Oct. 30, 2012 -- On Sunday, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that the public transportation system serving NYC would be preemptively shut down ahead of Hurricane Sandy starting at 7 p.m.
That meant all the trains and buses in the nation's largest mass transit system had to go safely out of service.
"A preventive shutdown makes a lot of sense in the case of a hurricane as it avoids putting employees in harm's way and protects the equipment," said Jean-Paul Rodrigue, a Hofstra University professor and transportation geographer specializing in freight distribution and globalization. It also means the system can go back online quickly once the event is over, he added.
This is the second time in 14 months that New York City’s public transportation has undergone a planned shutdown. In the recent past, commuters and visitors were more likely to encounter a system abruptly stopped by snow, strikes, storms and surges.
Thursday afternoon on Aug. 14, 2003, a simple alarm malfunction caused failures to cascade throughout the Northeast power system. Shortly after 4 p.m., New York City's power went out.
That event triggered a widespread shutdown of transit systems along the East Coast, including New York, Jean-Paul Rodrigue remembered. The blackout stopped commuter and subway trains, snarled traffic and brought Amtrak service to a halt.
People fainted in airless trains; citizens became impromptu traffic conductors; and train conductors found themselves leading passengers to the streets by flashlight.
With daylight on their side, local officials had the whole subway system evacuated by 6:30 p.m. that evening.
Lacking functioning public transportation following the widespread blackout of 2003, New Yorkers took to the streets. Pedestrians trudged along their commute routes en masse.
With the temperature hovering around 90 degrees Fahrenheit , some tempers flared. In several instances, commuters grew angry when police tried to direct them away from empty buses.
Unlike blackouts of the past, most remained calm when night came. By Saturday morning, Aug. 16, the power had returned to most of the city, as had public transportation.
On a chilly Tuesday morning in December 2005, New York City's commuters were forced to find creative ways to get around. The Transport Workers Union had shut the bus and subway system down for the first citywide transit strike since 1980.
New Yorkers bundled up for frigid treks on foot, begged strangers for rides, piled into taxis, rode bikes and took to the avenues on skateboards. They also crammed into packed Long Island Rail Road and Metro-North trains, which weren't part of the strike.
"The most common cause of transit system shutdowns are not natural , but related to labor," Jean-Paul Rodrigue said.
System-wide strikes or selective shutdowns of specific services occur regularly, particularly in Europe. "It is a national pastime in France," he added wryly.
During the 2005 transit strike, the Metropolitan Transit Authority and the Transport Workers Union were deadlocked over pensions and pay during contract negotiations.
Without the nearly 34,000 bus and subway workers who walked off the job, the city comptroller estimated initial losses of $400 million for the first day alone.
The strike lasted for three days during the busy holiday season before state mediators helped union workers and MTA officials reach a deal.
New Yorkers, who were divided about whether they supported the strike, got back on public transit. By the end of that week, service had returned to normal.
"So what the hell happened with the subways?" Jen Chung, editor of the New York City news site Gothamist.com wondered in late summer 2007.
An intense early morning thunderstorm on Aug. 8 had flooded them, and the rain shut down nearly every subway line during rush hour.
Usually the system's pumps would deal with the flooding, but they were overwhelmed by the water volume, Bloomberg News reported at the time. High tide didn't help, either.
As they tried to understand garbled public service announcements, commuters packed train platforms. Finally, when it was clear no trains were coming, sweaty crowds looked for buses in the streets. Only there weren’t any extra ones dispatched. In the middle of it all, the MTA’s website went down.
However, by the next day the commute had improved. "We really are sorry about the inconvenience that New Yorkers had to deal with," the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s then-CEO Lee Sander said at a press conference. "We had three inches of rain in an hour. The system is designed to handle 1.5 inches."
A late December blizzard in 2010 dumped roughly 20 inches of snow on New York City. Snow drifts stranded trains, buried subway entrances and incapacitated buses.
Bus lines went out of commission while subways ran sporadically, if they were running at all. Recovery was hampered by a snowplow shortage.
Widespread transit disruptions have rippling effects, Hofstra University’s Jean-Paul Rodrigue said. "The economic and social impact are negative as people lose income, stores lose customers, social and educational events are cancelled, and many business transactions disrupted."
Still, as long as communications systems are up and running, many people were able to work from home.
While they were stranded in the snow, New Yorkers headed online united by the ubiquitous #snowpocalypse Twitter hashtag. On the social networking site Foursquare.com, more than 12,500 people, "checked in" to the 2010 New York snowpocalypse.
For the first time ever, New York officials pre-emptively shut down public transit in Aug. 2011, well ahead of Hurricane Irene’s expected landfall.
The storm was on track to bring heavy rainfall, coastal surges and wild wind. According to the Metropolitan Transit Authority's hurricane plans, the system shouldn’t be operated in 39 mph winds.
"For large cities such as New York, public transit systems are crucial," Jean-Paul Rodrigue said. "Once a decision is made to shut down the system, everything else shuts down." Mandatory evacuations were ordered for low-lying parts of the city.
By the time it reached New York, Irene had weakened to a tropical storm. Some New Yorkers later scoffed at all the measures taken but gusts more than 60 mph were recorded in the city. Hundreds of trees fell and more than 70,000 customers across the five boroughs lost power.
After Hurricane Irene arrived in New York as a tropical storm last year, the public transportation system that had been proactively shut down took longer than expected to be up again.
Continued high winds and rain prevented transit workers from checking the system for damage and flooding, the New York Post reported.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg predicted a tough Monday morning commute for New Yorkers following the weekend storm. By 5:40 a.m. that morning, commuters crammed trains as limited subway service started again.
Each time a major transit disruption such as a hurricane takes place, it serves as a learning experience, said Jean-Paul Rodrigue, "implying a better level of preparation for the next event."
As Hurricane Sandy approached on Monday, New York City emptied and became a relative ghost town. Then the hurricane began wreaking its havoc. Overnight, most of Manhattan below Midtown lost power and a storm surge at Battery Park flooded subway tunnels.
Joseph Lhota, the current CEO of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, told the New York Times on Monday he was concerned about such a surge in Lower Manhattan because it could send seawater into the subway system and cause switches to corrode.
With historic damage done to the subway, Lhota told WNYC that parts of the transit system will be up and running sooner than others. "We're going to try to be creative," he said.
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