By: Patrick J. Kiger October 03, 2013


As James Carafano of the Heritage Foundation notes, a massive, prolonged power outage is likely to make traveling anything other than on foot or on a bicycle fairly difficult. The massive August 2003 blackout that paralyzed the Northeastern and Midwestern U.S. provided ample evidence of how dependent our transportation system is upon electrical power. A 2004 U.S. Department of Transportation study detailed the chaos that ensued. "Subways were stopped in their tunnels, airports halted operations, and elevators stalled mid-ride," the study’s authors noted. "…Stranded commuters spent the night in train stations, hotel lobbies, and emergency shelters. Others spent many hours trying to get home: on foot, in their vehicles, in shared taxis, on rented bicycles, hitchhiking, or on rollerblade."

According to the DOT report, the problems were most acute in the New York metropolitan area, where streets and highways already are heavily congested, and about nine million commuters use public transportation each day. When the grid failed, 11,600 traffic signals at intersections across the city went dark, turning driving into an unregulated free-for-all. Additionally, 413 trains in the city’s subway system lost power, stranding over 400,000 riders. The extensive electrified commuter rail network that serves the suburbs surrounding New York City also ground to a halt.

The blackout also crippled the complex system of video cameras, sensors and monitoring centers that New York City normally relies upon to manage traffic passing in and out of the city on its bridges and through its tunnels. About 90 percent of the traffic-tracking sensors and most of the cameras failed, leaving officials unable to monitor traffic flow and identify problems that were developing. In the event of a prolonged blackout, it’s likely that major automobile arteries would clog hopelessly and turn into parking lots—a situation that would be exacerbated when gridlocked motorists started to run out of fuel.

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