climate change in nyc

what happened, what’s coming, & what we need to do

last night Hurricane Ida hit the NYC metro area, causing widespread flash floods, the shutdown of every subway line (!!), and a tornado. 9 people are dead as of this morning — and I worry, realistically I think, that this doesn’t include those from the city’s unhoused community that haven’t been found or counted missing.

i live in uptown manhattan with my partner and our cat. last night, we experienced: intense lightning, leaking from our windows (particularly those with AC units), brief flashes of the power going out. our building’s hallway leaks and our garden-level neighbors in the building almost always get flooded. outside of our building, the intersection we live on completely flooded. i’m talking from buildings on one side of the road to the other — completely flooded, the sidewalk under water, cars driving through at least 6 inches of water, people wading around in water that was surely toxic. there was a tornado further downtown and a few in New Jersey too. and as i mentioned above, every. single. subway. line. either flooded or had to shut down because the flooding in other parts of the system was so extensive. this is extremely rare. the last time i believe something like that happened was hurricane sandy in 2012, almost a decade ago. the city is under a state of emergency and news outlets are framing this as the worst disaster since hurricane sandy. according to new york mag, every person who is known to have died so far in NYC was in a ground/garden level apartment, and the death count includes a 2-year-old child.

this is obviously a huge disaster. much like the pandemic over the past 18+ months, this is a disaster that has revealed life-threatening cracks in the system.

first: it’s clear this won’t be the last time climate change brings unmanageable flooding to our city. we’ve experienced lesser flooding, including flooding on the subway lines, several times prior to Ida this summer alone. this impacts not only our public transportation, but also our ground and garden level apartments. any apartment at or below street level is at risk of flooding, which not only threatens people’s belongings and living environment, but also their health (due to mold and the toxicity of flood waters) and their lives. let’s repeat: every. single. person. who is known to have died last night died in a ground/garden level apartment.

this means we need to realize that these apartments are fast becoming unlivable. complicating matters is the fact that a vast swath of NYC apartment buildings lack elevators — perhaps the majority! this makes garden and ground level apartments the only accessible option for many people who can’t manage stairs (though ground/garden apartments do often require some steps for access too) and can’t afford to live in an elevator building, which are often more expensive. people in these apartments need a rehousing plan that takes into consideration the maximum rent they can comfortably pay, their accessibility needs, and their ability to stay in the neighborhoods and communities they love. people are going to need this ASAP.

next: building upgrades. more buildings in NYC need elevators so that buildings are accessible to the disabled, the elderly, those with children, and just generally everyone! if this sounds impossible, know that it is not. excavating the room for an elevator within an existing building is difficult and incredibly costly, yes, but elevators can be built outside of the existing footprint of the building as well for far cheaper. realistically speaking, we aren’t going to tear down all the old buildings in new york to build newer, updated buildings with elevators, in-unit laundry, etc. this would be costly, wasteful, time-consuming, disruptive, destroy beautiful architecture that we have the right to maintain, and so on. so instead, we must forge ahead with retrofitting old buildings with the upgrades and necessities required by New Yorkers, especially elevators!

now let’s talk about transit in NYC. the subways flood. they flood and then they mold. where i live, one of the nearby stations flooded and a back room subsequently molded, creating a noxious smell that lasted weeks before the city sent people to clean the mold. i know this because i literally watched clean-up people in hazmat suits open the door to this back room, and i saw the black layers of muck and mold they cleaned up, and the next day the foul smell was gone. i’ll hazard a guess that this was unsafe for human consumption — how many people walked through that station, breathing that air? what about the MTA employees who sat down in the station for hours a day?

i don’t think it’s unrealistic to think of a future day when the below-ground subway system will experience flooding so consistent and debilitating that the entire system is rendered defunct. even if this day is 50 years off, it serves us well to make advance plans to ensure that people are safe and can travel and move the way they need to around the city. that said, the subway as it is is already lacking in many ways. trains are delayed, slow, crowded, unhygienic, and often serve as housing for the unhoused (another major issue that could be resolved by simply providing adequate free housing for the unhoused community). we are all experiencing the pandemic and no doubt can fill in the blanks for the issues this brings up in terms of community health and safety. that said, the subway remains the best form of public transportation offered by the city in terms of speed, reliability, and capacity.

if you look at a map of the subway system, below, you will notice that all subway lines lead to lower manhattan. lower manhattan is the focus of the entire system because the system was built to serve capitalist economic interests — AKA a lot of people work in lower manhattan, so all the subways take you there. you will also notice that there are few lines that connect, for example, queens to brooklyn, or that go across the bronx in a way that allows people to travel from the east to the west. i live in uptown manhattan and work in the bronx, so there are no direct routes via the subway, making buses my “best” commuting option.

this configuration of subway routes has many major impacts on people’s lives. as i mentioned above, i believe the subway is objectively the best way to travel around NYC. buses are slow, mostly-local, and subject to traffic. they hold less people and emit more carbon emissions than the subway system. this is the assumption i move forward with.

configuring the subway this way prevents people from easily moving within their boroughs (east-to-west in the bronx, manhattan, and staten island, and north-to-south in queens and brooklyn). people don’t only work in midtown — restricting subways this way means that people must use buses as their main mode of transportation for commuting. people don’t only have friends who live in their neighborhood — this configuration also prevents people’s free, convenient movement for pleasure and community. many people live without access to subways at all, which also forces them to rely on buses.

given these factors: that the subway is poorly configured for optimal commuting and pleasure movement for most people in the outer boroughs, and that the subway is at risk of being rendered obsolete by climate change, i have a proposal. i don’t claim that this is the only or best plan, just what i think could be a workable solution.

my proposal is creating a trolley-like system in NYC, AKA an above ground rail track that fills in the gaps that exist in our current subway configuration, and could eventually replace the below-ground system. the trolleys should exist on their own roads, but they don’t have to disrupt the existing roadways in the city (though they would replace some). see proposed diagram below (i didn’t come up with this intersection idea, but i can’t find the original image — please do comment if you have it so i can update). alongside the trolley tracks would be greenways — trees, bike and walking paths, outdoor space for restaurants, community garden and food forest space. this would add a huge amount of green space to the city, which has countless benefits.

^the diagram above reflects a roadway that passes under a slightly elevated trolley and greenway lane at an intersection. cars go under, trolley goes over — far less excavation is required than building a below-ground transit system.

citibike has seriously expanded biking accessibility in the city, but people often complain about the parking space it takes up. parking is a big deal in the city! we don’t have enough garages, and street parking is losing ground as we expand green and open streets and add citibike stops. here’s the thing about parking. people have cars as part of their jobs (uber/lyft/etc.), to fill needs unmet by public transit, and as a means of escaping the city. we probably won’t get rid of the need for cars in NYC, but certainly filling the gaps in public transit will help reduce folks’ need for cars. the best solution to changes in parking availability that i can think of is to add more garages — i’m coming from the perspective that it’s a net good to reduce parking spots on the street in favor of green spaces, bike lanes, and citibike stations. an average city block has spots for perhaps 40 cars, maximum. an average parking garage holds anywhere from 350-500 cars (approximately 10 city blocks’ worth of space). adding parking garages to reduce the need for street parking obviously has pros and cons, like, for example, the fact that the land used for those garages could go to housing or community spaces. since most of these garages would need to be built from scratch, i propose including space on top for community gardens, community centers, or even free-or-low-cost housing.

these are just a few ideas that may or may not hold water. in the end, climate change is undoubtedly here, putting lives and community functioning at serious risk. we need to be thinking of how to live and thrive through this (and also, of course, build towards a society that isn’t based on constant reckless consumption and the complete ruination of the planet, and where people’s ability to thrive is paramount) and everyone’s ideas matter as we move forward. if you have any thoughts or ideas or responses, please do share below!