Predictably, in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, some people are saying that Florida would have been better off trying to evacuate people with passenger trains than over the highways. No one knows exactly how many people did evacuate south Florida, but after the state ordered 6.3 million people to leave their homes, photos of bumper-to-bumper cars on Interstates 75 and 95 became a staple of hurricane reporting.
Rail advocates like to claim that rail lines have much higher capacities for moving people than roads, but that’s simply not true. After the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, the Southern Pacific Railroad moved 300,000 people–free of charge–out of the city in what was probably the largest mass transit evacuation in American history. While impressive, it took the railroad five days to move all of those people. Even accounting for improvements in rail capacities in the last century, moving 6 million people out of south Florida by rail would take weeks, not the four days available between Florida’s first evacuation orders and the arrival of Hurricane Irma.
Certainly, the state of Florida could have done more to relieve congestion on major evacuation routes. As near as I can tell, the most it did was to allow vehicles to use the left shoulder lane on part of I-75 and part of I-4 (which isn’t even a north-south route), but not, so far as I can tell, on I-95. What the state should have done, since there was very little southbound traffic, was to open up all but one of the southbound lanes of I-75 and I-75 to northbound traffic. Continue reading