In many cities, public transit is the hidden supply chain for the service industry. Foodservice companies require not only raw ingredients, but also servers and cooks; professional services firms often have few costs other than their staff salaries; etc. In other words, many service companies’ most important supply chain is the one that gets their employees to work quickly and safely. In Boston, this means they rely on the MBTA.
The MBTA (or “the T”), transports 1.3 million people every day with a combination of trains, trolleys, busses, and taxis. However, climate change has the potential to significantly disrupt the T’s operations. The first challenge from climate change is extreme weather: Super Storm Sandy provides a powerful example of this type of threat, hitting New York in 2012 and inflicting an estimated $5B worth of damages to MTA infrastructure, an additional $870M to the Port Authority’s rails and rail cars, and billions more in lost productivity due to system closures or delays. Boston faces similar vulnerabilities to extreme weather, as much of the T is built near low-lying areas or bodies of water, and much of the city itself is built on landfill and is prone to revert to its natural state.
Climate change also poses a second challenge: the risk of increasing regulation. Because the transportation industry is responsible for a significant portion of American emissions, any regulations on emissions is likely to drive more passengers to the T while simultaneously forcing the MBTA to be more resource efficient. Climate change thus places many conflicting pressures on the T: to operate more efficiently, at greater scale, and in a much more volatile environment.
Over the last several years, the MBTA has moved to address certain of these risks, primarily by making significant investments in improving resource efficiency. Through a wide variety of projects, including replacing vehicles, retrofitting control centers, and better tracking energy use, the MBTA has saved 130M kWh of electricity (roughly equivalent to the consumption of 2,800 households). Although the costs of these projects are not publicly available, the MBTA notes that the projects have resulted in savings of $6.5M.
Surprisingly, for all the attention paid to improving resource efficiency, the MBTA has dedicated relatively little effort to making the system more resilient to extreme weather events. Of the agency’s 31-page sustainability report, only 2 pages are dedicated to climate resiliency projects; these projects cover only minor upgrades to two stations. Generally, much of the MBTA’s work in the realm of climate resilience is in its early stages, and involves identifying risks and planning for improvements.
Moving forward, the MBTA should consider significantly refocusing on investments that make the system more resilient to extreme weather, both by “accommodating” extreme weather and “reducing” its impact. In this instance, accommodating could refer to retrofitting existing stations to be more flood resistant (e.g. raising electrical equipment off the ground, adding sand barriers), developing disaster procedures, and investing in insurance to protect revenues in the event of closures. So far, the T has focused primarily on assessing vulnerabilities, with few efforts to mitigate these vulnerabilities.
In addition to accommodating extreme weather, the T can also work proactively to reduce its risk exposure. This is difficult for an agency like the T, which primarily owns large capital assets (such as tunnels and trains) that cannot be moved to less flood-prone areas. However, the T currently plans to expand the Orange and Green lines; these new stations should be built only in flood-resistant areas. Moving bus routes is much simpler, and minor adjustments to routes and stop locations can be made today to reduce the likelihood that flooding would interrupt service.
Planning for the future is never easy, but it is particularly difficult when it requires major capital investments on a 10- or 20-year time horizon, rather than spending a few weeks to build and test a “minimum viable product.” Climate change illustrates this difficulty clearly, but is only one of several questions facing the MBTA. Other questions include how ride-hailing apps will change ridership and how autonomous vehicles will affect general transportation patterns. As the T invests in the future, its decisions must be based not only on climate change projections, but on complex assessments of how public transit will change in the future—thanks to climate change, digitization, demographic shifts, and much more.
 “MBTA > About the MBTA > Environment,” accessed November 7, 2017, http://old.mbta.com/about_the_mbta/environment/.
 Ramiro Alberto Ríos, “Resilience in Urban Transport: What Have We Learned from Super Storm Sandy and the New York City Subway?,” Text, Transport for Development, September 25, 2017, http://blogs.worldbank.org/transport/resilience-urban-transport-what-have-we-learned-super-storm-sandy-and-new-york-city-subway.
 “MBTA > About the MBTA > Environment.”
 “MBTA Sustainability Report” (Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority, Summer 2017), https://d3044s2alrsxog.cloudfront.net/sites/default/files/2017-09/sustianability-report-summer-2017-corrected-2017-09-26.pdf.
 “MBTA Sustainability Report.”
 “MBTA > About the MBTA > Environment.”