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Lack of Automobility Key to New Orleans Tragedy

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  • C. Kenneth Orski
    Commentary on the following posting (Eric Britton) This in today from my long time friend and colleague Ken Orski of Urban Mobility Corp and publisher of
    Message 1 of 1 , Sep 4, 2005
      Commentary on the following posting (Eric Britton)

      This in today from my long time friend and colleague Ken Orski of Urban Mobility Corp and publisher of Innovation Briefs. My immediate reaction was to spare the group what struck me as a particularly low-grade intrusion on your busy day with a piece that I saw as block headed and indeed almost ghastly in its opportunism approach to a legitimate matter of risk management and public responsibility on the one hand and land use (and with it of course transportation) patterns, policies and decisions on the other. In a phrase: not good enough.

      But after a conversation with John Adams this morning in which he made the point that maybe this could generate in fact something more useful (not hard.. oops I am not supposed to say things like that), here you have it and good luck. But before I turn over the state to this bit of cognitive dissonance, let me recall that one of the precepts of all this in our context: (quoting the Kyoto Challenge project)

      Then there is the matter of "cognitive dissonance" as a learning device, an old favorite of ours here at The Commons. The idea is to create a purposeful, rich imbalance of views and positions within a shared forum (this program replete with its great variety of actors and attitudes), and then let them rip. The first consequence is usually (if you get it right) to remove "comfort zones", which occur when people tend to adopt thoughts or beliefs so as to minimize the amount of dissonance (conflict) between cognitions (people present).

      The second point that perhaps it might also recall is our position on the “Tone of the exchanges: Informed, exploratory, caring, disputatious, and respectful (even when it hurts):

      Now on to how . . . “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.”

      From: "Randal O'Toole" <rot@...>

      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 the article in the Times makes clear, the people who got out were
      those with automobiles (http://tinyurl.com/adgjx). 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 (see
      http://tinyurl.com/bpw4z). 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

      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

      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
      * In the late 1980s and 1990s, New Orleans spent at least $15
      million converting an abandoned rail line into the 1.5-mile
      Riverfront Streetcar line.
      * In 2004, New Orleans opened the 3.6-mile Canal Street streetcar
      line at a cost of nearly $150 million.
      * New Orleans was planning to spend another $120 million on a Desire
      Street streetcar line.

      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 its own analysis of the Desire line showing that each new
      rider on this line would cost taxpayers more than $20 (see table 7.2
      on page 8 of http://tinyurl.com/9cnc2).

      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 (see, for example, http://tinyurl.com/dlqq4). 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 (see http://tinyurl.com/b75nc).

      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 (see http://ti.org/vaupdate53.html).

      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.
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