Vanishing Automobile update #55

Lack of Automobility Key to New Orleans Tragedy

4 September 2005

Those who fervently wish for car-free cities should take a closer look at New Orleans. The tragedy of New Orleans isn't primarily due to racism or government incompetence, though both played a role. The real cause is automobility -- or more precisely to the lack of it.

"The white people got out," declared the New York Times today. But, as a chart in the Times article makes clear, the people who got out were those with automobiles. Those who stayed, regardless of color, were those who lacked autos.

What made New Orleans more vulnerable to catastrophe than most U.S. cities is its low rate of auto ownership. According to the 2000 Census, nearly a third of New Orleans households do not own an automobile. This compares to less than 10 percent nationwide. There are significant differences by race: 35 percent of black households but only 15 percent of white households do not own an auto. But in the end, it was auto ownership, not race, that made the difference between safety and disaster.

"The evacuation plan was really based on people driving out," an LSU professor told the Times. On Saturday and Sunday, August 27 and 28, when it appeared likely that Hurricane Katrina would strike New Orleans, those people who could simply got in their cars and drove away. The people who didn't have cars were left behind.

Critics of autos love the term "auto dependent." But Katrina proved that the automobile is a liberator. It is those who don't own autos who are dependent -- dependent on the competence of government officials, dependent on charity, dependent on complex and sometimes uncaring institutions.

As shown in the table below, the number of people killed by hurricanes in the U.S. steadily declined during the twentieth century. Economists commonly attribute such declines to increasing wealth. Wealth differences are also credited with the large number of disaster-related deaths in developing nations vs. developed nations. But what makes wealthier societies less vulnerable to natural disaster? There are several factors, but the most important is mobility.

Number of Deaths Caused by Hurricanes in the U.S.
1900-1919       10,000
1920-1939        3,751
1940-1959        1,119
1960-1979          453
1980-1999           57
Source: Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory. Number for 1900-1919 is estimated as the exact death toll from 1900 Galveston hurricane is unknown.

People with access to autos can leave an area before it is flooded or hit with hurricanes, tornados, or other storms. When earthquakes or storms strike too suddenly to allow prior evacuation, people with autos can move away from areas that lack food, safe water, or other essentials.

Numerous commentators have legitimately criticized the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other government agencies for failing to foresee the need for evacuation, failing to secure enough buses or other means of evacuation, and failing to get those buses to people who needed evacuation. But people who owned autos didn't need to rely on the competence of government planners to be safe from Katrina and flooding. They were able to save themselves by driving away. Most apparently found refuge with friends or in hotels many miles from the devastation. Meanwhile, those who didn't have autos were forced into high-density, crime-ridden refugee camps such as the Superdome and New Orleans Convention Center.

Rather than help low-income people achieve greater mobility, New Orleans transportation planners decided years ago that their highest priority was to provide heavily subsidized streetcar rides for tourists.

These tourist lines do nothing to help any local residents except for those who happen to own property along the line. The city was not deterred by table 7.2 on page 8 its own analysis of the Desire line showing that each new rider on this line would cost taxpayers more than $20.

About 26,000 low-income families in New Orleans don't own a car. If all the money spent on New Orleans streetcars from 1985 to the present had been spent instead on helping autoless low-income families achieve mobility, the city would have had more than $6,000 for each such family, enough to buy good used cars for all of them. Add the money the city wanted to spend on the Desire Street streetcar and you have enough to buy a brand-new car for every single autoless low-income family -- not a Lexus or BMW, certainly, but a functional source of transportation that would have allowed them to escape the current disaster.

While I don't think that buying low-income families brand-new cars is the best use of our limited transportation resources, it would produce far greater benefits than building rail transit. Studies have found that unskilled workers who have a car are much more likely to have a job and will earn far more than workers who must depend on transit. That is why numerous social service agencies have begun programs aimed at helping low-income families acquire their first car or maintain an existing one.

Yet when I point out the comparative benefits of providing mobility to low-income people vs. building rail transit lines to suburban areas that already enjoy a high degree of mobility, rail advocates often respond, "We can't let poor people have cars. It would cause too much congestion." Yes, as the Soviet Union discovered, poverty is one way to prevent congestion.

New Orleans is in many ways a model for smart growth: high densities, low rates of auto ownership, investments in rail transit. This proved to be its downfall. While the city was vulnerable from being built below sea level, many cities above sea level have proven equally vulnerable to storms and flooding. In the end, New Orleans' people suffered primarily because so many lived without autos, thus making them overly dependent on the competence of government planners.

Update: Automobiles Also Key to Rita Evacuation

26 September 26 2005

The Associated Press reports that close to three million people escaped from the Gulf Coast area, the vast majority of them by automobile, in an "epic evacuation" prior to Hurricane Rita. Fortunately, few areas of the Gulf Coast are are transit-dependent as New Orleans. While more than 27 percent of the households in New Orleans had no cars, only 17 percent of households in Galveston, for example, are autoless, and autoless rates were much lower in most other areas.

Auto skeptics who resented my pointing out that automobile ownership made the difference for families during the Katrina evacuation chortled with glee at press reports of traffic jams during the Rita evacuation. The chortling stopped when the first reports of Rita casualties came in: 23 people killed on a bus that somehow caught fire and exploded. To date, only seven other people are known to have died from Rita.

That's a far cry from the nearly 1,100 people killed by Katrina, the vast majority of them in transit-dependent New Orleans. An Associated Press poll found that most of the people who stayed behind in New Orleans did so, at least in part, because they didn't have a car. The remainder stayed behind because they didn't believe the storm would be as bad as it was. In short, if you wanted to evacuate, you could if you had a car. Otherwise, you were probably stuck.

My colleague Michael Cunneen points out a further irony about New Orleans: The city had an opportunity to use federal funds to build an elevated freeway across town. But anti-highway groups successfully stopped this road and New Orleans expanded its streetcar system instead. "For a city under sea level threatened for two centuries by hurricanes," comments Cunneen, "by far the most useful means of transport are elevated roadways such as the one they rejected."

Our friend Todd Litman of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute argues that the solution to New Orleans' woes would have been a better planned and implemented mass-transit evacuation system. In response to my suggestion that increasing auto ownership would have worked even better, Litman stated:

  1. Not everyone can drive;
  2. Older autos are unreliable;
  3. Autos can't be used in some disaster situations;
  4. Increased auto ownership would increase congestion;
  5. Decreased hurricane deaths in the twentieth century due to automobility have been offset by auto fatalities;
  6. Some people who own autos may not be able to drive due to mechanical, medical, or economic conditions.

My detailed responses to these points are below. But my main response is simple: Autos worked. Transit didn't.

In fact, transit could not have worked in New Orleans due to its extraordinarily low rate of auto ownership. New Orleans' regional transit agency has about 300 buses. Add another 500 school buses and you have room for about 40,000 people with every seat filled. Yet some 100,000 people in New Orleans alone, and well over 150,000 people from the metropolitan area, were from families that had no automobile. There were simply not enough buses to carry them all.

Autos worked partly because people who owned autos were not dependent on the effectiveness or competence of public officials. I am not going to get into the debate over whether the federal, state, or local government was at fault, though I did find to be an interesting point of view. But even if enough buses had been available and public agencies had them all ready to evacuate, people would be reluctant to use transit because of doubts about their ability to bring pets and other belongings with them aboard buses and their lack of any ability to control where they were going and when they would be able to return.

People who have automobiles have a freedom and independence that is not shared by people who depend on transit. A sound transportation policy should increase auto ownership among low-income people so that almost everyone can share this freedom and independence. If the automobile has negative impacts, control those impacts; don't try to solve the problem by keeping poor people transit dependent.

Responses to Todd Litman's Points

  1. "Many people cannot drive an automobile." No, but not everyone has to drive. 93 percent of U.S. white households own an auto, suggesting that at least 93 percent of all households could have at least one driver in them. As I said in my paper, using mass transit to move 7 percent is a lot easier than using it to move 27 percent.
  2. "Many older vehicles are unreliable." I don't see this as important. I know lots of poor people and have owned old, unreliable cars myself, yet if the car works it will get people across the bridge to safety. Again, use mass transit as a last resort, but transit will work better if it is needed by as few people as possible.
  3. "Autos can't be used in some disaster situations." Of course, but then, neither can buses or trains. The question is what works best in most situations. Even in the worst earthquake, for example, some roads will remain passable.
  4. "Increased auto ownership would exacerbate congestion." Only if we don't build more roads to accommodate those autos. I agree with Litman's implication that poverty is a cure for congestion, but I don't think it is an appropriate one.
  5. "The reduction in hurricane deaths is offset by increased auto deaths." This is a non sequitur. Autos may be useful in a hurricane but they are useful for much more as well. Litman's comparison makes it appear that the only benefit of autos has been hurricane evacuation. The numbers of deaths caused by autos today are very small compared with the amount of work they do. In particular, autos on modern urban freeways may the safest form of ground transportation available.
  6. "Even people who own a car may become non-drivers temporarily." True but the numbers are small -- certainly not the 27 percent of New Orleans households who lacked a car.

My main point, which Litman ignores, is that auto ownership provides huge benefits to the owner, only one of which is a greater ability to escape disaster. Litman claims that giving a car to a poor family can be a curse to that family, but this assumes that poverty is permanent and that no effort should be made to cure it. My suggestion is that helping poor people get cars (and I did not suggest that we give them cars -- I only used that to show how ridiculously expensive the New Orleans streetcars are) will help them get out of poverty. Litman's plans help condemn them to poverty forever.

We do not live in a world where everyone can drive and for that reason I support effective public transit systems. Rail transit is not effective, particularly for low-income people, which is why I am skeptical of it. The point of my article is to oppose those who want to reduce auto ownership rates. They are ignoring the huge costs that this policy would impose on families, both those trying to get out of poverty and those trying to escape a disaster.

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