistance may be requested, which happens with some frequency. According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, in recent years there have been between 45 and 75 presidentially declared disasters annually. Severe storms are the most prevalent disaster, some of which come with advance notice or recur with some regularity, such as hurricanes, while other events like earthquakes and terrorist attacks strike without warning.
"Few urban areas have planned for a major disaster that could involve multiple jurisdictions or multiple states in a region and necessitate an evacuation of a large fraction of the population. Leadership is lacking because no one jurisdiction owns the problem," said White. No clear regional emergency management protocols are evident, and the feasibility of evacuating major portions of large, highly developed, congested urban areas is also questionable, the report finds.
To help fill the planning gap, the committee recommends that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security provide guidance and funds to state and local governments on regional evacuation planning that includes transit and other public transportation providers. States should take the lead to see that plans are implemented, coordinating with appropriate regional entities. Federal transportation funds also should be directed to evacuation-related, capacity-enhancement projects to add redundancy to critical transit and highway infrastructure and to Intelligent Transportation Systems projects, to further network resilience in an emergency.
The committee broadly defines transit as bus and rail systems, paratransit and demand responsive transit, commuter rail, and ferries. It does not cover privately owned operators, such as intercity bus companies, taxis, and shuttles, although it recognizes that they may also play an important role in emergency evacuations.
This study was requested by Congress and funded by the Federal Transit Administration and the Transit Cooperative Research Program. The National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, and National Research Council make up the National Academies. They are private, nonprofit institutions that provide science, technology, and health policy advice under a congressional charter. The Research Council is the principal operating agency of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering. A committee roster follows.
Copies of THE ROLE OF TRANSIT IN EMERGENCY EVACUATION are available from the Transportation Research Board; tel. 202-334-3213 or on the Internet at http://www.
[ This news release and report are available at HTTP:/
NATIONAL RESEARCH COUNCIL
Transportation Research Board
Studies and Special Programs
COMMITTEE ON THE ROLE OF PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION IN EMERGENCY EVACUATION
RICHARD A. WHITE (CHAIR)
Executive Vice President
Associate Professor of Urban Planning
Department of Planning
School of Public Affairs
University of California
KENNETH A. BROWN
Director of Risk Assessment and Fire Safety
New York City Transit
New York City
JOHN M. CONTESTABILE
Office of Engineering Emergency Services
Maryland Department of Transportation
Professor and Chairman
Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering
University of Maryland
ARNOLD M. HOWITT
Taubman Center for State and Local Government
John F. Kennedy School of Government
THOMAS C. LAMBERT
Senior Vice President of Public Safety and Chief of Police
Department of Police and Traffic Management
Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County
BETTY HEARN MORROW
MICHAEL H. SETZER
Chief Executive Officer and General Manager
Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority
ELLIS M. STANLEY SR.
Director of Western Emergency Management Services
Illinois Emergency Management Agency
RESEARCH COUNCIL STAFF
NANCY P. HUMPHREY