Blackouts and Black Eyes; The Eastern Blackout of August 14

With our Lower Manhattan offices in the former shadow of the World Trade Center, my view of our disasters is essentially the “neighborhood view,” and affords me a different perspective on events than those monitoring them from afar via secondary sources. It also affords me an opportunity to observe their contexts. So it was with the recent Blackout. Revisionist views of history are generally insightful. They can also be sobering.

Miracles and Misinformation

As they did after September 11th, New Yorkers displayed a civility unimaginable in most of the World’s major cities. Throughout the Blackout, the police arrested only 50 to 60 individuals on burglary charges related to looting, and claim to have arrested only 850 individuals altogether – lower than the average (950) for a weekday Summer evening. One 17-year-old fell to his death from a roof after trying to loot a Brooklyn shoe store. Two other individuals were killed in some of the 60 fires reported – mostly related to the use of candles. Before Thursday, August 14th had ended, the City mobilized 10,000 police officers – although it is unclear how many of these officers were not already assigned to duty. According to Mayor Bloomberg, the 911 telephone system handled 90,000 calls, with 5,000 requiring emergency medical personnel. Of course, it is hard to accept such figures in a City where practically no government officials of any kind answer the telephones under normal circumstances – much less when few telephones were even working.

Miraculously, transit authority and other police helped rescue every one of tens of thousands of passengers trapped in subway cars and stations – without a single fatality. Keep in mind that, after the air conditioning failed, windows do not open in the sweltering cars and overheated tunnels. Within 30 hours, every one of the 11 lines interrupted was operating again. As on September 11, New York commuters were also treated to the rare sight of live transit officials on station platforms – providing the luxury of actual information since transit planners never thought or bothered to install maps in sections of the station preceding individual train platforms (when it is too late to chose), and station diagrams are rare altogether. Particularly as the City recently closed almost 60 token booths (which no longer even sell tokens), exit signs only compounded the labyrinths. Ironically, subway service on several Manhattan lines – 1, 7, A, J, L, and M lines – was restored by midnight. Of course, with nothing above ground flickering, and virtually no information dissemination, would-be passengers had no way of knowing.

Another interesting irony was the fact that many commuter trains returned to service by Friday morning – particularly NJT, Metro North and PATH trains – because their locomotives were diesel-powered. Train buffs have long bemoaned the widespread electrification of the rails, and the Blackout provided yet another reason to support this position. Yet even after resuming operations, some diesel service collapsed Friday morning when a Con Edison power supply failed and signals were left dark.

Busy Bustling Buses

With rail service inoperable, the burden of distributing its P.M. rush hour passengers fell largely to buses. Many motorcoach operators ran service continuously through the night, some ticketing passengers while others suspended fares. And while inbound commuter service the following morning was suspended and sparse, the fatigue endured by drivers the night before was severe: The Blackout occurred at the end of the workday – after either long daytime shifts or even split shifts for many drivers had been completed. Despite no traffic signals operating, and pedestrians flooding streets and intersections, no serious accidents were reported.

Particularly impressive was the fact that these services were largely driver-organized, since telephones, cell-phones and radios were inoperable. With virtually no government-organized dissemination of information – no vans with loudspeakers, no improvised signage, not even megaphone announcements by law enforcement personnel – bus drivers could not know how long the Blackout would likely last, much less how widespread the outages were, geographically. And they could not know what September-11-type specters lurked along their routes. Many learned the dimensions of the problem only after wasting hours in heavily-trafficked deadheading back to storage locations – only to be sent back into service.

Of course, there is no way to measure how much more efficient bus services might have been with a modicum of planning and organization, and some timely information. This is particularly true given the limited capacity of a few thousand buses, at most, compared to a rail system containing 7,000 large cars – more rolling stock than the combined metropolitan bus fleets if one does not count the region’s hoards of legal and illegal jitneys and other commuter services.

Gridlock and Goats

Further undermining bus service, of course, was the City’s complete failure to control pedestrian or vehicular movement on streets and at intersections. So many vehicles which might have flowed in and out of the City repeatedly were trapped in a molasses-like gridlock which impeded and deterred their return. Traffic control would hardly have required skilled crowd-control expertise: Most stranded commuters were partying, not rioting. In preparation for such events, or reoccurrences of September 11, it would have been elementary to enlist, appoint and marginally train a few thousand civilian “safety patrol” officers who could have been mobilized to intersections near their homes or work locations, and who would have been effective with minimal equipment. In sharp contrast, by 3 P.M. on September 11, 2001, all of Lower Manhattan had been cleared of private and commercial vehicle movement, a convoys of trucks were steaming toward the Trade Towers across Canal Street after entering Manhattan from the outer boroughs. That traffic control assistance might be needed again is hardly rocket science: Manhattan is already the J-walking capital of the World, and red lights are barely suggestive in normal times.

Typical of breakdowns, problems compounded one another. Later Thursday night, pedestrians were required to use streets for walking because hundreds of thousands were sleeping on the sidewalks. Because no information was provided at the neighborhood level, most residents who could have did not invite small crowds to sleep on their couches and floors. Had the Blackout occurred in the Winter, thousands would doubtless have frozen to death.

Adding to bus travel futility (no organization, no information), the City’s ride-sharing programs have become practically invisible during the past decade. Yet even in their heydays, these services were almost entirely subscription-based – rides were pre-scheduled according to regularly-reoccurring travel patterns. Virtually no demand-responsive ride-sharing programs or staging areas exist. Such approaches would have been invaluable in the Blackout, even if demand had exceeded supply. As it were, with no way for single-occupant motorists to identify potential passengers traveling in their respective directions, these air-conditioned respites from the steaming August night limped along with their regular empty shotgun seats – rendering a flotilla of otherwise Good Samaritans academic.

The virtual absence of any information – signage, announcements, personnel – merely exaggerated its marginal provision in normal times. In truth, few visitors to New York rely on it, but rather, employ the age-old custom of asking “the locals” for help. Like most residents of Lower Manhattan, I spend fragments of almost every walk or subway ride as a tour guide. With only a skeleton of useful information in place, there was little to build upon when this information was really needed.

Back, Forth and Back Again

Because there was virtually no planning and no organization, many bus passengers used services merely to get closer to home, in the process making not only indirect trips, but often additional trips. Some commuters shuttled back and forth between the Port Authority Building and Battery Park Ferry Terminal – a 75-block trek – only to end up in the back of yet more lines.

With the typical absence of meaningful airport information, and the already deliberately-rationed customer control agents overwhelmed, many of the tens of thousands of passengers stranded at area airports commuted, by bus or taxi, to alternate airports – only to discover that no flights were departing from them either. Passengers from JFK Airport’s Terminal #3 were actually shuttled, by bus, to La Guardia – only to learn that no flights whatsoever were departing from that airport. (So much for “intermodal coordination” and “seamless transportation” – two popular transit industry buzz words, and the justification for billions of dollars in grant funds.) All this meant, of course, that these individuals then had to return to the airports from which their flights were originally scheduled. With no provisions for even the small crowds regularly stranded by delayed flights, these facilities could hardly handle the Blackout’s loads. As in Manhattan in general, this meant thousands of individuals sleeping on the floor. Half the bathrooms at La Guardia were mysteriously closed, while running water was cut off in some of those which remained open.

In one of the most profoundly asinine statements imaginable, the New York Times quoted one passenger as “… having an idea of what it must feel like to be homeless.” It is hard to know why it would take such an experience to understand this. It is preposterous to think a single night’s inconvenience could be comparable.

One saving grace, of course, was the fact that the next, full work day of the Blackout occurred on Friday – which relieved most commuters from any sense of duty to return to work. The 8:10 A.M. Friday commuter run of New Jersey transit driver Jose Maldonado, normally packed with 51 passengers, carried only two. So while a few motorcoach services actually made money by providing extra service, most transit and motorcoach services lost considerable sums – running full all night long with free-fares, and running empty of paying customers the day following.

Safety and Liability

In a general emergency like the Blackout, standards for safety and liability are, and should be, suspended. However, what dangers otherwise emerged were greatly compounded by the public sector’s failure to control pedestrian and vehicular movement on streets and intersections.

As a practical reality, private companies are far more vulnerable to liability than public agencies. To begin with, many public agencies have a broad degree of immunity. In many states, damages are limited. Even more significantly, most victims’ attorneys do not understand lead agency complicity in negligence, and have an even lower opinion of a juror’s understanding of or appreciation for it. Because of their insurance requirements, and “common carrier” responsibility, private companies are generally viewed as “deep pockets” – even though their operating environments are conditioned largely by public agency efforts or failures. Signalization, lighting and traffic control comprise three primary elements of this environment, all of which were non-existent or severely deficient during the Blackout. As a consequence, most private transportation providers not only lost money – expending additional resources while charging no fares – but did so at considerable risk.

Blue and White

Apart from restoring power, the greatest challenge in the New York City Blackout was transportation. Given the environment in which they were forced to operate, the transportation sector served admirably, heroically, generously, tirelessly, and often ingeniously. Hundreds if not thousands of bus, taxi and limousine drivers – and their owners, managers, dispatchers and customer service personnel – worked through the night after an already full day of work, and along with private motorists, managed to return literally millions of commuters to their homes in outlying areas. Many lost sizeable amounts of regular revenue – and yet donated their services. Given the constraints, and the arithmetic limitations of vehicle capacity, all this barely seems possible. Yet it happened. But it could have been done better.

In the final analysis, the Blackout was the same old story as September 11: Overpaid, overfed white collar bureaucrats make a mess, and underpaid, overtired blue collar workers clean it up. In the midst of little or no planning, minimal organization, vacuous information and disgraceful indifference, thank God for policemen and firemen. But considerable appreciation should also be extended to members of the passenger transportation industry.

Despite our Blackout performance, I am proud to be a New Yorker. I am equally proud to be a member of the transportation industry. When it really matters, we are not just an industry; we are a community. I like to think of us as a large neighborhood on wheels. My neighborhood. But in these trying times, it takes more than a neighborhood. This past mid-August, unfortunately, we had less.

Publications: National Bus Trader.