A large swath of San Francisco—the American metropolis that makes things whirr, click, and connect—went dark on Friday. Around 9:30 in the morning, 90,000 customers of Pacific Gas & Electric lost power shortly after the workday started, forcing techies and office drones out of their offices, squinting like cavefish in the sunshine.
Those who weren’t already at work scrambled to figure out their next move as traffic lights went blank, buses running on overhead power lines stopped, and BART service halted. And the folks running the city started dealing with the mess.
But how does a city even start to deal with a problem like that? We asked a few experts.
Is the Important Stuff Running?
First thing, officials must figure out what the heck is going on. What is the problem, what caused it? In San Francisco, firefighters raced toward a large power substation to put out the mini blaze that’s been blamed for this whole mess.
Meanwhile, they have to figure out if everyone is safe. The largest metropolises will have dedicated liaisons between transit agencies, law enforcement, and emergency services. “A number of agencies may actually bring those people into a control center to deal with that situation,” says Tom Harrington, a transportation planner with Cambridge Systematics who has worked for Washington Metropolitan Area Transit in DC.
People may be stranded in elevators or trapped in underground tunnels, and everyone has to coordinate to retrieve them. San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee says no one was seriously injured during Friday’s power failure.
Once that’s done, it’s time to get people moving again. Scores of little, annoying details need to be sorted, trifles you might forget are run by electricity until that electricity goes out. Even if rail systems can continue to run, the air conditioning system can falter, station lights might go out. (BART parked a backup generator out in front of its shuttered Montgomery Station Friday.) Communications and camera systems used by security professionals could go dark. Most traffic lights will go black or start blinking incessantly, which means they’re acting as four-way stops. (This happened to about a third of SF lights.)
“That doesn’t let traffic move too freely,” says William Wallace, a systems engineers with Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute who researches emergency management. “Everything kind of stops because everyone’s hesitant. So when emergency vehicles need to get through, that can be a problem.” If traffic gets really, exceptionally bad, cities can use their authority to ban non-emergency vehicles from the road.
Dust Off the Contingency Plan
The best news is that most transit agencies have well-worn contingency plans. Step off, Silicon Valley: These government bureaucracies live in a state of disruption. “Transit agencies deal with disruptions every day, is kind of the bottom line, and they have plans for how they’ll deal with them,” says Harrington.
They’ll have a plan to get the word out to the people, whether it’s through Twitter, an official website, or pre-established relationships with local new sources. Workers used to communicating with the public—station agents, bus drivers, maybe even administrators—will be sent into the wild, to help inform passengers in person about how to get home. They’ll have alternate routes planned, same as if a parade or sudden protest ripped through town. Transit officers will flood the zone: San Francisco’s Municipal Transportation Agency reports it sent all 275 of its parking control officers out to direct traffic.
If it’s a sporadic outage, a “bus bridge” will transport passengers between functioning train stations, the way they might if a car stalls in the middle of the track. Unpleasant commutes abound when the power goes out, but expect transportation folks to stay fairly calm and collected.
Tweak, Tweak, Tweak, Tweak, Tweak
Once the outage is over, smart governments will take a look at what went wrong. After a blackout rolled through most of the Northeast in August 2003, transportation folks rediscovered the importance of backup systems, especially for electronic key doors, telephones, fueling centers, air conditioning, and radio communications systems. (The blackout, followed by a heavy rain, wrecked the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel that breaches the Michigan-Canada border, after four independent power feeds for the sump pump system failed. Back ’em up!)
The terrible reality is that the human imagination has limits. Some things just won’t be caught before they go sideways. “It takes a big event to make us doing anything—it’s so easy to do nothing” says Wallace, who trains city workers and officials to deal with emergencies. “Emergency systems have to be tested, and have to be worked through. We just don’t want to think about bad things.”
A smart city will look at what went down Friday and prepare for the next inevitable blackout. Meanwhile, San Francisco, enjoy the sun.