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Summer/Fall 2008 Vol. 8 No. 2

Table of Contents

A Vital Role

Chicago Transit Authority buses, ©American Spirit Images/Unlisted Images Inc.

Integrating Transit Into Local Emergency Evacuation Plans

Transit can play a vital role in an emergency evacuation as demonstrated during the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when people were shuttled out of Lower Manhattan and employees, buses, and equipment were rushed to the World Trade Center site to support emergency responders.

H owever, a review of the emergency response and evacuation plans in the 38 largest urbanized areas, along with in-depth case studies of Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, New York City/northern New Jersey, and Tampa, Fla., revealed that few urban areas have planned for a major disaster that could involve multiple jurisdictions or states and necessitate the evacuation of a large fraction of the population, according to a new report from the National Research Council.

"Transit has a unique role to play in evacuating the carless, elderly, and people with disabilities," said Richard White, executive vice president, DMJM Harris, and chair of the committee that wrote the report. "These special needs populations are inadequately addressed in most local emergency evacuation plans."

Local governments are required by law to develop evacuation plans and mass departure routes that include special needs populations. They also have the primary responsibility of responding to emergency incidents and ordering an evacuation; transportation and transit agencies play a supporting role.

The report urges emergency managers to consider the multiple roles transit can perform in the event of a natural or human-caused disaster. It can transport those without a car to area shelters or outside the affected area, bring emergency responders and equipment to emergency incident sites, return evacuees to their original destinations, and restore service as expeditiously as possible.

To ensure transit systems are used to their maximum potential, they need to be part of the emergency management planning process and command structure, linked to emergency planners with real-time communications capability, and participate in annual exercises and drills, the report says. "To the extent transit agencies are asked to take on a major role in an evacuation, they should be considered essential personnel and be eligible with other first responders for cost reimbursement," White added.

Evacuating special needs populations and the carless requires a special effort to identify those who require assistance, integrate their needs into evacuation plans and sheltering strategies, and communicate these plans in advance of an emergency. The report noted the use of transit and school buses in Tampa for evacuating special needs groups, which could serve as a model for other areas.

Transit is not the silver bullet, however. Emergency managers and the general public should be realistic in their expectations for the use of transit during an emergency, the report says. Transit systems' capacity to assist depends on the nature of the incident and its location. Damage from an earthquake or other incident, for instance, may prevent the use of affected transit systems. Transit operations could also be hampered by unavailability of drivers and lack of equipment, especially at off-peak times. During peak periods, congestion impedes travel in many urban areas even in normal conditions.

"The report's recommendations should not be allowed to gather dust," said Rep. Bill Pascrell D-N.J., who requested this study. He hopes to introduce legislation to enact some of the study's recommendations.   -- Maureen O'Leary

The Role of Transit in Emergency Evacuation: Special Report 294. Committee on the Role of Public Transportation in Emergency Evacuation, Transportation Research Board (2008, approx. 223 pp.; ISBN 0-309-11333-4; available from TRB, tel. 202-334-3213, or the National Academies Press, tel. 1-800-624-6242; $36.00 plus $4.50 shipping for single copies).

Richard A. White, executive vice president and director of project development, DMJM Harris, Arlington, Va., chaired the committee that wrote report. The study was funded by the Federal Transit Administration and the Transit Cooperative Research Program.

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Copyright 2008 by the National Academy of Sciences