Subways Are Becoming Flood Zones

While cities race to protect their subway infrastructure from more intense flooding, some experts argue that more investment is needed in more resilient street-level infrastructure.

2 minute read

August 1, 2021, 11:00 AM PDT

By Diana Ionescu @aworkoffiction


nyc. subway.

rafaj / Flickr

"Subway systems around the world are struggling to adapt to an era of extreme weather brought on by climate change," write Hiroko Tabuchi and John Schwartz. "Their designs, many based on the expectations of another era, are being overwhelmed, and investment in upgrades could be squeezed by a drop in ridership brought on by the pandemic." In cities around the world, aging subway systems are being overwhelmed by worsening floods. "In New York, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority has invested $2.6 billion in resiliency projects since Hurricane Sandy swamped the city’s subway system in 2012, including fortifying 3,500 subway vents, staircases and elevator shafts against flooding."

Yet some experts argue that protecting subways may be a misguided approach. "With more extreme flooding down the line, protecting subways all of the time will be impossible, they say. Instead, investment is needed in buses and bike lanes that can serve as alternative modes of public transportation when subways are flooded. Natural defenses could also provide relief. Rotterdam in the Netherlands has grown plants along its tramways, enabling rainwater to be soaked up by the soil, and reducing heat." Bernardo Baranda Sepúlveda, a Mexico City-based researcher at the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, says that "[s]treet-level light rail, bus systems and bicycle lanes aren’t just less exposed to flooding, they are also cheaper to build and easier to access."

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