Sinking the Subway: The MBTA Confronts Climate Change

In an age of climate change, can Boston and the MBTA adapt?

A Record Year

The winter of 2015 was a downright rotten one for Boston. Aside from being the snowiest on record with over 108 inches on the ground (buckle up RCs!) [1], Boston’s MBTA, the oldest subway system in the United States, had come to a screeching halt [2]. By early February, after several weeks of steady snowfall and several thousand stranded commuters, the mayor of Boston, facing yet another blizzard, requested the pre-emptive shut-down of the MBTA until the storm passed [3]. A city used to the cold had finally thrown in the towel against Mother Nature. But 2015 was just a taste of what’s in store for cities like Boston that rely on dense and aging public transportation systems. Today, our teeming coastal cities and their public transit systems are staring down a slow-moving climate change crisis which threatens their ability to operate into the future.

Bostonians are tough...but is the T? Source: Boston Globe
Bostonians are tough…but is the T?
Source: Boston Globe

Boston is a prime target. Already low-lying, sea levels in Boston are expected to rise up to 18 inches by 2050 [4], increasing coastal storm surges. Further, extreme precipitation events, such as the storms of 2015, are expected to increase [5], along with lengthy heat-waves and other equally nasty, infrastructure-crippling weather events [6]. Taken all together, Boston’s public transportation infrastructure, much of it closing in on 100 years old, is not equipped to confront unpredictable and dangerous storms, flooding, and heatwaves. Already underfunded, the storms of 2015 magnified the obvious aches and pains across the system.

With rising seas and increasing storm surges, the MBTA’s aging system of bus, trolley, light and heavy rail, commuter rail, and ferry services all risk catastrophic damage that could end up costing lives, not to mention the hours of delays and hassle commuters will face as they make their way to work. In 2012, the MBTA moved over 400 million commuters a combined total of 1.8 billion miles [7]. The system is a vital piece of Boston’s productivity, as thousands of students and professionals commute across a dense urban landscape every day. Indeed, having a well-established public transit system is likely a great part of Boston’s appeal, and the T’s growth in ridership has outstripped even the growth in population in the city [8].

What’s been done?

Despite the threats, the MBTA has primarily focused on reducing its current environmental impact. In 2012, the MBTA signed the American Public Transportation Association Sustainability Pledge [9]. This voluntary pledge asked the MBTA to move towards sustainability, primarily focusing on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and promoting the eco-friendly nature of public transit. By and large, the MBTA has been successful at minimizing its energy consumption, specifically:

  • Reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 28%
  • Decreasing water usage by 13%
  • Decreasing energy use by 4.73% [10]

In addition to emissions reductions, hybrid buses have been rolled out and LEED-certified subway and bus stations built or refurbished [11]. The MBTA also launched an innovative new regenerative braking system on some of its subway cars to reduce energy consumption and protect equipment [12].

An MBTA bus struggles through the snow Source: Boston Globe
An MBTA bus struggles through the snow
Source: Boston Globe

Looking Ahead

Reducing emissions in 2016 is a sensible approach to tackling climate change. It’s straightforward, and it attempts to solve many of the outstanding issues inherent within any transportation system. But the risks posed by rising seas and powerful new storms must be addressed. As it stands, the MBTA has no current plan to adapt to the serious impact that changing weather patterns and ocean temperatures will have on the aging and outdated infrastructure. With storms, extreme rain and snow, and sustained heatwaves becoming more common, it’s likely Massachusetts residents will look back on 2015 fondly, compared to what’s in store.

There are some encouraging signs, however. The Go Boston 2030 draft report specifically mentions the threat climate change poses to the viability of the MBTA [13] and the city has formed a task force, Climate Ready Boston, which includes leadership from the MBTA [14, 15]. Finally, the MBTA has begun an analysis to identify infrastructure assets at risk from rising tides and extreme weather [16]. But more needs to be done to prevent the city’s public transit infrastructure from buckling under the new pressures imposed by climate change. Indeed, while the renovation and modernization of MBTA stations in recent years has been welcome, little has been done to reimagine the architecture, infrastructure, and systems that climate change will demand of the the T. If Boston as a city is going to survive climate change in the 21st century, entities such as the MBTA must do more than reduce their emissions; there needs to be active future planning today. Until the MBTA starts looking ahead, all of us can expect to get left behind.

(754 words)

1. Angela Fritz, “Boston Clinches Snowiest Season on Record amid Winter of Superlatives,” Washington Post, March 15, 2015, accessed November 3, 2016,

2. Ramos, Nestor, and Nicole Dungca. “With Riders at Wits’ End, Beverly Scott Quits as MBTA Leader.” The Boston Globe, February 11, 2015. Accessed November 3, 2016.

3. Pattani, Aneri, Meghan E. Irons, and John R. Ellement. “Walsh Calls for T to Close for Weekend Snowstorm.” The Boston Globe, February 12, 2015. Accessed November 3, 2016.

4. Douglas, Ellen, et al. Climate Change and Sea Level Rise Projections for Boston. Boston: Climate Ready Boston, 2016. Accessed November 3, 2016.

5. Douglas, Ellen, et al. Climate Change and Sea Level Rise Projections for Boston. Boston: Climate Ready Boston, 2016. Accessed November 3, 2016.

6. Douglas, Ellen, et al. Climate Change and Sea Level Rise Projections for Boston. Boston: Climate Ready Boston, 2016. Accessed November 3, 2016.

7. MBTA Sustainability Report: Spring 2014. Boston: Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, 2014. Accessed November 3, 2016.

8. Dutzik, Tony. “Boston Is Growing Fast. So Is Ridership on the MBTA.” January 18, 2016. Accessed November 3, 2016.

9. MBTA Sustainability Report: Spring 2014. Boston: Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, 2014. Accessed November 3, 2016.

10. MBTA Sustainability Report: Spring 2014. Boston: Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, 2014. Accessed November 3, 2016.

11. MBTA Sustainability Report Update: Spring 2016. Boston: Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, 2016. Accessed November 3, 2016.

12. MBTA Sustainability Report Update: Spring 2016. Boston: Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, 2016. Accessed November 3, 2016.

13. Holmes, Russel et. al. Go Boston 203: Vision Framework [Draft for Public Review]. Boston: Boston Transportation Department, 2015. Accessed November 3, 2016.

14.”Cimate Ready Boston: Q&A.” 2016. Accessed November 3, 2016.

15. Wernick, Adam. “Boston Is Preparing a Plan to Cope with Climate Change.” Public Radio International, August 14, 2016. Accessed November 3, 2016.

16. MBTA Sustainability. Accessed November 4, 2016.


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Student comments on Sinking the Subway: The MBTA Confronts Climate Change

  1. Very deep and thoughtful article – Climate change becomes particularly scary if you have never survived through a Bostonian winter !

    It is indeed a challenge to start to re-think and potentially re-engineer the whole transportation system especially in the context to improve the public transport system.
    For me the main question becomes: who pays the bill? It is likely to be Bostonian and Massachusetts tax payers. What a striking example of climate change transfer of impacts. This should push us to think more as a global family.

  2. Thanks for writing about this; it is very interesting and relevant to the ~80% of Americans (by Reuters’ reporting, estimates vary) who live in cities, with similar implications across the globe. Much more can be done to improve Boston’s rail-transit systems’ climate change readiness efforts, beyond the more altruistic acts of emission, water, and energy use reduction. I liked how you pointed out the MBTA’s surveying of high-value assets at risk to prioritize adaptation efforts. Additionally, while not easily enhanceable, drainage systems can be used, like in New York, to reduce the impact of flooding. For instance, “the New York subway uses 700 pumps that typically drain on average around 50 million litres of water (nearly 20 Olympic-sized swimming pools) a day from the network”; even that is not sufficient when hit by Hurricane Sandy, but bolstering drainage is one mechanism to improve upon. Moreover, the Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate developed a “giant plug” in 2012 that could aid in containing water spread through subway tunnels. Innovations like these will help shield public transit providers from the continued and increasing impact of climate change on their business. Thanks again for posting about this interesting topic.


  3. Very interesting & thoughtful article – thanks for posting! One frequently suggested solution for individuals reducing environmental impact is to ditch cars and ride the public transit. Yet the risks posed to public transit are not frequently discussed, in particular the threat of extreme weather. I would argue that it may be more important to spend limited public money on improving the resilience of mass transit, as opposed to reducing baseline environmental impact, precisely because mass transit is already one of the more environmentally-friendly forms of transit. While not MBTA-specific, Freaknomics provides some interesting stats on energy consumption by mode of transit ( Turns out moving one person for one mile by rail uses about 75% the number of BTUs required to do the same by car, while also using a more environmentally-friendly form of fuel (buses may actually use more, but that’s a for a different post…). Additionally, as we push more riders to mass transit, the per-passenger-mile usage decreases, while exposure to disruption of mass transit service increases. If this trend continues, the energy consumption is less worrisome than the resiliency. It would be great to see city-specific reports on energy consumption by transit type, as well as impact per dollar spent of each project to perhaps turn more public funding towards this important topic!

  4. In these scenarios, organizations are typically reactive rather than proactive. It’s troubling that the MBTA hasn’t been more urgent when signs of threats have appeared in other jurisdictions. For example, the Washington, DC metro recently instituted massive, months long shutdowns of entire rail lines in reaction to maintenance issues exacerbated by recent extreme weather. The city’s metros has seen flooding of entire stations, fires, and deaths. Hopefully Boston can look to DC as a signal to get serious rather than waiting for a local sign.

  5. Connor, really enjoyed this one! It’s good to see the MBTA taking some initiative in the effort towards green transportation, albeit late. On what more needs to be done, I liked your points on addressing shortfalls in existing architecture, infrastructure and systems. I am a proponent of green public transit! But allow me to play devil’s advocate. Artatak mentions the issue of who pays the bill. To build on this, I am curious about the role of incentives in improving fleet readiness. Why shouldn’t cities be focusing on public transit load factors (percentage of seats filled) instead of investing large sums in green technology and climate change readiness? As of 2012, commuter rail sat at ~35% and buses at just over 10%; see source below. Since filling up these unoccupied seats has essentially zero carbon impact, I wonder if the benefit of increasing load factors on today’s brown buses, on a per passenger basis, is actually higher than running green buses at today’s load factors. Moreover, as car manufacturers are pressured to hit ever higher fuel economy standards, cars may soon become more energy efficient than buses, and before too long perhaps even rail. Why not focus our efforts there, and avoid the huge tax and infrastructure outlay of modernizing the MBTA fleet?


  6. Public transit can’t seem to catch a break in the US, and your post spotlights the ways this vital form of infrastructure will only become more challenged by climate change. Whether transit agencies seek dollars for maintenance, expansion, technological upgrades, or sustainability / resiliency measures, the associated funding debates all come down to a massive market failure: consumers (and policymakers) don’t understand the true cost of their transit mode options. Commute by auto is so heavily subsidized on all fronts — from the cost of the car to the paving of the highway to the gas price — and does not reflect the negative externalities posed by congestion, manufacturing, road construction and maintenance, etc. These activities all contribute to GHG emissions, and the driver doesn’t pay for it. We then subsidize public transit, a second-best solution because it too distorts market prices, and consumers expect that for a $2 flat fee on the T, we’ll be greeted by immaculately kept trains with on-time departures. It’s just not possible given decades of deferred maintenance and neglect (

    The MBTA certainly has a sustainability challenge on its hands. But how do we get policymakers to consider the distortions at play in passenger transportation throughout Boston, and put all travel modes on the table for budgetary re-allocation? One issue to consider here is the organizational structure for transportation in Boston and Massachusetts: the state agency MassDOT controls the MBTA, the highways, the motor vehicles administration, and private aeronautics ( Massport separately operates the airports. Each division sees different contributions from the federal government, from localities, from users, and from the private sector. If these decisions get made at the state level, can the impacts of climate change offer a rallying point for the state to promote public transit investments as part of a broader resiliency plan?

  7. Very interesting article that we will all be able to relate to in the next coming months.
    Really shocking to see how little is being done in preparation for more extreme weather situations. Given the incredibly old infrastructure of the MBTA, I was wondering if there would be already a few “low hanging fruits” or easy solutions that could at least help in the short-term to overcome drastic winters. The CTA in Chicago has for instance equipped their trains with snowplow blades and sleet scrapers to empty and heat the tracks [1]. Curious if something like that is applied in Boston and could help at least in the short-term to ensure public transportation does not need to be set off this season.


  8. In some ways, I can empathize with the MBTA’s focus on reducing emissions rather than addressing the fundamental revamp that is needed to make it able to operate in a world with more and more extreme climate change. From the MBTA’s perspective, both actions are necessary, but one is a quick-win whereas the latter presents an incredible financial and operational challenge. It is difficult to address the latter in the context of the MBTA alone, without addressing the need for the entire city to be more climate-change proof. The fact is, making the MBTA suitable for the predicament we’re in requires very heavy investments, many of which are outside the scope of the MBTA, and which cannot be paid for by passenger fees, even if those fees are hiked in the future. For the buses to operate, there needs to be heavier investments by the Roads department to make sure that the roads are more snow/ice free. To reduce flooding in the T, we may need additional dykes around Boston that reduce flooding for the entire city. While some of the investments needed for the MBTA are internal (e.g. upgrade the railway network, the transmission, etc.), the broader question of who bears the bulk of the burden remains, and it would be interesting to see how this plays out in the policy spheres.

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