Transportation is feeling the heat

By Megan Link

Our infrastructure isn’t prepared for climate change. This summer’s record heat wave has illustrated the immediate impacts of extreme weather and temperature events on our safety and ability to travel. As climate change accelerates these extremes, we need to be prepared to enhance our infrastructure’s resilience and adaptability. 

Just in the past few months, extreme heat has led to flight delays and cancellations, rapid transit line slowdowns, power grids that are stretched too thin, and roads buckling under the pressure.  

  • DART, the light rail operating in North Texas, was forced to reduce speeds and increase delays as the temperatures caused tracks to buckle, bend, and expand.  
  •  Amtrak has canceled scheduled trips and reduced train speeds to just 10 mph, due to the higher risk of derailment from misaligned rails caused by the heat. 
  • Airlines continue to delay takeoffs, as the tarmac softens under hot temperatures and planes can’t reach the speed needed to lift off.  
  • Hot climates strain EV batteries and can reduce the usable battery life even when the car isn’t driving.  
  • Our roadways are at risk of damage; some roads in Texas have buckled due to the prolonged heat. 

Heat is the leading cause of weather-related fatalities and injuries across the country. Within cities, temperatures can be higher or lower depending on where you live. A history of racist planning and auto-centric investments have resulted in portions of cities without adequate shade, leading to urban heat islands in neighborhoods where there traditionally has been underinvestment. Historically redlined neighborhoods experience higher temperatures compared to non-redlined areaseven without a heat wavedue to lack of tree canopy and vegetation to offset the heat emitted from streets and sidewalks. Researchers in Arizona have identified bus stops with temperature readings over 160 degrees Fahrenheit in the direct sun. Living in a city with infrequent bus service can be fatal in this kind of heat. But it’s not just bus stops. Our sidewalks, communities, and walkable areas don’t offer enough shade. 

The economic costs of extreme heat are as high as the temperatures. A new report estimates that this summer’s heat wave will cost $1 billion in healthcare-related costs. As these events continue, they could cost the U.S. $100 billion annually in healthcare, infrastructure, and transportation expenses 

Several cities aim to address the extreme heat with cooling centers. During heat warnings, Kelowna, Canada, offers free public transit for people traveling to and from cooling centers and misting areas. Similarly, North Texas turned DART transit centers into cooling stations to provide shade and air conditioning. Although cooling centers can be a valuable resource for communities, access to the centers is a major barrier, especially for vulnerable populations. Cooling centers are not easily accessible from where most people live. There is insufficient public transportation to get them there quickly, elderly populations are less likely to relocate, and public outreach usually does not reach the most vulnerable groups. For example, despite consistent temperatures over 100 degrees, a recent study found that only about 5% of Phoenix and Mesa Arizona residents are within walking distance of a cooling center.  

We know that the transportation sector is the largest emitter of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. As we continue to feel the effects of high heat, reducing our emissions continues to be a top priority to mitigate these impacts. Following best practices such as land use reform, reducing vehicle miles traveled, and investments toward active transportation will continue to lower our emissions. Climate-sensitive design can continue to help infrastructure adapt to the impacts of climate change events on people’s ability to travel.  

Photo Credit: Pixabay via Pexels, unmodified. License