After yesterday's literal meltdown of key freeways serving the San Francisco Bay Area because of a freak gas-tanker explosion, the focus today is on how the Bay Area's strong public transit system will pick up the slack.
Which begs the question: What does your metro region look like if a similar manmade or natural disaster strikes your freeway system?
There will be free rides on all public transit today, as Gov. Schwarzenegger pitched in $2.5 million in funding to reimburse transit agencies.
The Bay Area has some of the highest public transit ridership rates in the nation, along with metro areas and cities such as New York City, Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia and Washington, DC.
But what happens if a key interchange or highway system (New Orleans) is taken out of metro areas with little or no public transit in place? Does the Governor of Indiana make an announcement that all gasoline will be free so the people of Indianapolis can still get to work despite gridlock? Does Arlington, Texas, with zero public transit, just let people stay home from work or school until the problem is fixed?
During the Bay Area earthquake of 1989, the Bay Bridge partailly collapsed. Afterward the ferry system was revived on the Bay to get people across the water. To this day that has presented people with an option other than driving, as do the sprawling Bay Area Rapid Transit System, AC Transit buses and extensive bus and light rail lines within San Francisco and Oakland.
Besides the free public transit, ferry service is being doubled today across the bay so people have mobility options and so highway repair crews can fix the damage.
Not every city has a bay that can be used for transportation, but many cities do have rivers that are not being used for transit, such as Jacksonville, Florida. And those cities without significant light or heavy rail commuter options--Austin, Texas; Kansas City, Missourri; Los Angeles--what will they do when the Big One strikes their interstate highway system?
New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina demonstrated the vulnerability of our lives and economies in cities, and how regional and local public transit can be a lifeline in times of disaster.
While New Orleans has a fair local streetcar system, there were no public transit options besides Greyhound and Amtrak for those without cars to evacuate the metro region in the 48 hours leading up to Katrina's landfall. Many lives would have been saved if people had been able to board an inexpensive and easy to use transit line headed inland.
The main issue with public transit availability, though, is fast becoming economic competitiveness. As gas prices rise or as gas may become difficult to obtain for periods of time, those metropolitan economies that are completely car dependent will suffer the consequences of not only inconvenience, but of obsoleteness.
[Editor's note: You can compare the percentages of people driving to work vs taking public transit (or walking/cycling) to work in different US cities in Warren's new book, with a foreword by Paul Hawken. Title is How Green is Your City?]