Lack of Automobility Key to New Orleans Tragedy
- 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@...>
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 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
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.
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
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.