Mind the gap: why transport networks need to adapt to climate change

November 10, 2021
Maria Pregnolato
Charles West

On Transport Day at COP26, the Flood Resilience for the Transport Sector team discuss their community that has been supported by GW4 funding.

Natural disasters have grown in scale, frequency and severity over the past 20 years, and are likely to increase due to rapid urbanisation and climate change. Extreme weather, as a result of climate change, is becoming even more extreme. Heatwaves are getting hotter, droughts longer, storms more powerful and heavy rainfall more intense. Cities are increasingly vulnerable to damage and disruption caused by adverse weather, due to their dense populations, buildings and infrastructure, and the changing climate. The floods in western Germany earlier this year, for example, killed more than 180 people and left thousands without access to drinking water, electricity and gas. This issue is under the spotlight at COP26, currently taking place in Glasgow, with recognition that resilient infrastructure is key to protecting communities and natural habitats.

Discussions on climate change and transport primarily focus on reducing carbon emissions. But addressing the resilience of transport systems (road, rail, sea or air) to climate change is crucial if we’re to maintain mobility, trade, and development. However, as transport systems are highly connected with other infrastructure systems, such as drainage, power and telecommunications, it is challenging to have a complete picture of how future climate related hazards will affect them. For example, increasing rainfall intensity could overwhelm ageing water drainage systems, resulting in more frequent flooding and traffic disruption.

Infrastructure resilience serves decision-making

Of all the natural hazards, disasters related to flooding and extreme rainfall cause the greatest economic losses to communities, costing around US$100 billion (£74 billion) per year globally. The increasing cost of disasters – both the human cost and the financial cost – is a growing cause of concern for governments, but the true costs of a disaster are felt most acutely at community level and are determined by the community’s ability to absorb the impact and recover after the event. Investment in resilience is more cost-effective in the long-term than dealing with the consequences; however, few measures have been implemented in cities so far.

To achieve urban resilience, local authorities and decision makers need tools which can help them anticipate, prepare, and recover from flood events. Good infrastructure is the backbone of any successful society, so increasing the resilience to the impacts of climate change is essential for reducing the effect on communities and enhancing their ability to recover. Improved engineering and planning decisions in the face of complex interactions between climate hazards, infrastructure and people within the urban system requires novel analytical tools and methodologies. By bringing the ‘real-world’ challenges of practitioners and decision makers into the research space, we can use state of the art modelling and data analytic approaches to explore and identify robust solutions.

Pooling knowledge and skills

Building on research partnerships supported by the GW4 Alliance, we are developing the community Flood Resilience for the Transport Sector (FR-Trans) to improve the resilience of urban environments through co-working and collaboration. Our work targets infrastructure resilience and extreme events, strategically fitting the research gap around risk assessment and response for floods. The community pools knowledge and skills from infrastructure operators, local authorities, practitioners, environmental regulators, and engineers, with the aim of developing tools for urban resilience, placing emphasis on anticipation, preparedness and recovery. Ultimately, we believe that connecting people with a wide range of expertise – but a common interest – is essential for improving infrastructure resilience to natural hazards.

FR-Trans takes a holistic approach to flood resilience, which requires us to understand how different levels (economic, political, social and technical) may interact. We need to build a community of multiple institutions with different information, knowledge and expertise. We encourage all those interested in this project to contact us and join our open and collaborative community. Future work will consider the impact of flood events on multiple interacting systems (such as transport, energy and telecommunications) for which even more complementary skills will be necessary.

Co-authors: Slobodan Djordjevic, Albert Chen, Barry Evans, Reza Ahmadian, Arthur Lam

Picture credit: Mike Austin/Unsplash