Monday, April 04, 2011

Guest Post

Interior of the upper level of a Bombardier bi...Image via Wikipedia
This is a guest post by All Resort Transportation a privately run transportation company based in Utah. 

Will The Utah Transit System Stand Up To a Disaster?

I began this post planning to write about the current situation with public transit in Utah, and then the earthquake struck in Japan and suddenly any of our problems in this state seemed absurdly miniscule by comparison. When the 8.9 (or 9.0, depending on your source) earthquake struck and caused the tsunami, it killed thousands and uprooted hundreds of thousands, destroying homes, roads, and anything else that was in its way.

The earthquake was felt as far away as Tokyo, which is some 150 miles or south of the epicenter. Despite the distance, the shaking was bad enough that the city shut down the transit system until they could be sure that it was structurally safe to use. Cities like Tokyo rely on their public transit systems, and when it was shut down for safety reasons, literally millions of people were stranded in the city with no way to get home or communicate with loved ones.

The Ramifications of the Shut Down
The commuter lifestyle is a little different in Japan than it is in Utah (not a big surprise there). Sometimes people will commute for hours in one direction to get to work, and some estimates say that more than 10 million people use the public transit system every day. Shutting any of these services down for even a short time would have serious ramifications, and after the earthquake millions of residents were stuck without an option.

Officials shut down the trains and subways because they needed to ensure that everything was still safe. Some lines were down for around six hours and others for much longer. Hotels were immediately flooded with people looking for a place to stay, and the government began opening schools and official buildings where people could seek shelter and sleep when it got too cold outside. We saw a lot of pictures of people curled up on the floor in the train stations and others standing in line to use a pay phone since the cell networks were immediately overloaded.

After a day, most of the transit infrastructure in Tokyo was up and running again, but it was still a little sporadic. Because of the power issues caused by the loss of the nuclear plants up north, Tokyo is planning on rolling blackouts to help conserve energy. This is leading to a slightly more erratic train schedule, but commuters seem to be dealing with it as well as could be expected.
How Would Utah Do?

Obviously, in Utah we don’t have near that many people relying on the public transit system. According to UTA, TRAX is averaging about 58,000 riders a day, though the number is increasing. Public transportation is growing all over the country, and we’ve had a big push to expand our system here. Utah transportation will probably never be as complex as it is in huge places like Tokyo, but the rising population and rising gas prices are building more and more reliance on new transit options.
Right now, Utah is developing its public transit system on a number of fronts. Currently, the FrontLines 2015 Project includes:
• Mid Jordan TRAX Line – Covering Murray, Midvale, West and South Jordan
• West Valley City TRAX Line – Running between South Salt lake and West Valley City
• Draper TRAX Line – A light rail service that runs through Draper and Sandy
• Airport TRAX Line – Get from downtown SLC to the airport
• FrontRunner Provo to Salt Lake City Line – A high speed commuter rail between these cities
On top of these projects, transit studies are currently going on in Surgarhouse, South Davis, Taylorsville, Murray, and Ogden. While it’s hard to imagine public transportation becoming as ingrained in our culture as it is in Japan, all these new developments will certainly increase the number of people who rely on everything from train lines to a Salt Lake airport shuttle. Then we have to ask: how well would we do in a disaster? Are we prepared to deal with that kind of challenge?

The tragedy in Japan is on a scale that most of us can’t really comprehend, and the impact of it was felt all over the country in many unexpected ways. The transit system may seem like a comparatively small thing, but Tokyo’s infrastructure was able to bounce back because they constructed their system to deal with natural disasters. If Utah is going to succeed with its transit initiatives, there are some definite lessons it could learn.

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