The MBTA’s climate challenge

Climate change will have a major impact on the MBTA.

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.[1] 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.[2] 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.[3]


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.[4]


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.[5] 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.[6]


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.


(790 words)

[1] “MBTA > About the MBTA > Environment,” accessed November 7, 2017,

[2] 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,

[3] “MBTA > About the MBTA > Environment.”

[4] “MBTA Sustainability Report” (Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority, Summer 2017),

[5] “MBTA Sustainability Report.”

[6] “MBTA > About the MBTA > Environment.”


Some Like it Hot: New Startup Can Deliver Your Pizza in 4 Minutes


Fighting Malthus’s Prediction in the New Millennium

4 thoughts on “The MBTA’s climate challenge

  1. Daniel, it will be interesting to see if and when New York City makes upgrades to their MTA infrastructure as a result of lessons learned from Sandy. Some other interesting lessons (found here: include measures to expedite pumping water out of flooded tunnels and low areas. Key notes include installing backup generators, keeping generators high and out of flood waters themselves, and using porous pavement in critical areas to expedite drainage. I wonder if projects to improve the MBTA’s severe weather resiliency is more of a behavioral question regarding our unwillingness to commit to large dollar amounts and time horizons until some severe weather event actually hits Boston to grease the skids (similar to New York and New Orleans).

  2. Great piece – interesting and important.

    I wonder about the political economy here: what is needed to generate the political will to make these investments? Massachusetts had to cut almost $500 million in spending due to a budget crisis this year. Mobilizing additional resources for the investments you propose will require even more tough decisions elsewhere in the budget. Will Massachusetts wait until a disaster happens to invest? This seems common; Hurricane Sandy, for example, caused New York City to significantly increase its focus on resiliency. Or can policymakers in Massachusetts – a state whose voters care deeply about the environment, are concerned about climate change, and have a higher tolerance than most for public investment – beat this trend?

    To do so, they will need to find the revenues – either by increasing taxes / tolls, decreasing spending on other programs, or gaining federal grants. The latter seems unlikely in this political environment, so let’s hope policymakers start working on creative solutions.

  3. Thanks for writing about the T–something I have relied on for years and for many people, something that is absolutely necessary for livelihood. I appreciate your points about how hard it will be for the MBTA to prepare itself for massive-scale infrastructure damage due to climate change. From intensifying storms to increasing water levels, the T will have many challenges coming its way. This makes me consider how other infrastructure-intensive industries are preparing for this issue, and how it’s being handled in other cities with similar problems on the horizon. In the energy industry, some companies have started constructing their projects in locations based on protection from climate change; for example, a local electric utility has recently been constructing one of its substations on an elevated platform in downtown Boston to avoid issues related to flooding or generally raising sea levels. Does this solve the electric grid’s problem in its entirety? Of course not–but it does offer an incremental solution that can be reasonably adapted to other sites along the grid as new construction is needed. (It also makes people aware that this should be taken seriously!) Should the T be elevated? Perhaps–but I think along this vein, we need to seek more creative solutions, and ones that are incremental. Your points about ridesharing are interesting–perhaps the T should partner with existing ridesharing apps, or make its own, in order to make travel infrastructure more flexible. These types of creative solutions could help public transit still be possible in years to come as climate change continues to wreak havoc. Thanks for sharing your article!

  4. Thanks for the thoughtful article. As has been mentioned in the article as well as the comments, the key problem here seems to be the funding of the investments required to make the MBTA network more resistant to natural calamities. It might be unrealistic to expect the administration to allocate incremental budget for this purpose without additional sources of revenue. In my opinion, the incremental revenue has to come from the MBTA network itself for the funds to get allocated to foresighted investments into safety. The incremental revenue can be driven by the two fundamental parameters of volume and price.

    1. Volume:
    The administration needs to take steps to increase the usage of public transportation. They can do so by potentially making personal car travel relatively more expensive through taxes or increased tolls. Also, measures to increase stickiness to public transport, such as, monthly and annual membership cards which offer more economic transportation, can be helpful. In any case, the traffic congestion in Boston is a major deterrent to driving in the city. Increased usage of public transportation will (i) Help drive more revenue to the MBTA, (ii) Potentially increase profitability of the MBTA operations if they are able to maintain efficiency and leverage the fixed cost base, and (iii) reduce congestion on the roads!

    2. Price:
    Increasing the price of public transportation is obviously a tougher strategy to implement. However, if the rationale and long-term benefits are communicated transparently to the commuters, it might gain acceptance. Also, MBTA could try to better advertise the benefits (in terms of time, economic benefit and environmental sustainability) of using public transportation.

Leave a comment