Extreme weather phenomena and climate change challenge our transport system – part 2

Principal Scientist Pekka Leviäkangas and Senior Scientist Riitta Molarius are presenting the OECD publication’s key recommendations in a series of blog articles this spring. In this, the second part, they sum up preparedness plans for ensuring a functioning transport system, chart the vulnerability of infrastructure assets and emphasise the importance of systemic approaches. Read the first part here.

At the turn of the year, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) International Transport Forum (ITF) published a research report on the challenges posed by extreme weather phenomena and climate change to the transport system, particularly the transport infrastructure. The report Adapting Transport to Climate Change and Extreme Weather: Implications for Infrastructure Owners and Network Managers lists recommendations for OECD Member Countries on minimising adverse effects.

VTT is one of the report’s main authors. In this second blog post, we discuss the recommendations further, focussing on recommendations 4–6.

4: Account for the temporary unavailability of transport systems in service continuity plans

Extreme weather events can disrupt connections, interrupt traffic and adversely affect operations in various ways – even if weather phenomena are not at their most extreme. In such cases, an organisation’s preparedness to respond is the key to managing the situation and keeping damage to a minimum.

Various tools are available to public authorities and companies, including in the form of standards such as the ISO 22301 Societal security – Business continuity management systems standard. This standard is primarily designed for business performance management of companies, but it in fact works well also for public organisations, once the word ‘business’ is put in parentheses. The standard will help organisations to protect themselves from disruptive events by means such as reducing their likelihood, preparing for them, or enabling rapid recovery. The standard focuses on information exchange, the allocation of duties and cooperation between parties, by defining criteria for effective contingency management, planning and operations. Major operational improvements can be made and capacity for managing exceptional situations built by going through the checklists in the standard. The standard, which is general in nature, helps to prepare for various disruptions other than just extreme weather events.

Information exchange, planning and operational systems play a key role in organisational contingency planning. All of these, in turn, are partly relying on technological tools. A wide range of such tools is available. The challenge lies in how to incorporate technology in organisational and institutional processes, to prevent them from being paper tigers that lack concrete, practical tools. A strong services continuity plan will support an organisation in managing disruptive scenarios by providing solutions and models for re-routing transportation or asset management recovery plans, for example.

Euroopan ilmastoalueiden luokittelu sään ääri-ilmiöiden mukaan

Figure 1. Classification of European climate regions based on adverse and extreme phenomena and projected trends in the frequency of adverse and extreme phenomena by the 2050s (Leviäkangas & Saarikivi, 2012, EWENT D6).

5: Assess the vulnerability of transport infrastructure assets

Vulnerability is challenging to define whether one tries to do it in theoretical or practical terms. However, the basic idea is to identify the probability that threatening events will occur, their domino and distributional effects, and ‘weak links’, i.e. the structures and locations that are most exposed, vulnerable and most susceptible to extreme weather-related stress. Merely summing up these factors provides a preliminary idea of vulnerability.

The EWENT project, which focused on extreme weather impacts, defined vulnerability as follows (Molarius et al. 2014):

Weather equation

The above equation is useful because it defines the components of vulnerability, which in the best case facilitates the concept’s operationalisation into measurable set of variables.

For instance, in the aforementioned EWENT project a risk index for main routes in Finland was calculated using the above formula as a function of vulnerability and risk (Figure 2).

Suomen pääliikenneväylien haavoittuvuusindeksi sään ääri-ilmiöitä kohtaan

Figure 2. The vulnerability index for extreme weather phenomena for main transport routes in Finland. The higher the numerical value, the more vulnerable the transport route. The first figure refers to vulnerability to accidents, the second describes infrastructure vulnerability and the third delays in transport. The routes included are roads, railways (rail), sea passages (short sea), air transport (aviation) and inland water transport (IWT). Blue = passenger index, red = freight index.

The transport system can be further divided into subsystems (modes of transport, their infrastructures, rolling stock, organisations, services), making the complex system block more manageable. It is simpler and more understandable to assess the vulnerability and risks of these elements than to process the system as a whole. In a way, vulnerability can be considered as the inverse value of resilience, the ability to resist and recover.

Unless we invest in maintaining our transport system, our ageing infrastructure will accumulate an increasing investment deficit and become more vulnerable, whilst extreme weather phenomena become more common. In addition to infrastructure’s condition itself, factors influencing the system’s vulnerability include traffic volumes (the more traffic, the more negative aggregate effects), and general economic capacity (the more economic resources, the better you are able to cope with adverse impacts).

6: Focus on transport system resilience, not just infrastructure

The construction and maintenance of a robust and invulnerable infrastructure pays dividends. Other elements of a resilient system include flexibility, responsiveness, adaptation and fast recovery. Less attention has perhaps been paid to these elements than they deserve. In thick snow, do snowploughs start moving fast enough and is there enough fleet and equipment? When services of this type are outsourced, this may be a purely contractual issue, which means that e.g. public procurements can play a role in resilience. Or, has sufficient attention been paid to proactive maintenance in infrastructure maintenance contracts, or has the lowest bidder been selected? As climate warming proceeds and extreme weather becomes more frequent, have we renewed our maintenance fleet and service contracts accordingly, or have we simply begun to wait for snowless winters and iceless routes?

Cities play a key role  

Most transport needs arise in cities. Both the population (in 2015, almost 86% of the Finnish population lived in cities) and high-value production and services are concentrated in cities. Urban transport system resilience has most impact on the everyday lives of citizens.

When the tram fails, take a bus, or vice versa. The construction, maintenance and servicing of bicycle routes not only serves to keep people fit or supports a nice way of moving around, it plays a more important role in ensuring the functionality of the entire transport system. Access to cities for residents of sparsely populated areas can be supported by constructing connective infrastructure (i.e. parking areas, connecting stations) at public transport nodes on the outer reaches of core areas. As a rule of thumb, diversity is a strength in systemic resilience, which is why it should always be on the checklist of urban planners. On the other hand, there are drawbacks to diversity, because to be market attractive, public transport should be able to serve its customers at the time of need. A public transport network, that is sufficiently dense and high-capacity increases, in turn, the risk of buses or trams running empty, thus contributing to higher emissions. Enhancing flexibility may require a re-evaluation of the public transport system, shifting the emphasis from economies of scale (which works sometimes, but not always) to a more agile and flexible system. How about small, demand-responsive electric buses?

In the next blog post, we will discuss the final three recommendations of the OECD’s publication and consider the strengths and weaknesses of the Finnish transport system.

Pekka Leviäkangas VTT

Pekka Leviäkangas, Principal Scientist

Riitta Molarius VTT

Riitta Molarius, Senior Scientist

Read more:

ITF (2016), Adapting Transport to Climate Change and Extreme Weather: Implications for Infrastructure Owners and Network Managers, ITF Research Reports, OECD Publishing, Paris. http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/9789282108079-en

The report can be downloaded at: http://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/transport/adapting-transport-to-climate-change-and-extreme-weather_9789282108079-en;jsessionid=5o0iqml8ohiq9.x-oecd-live-03

The EWENT project: http://ewent.vtt.fi/index.htm

Leviäkangas P & Saarikivi P 2012: D6: European Extreme Weather Risk Management – Needs, Opportunitites, Costs and Recommendations. http://ewent.vtt.fi/Deliverables/D6/Ewent_D6_SummaryReport_V07.pdf

VTT Technology 43: Weather hazards and vulnerabilities for the European transport system – a risk panorama. http://www.vtt.fi/inf/pdf/technology/2012/T43.pdf

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