At first I resisted commenting on the article since it only would perhaps only
give credence to the argument being put forward. However, it is probably
worth countering such assertions before they are taken seriously by members of
the mainstream media. Thus, below I put forward a few preliminary comments.
The Randy O'Toole paper makes two principal assertions:
1. People died in New Orleans because they did not own a car
2. Public transport provides poor return on investment in comparison to
private motorised vehicles
With regard to the first assertion, there are various reasons why people did
not leave New Orleans prior to the hurricane. The lack of a car may be one
reason, but I would not assume it to necessarily be the paramount explanation.
First, many people may have assumed that everything would be alright and the
storm would pass. Hurricanes are common in the area, and at times warnings do
not necessarily translate into a direct hit. From the images of submerged
vehicles, it would seem that some people who owned cars did not leave as well.
One of the more celebrated rescues was that of the recording artist Fats
Domino. Undoubtedly, the resources of Mr. Domino were sufficient to leave by
any number of means. And yet, he remained behind.
Second, people may not have left because they feared their home and belongings
would be burgled. Thus, some people likely stayed behind to protect their
Third, some people simply do not like moving and will not leave the place they
love. As of today, over 10,000 people are reportedly still in the city.
There are now means to leave for all. But many are absolutely refusing to
leave despite the lack of fresh water, food, electricity, and the threat of
Fourth, many of the poor may not have had anywhere to go. It is not just the
access to a car or jet that separated the mobility of the rich from the poor.
While the wealthier could afford weeks in the upstate Holiday Inn, others
likely could not. The prospect of leaving the city without resources to have
shelter at an unknown destination would likely be off-putting to travel.
Fifth, having more private vehicles in New Orleans would make evacuation more
difficult, not easier. A single lane of roadway can move perhaps 6,000
persons per hour out of the city when private vehicles are used. A convoy of
buses can move over 40,000 persons per hour per lane. Add in rail and you can
really start moving serious numbers. Private cars make for a relatively
inefficient mechanism for mass mobility. Anyone who has ever departed from a
sporting event in a car from a crowded stadium can attest to the resulting
delay and gridlock. Multiply that by an order of magnitude and you have an
idea of what happens during mass evacuations. There are in fact reports of
people leaving New Orleans by bicycle who passed the grid-locked cars on the
The article notes that the decline in hurricane deaths has mirrored the rise
of private vehicle ownership in the US. However, one should not assume a
causal link between the two. Hurricane deaths may be declining for many
reasons, including better forecasting of extreme weather events and superior
construction standards for homes and buildings.
The second assertion in the article suggests that buying the poor cars would
be a better investment than public transport. The analysis is based on
leaving out most of the pertinent costs related to vehicle ownership and
operation. However, just for argument sake, one can assume that the costs of
air emissions, noise, climate change, congestion, accidents, severance, energy
security, petrol, insurance, etc. is zero. Even with this assumption, the
analysis ignores the scale advantages to public transport, the relative
lifetimes of vehicles, and the cost of supporting infrastructure for private
vehicles. A rail vehicle may cost approximately US$ 2 million versus the US$
6,000 for the good used car noted in the article. However, the rail vehicle
will have a life of approximately 30 years while the used car may go for
another 5 or so. The rail vehicle will carry 200 or more passengers compared
to the 1-4 in a private car. Further, much of the cost of public transport is
not in the vehicles but the infrastructure and the same could be said of the
private vehicles. The roadways and parking facilities for private vehicles
should also be part of this equation.
There is also a fair amount of irony to the idea of encouraging more vehicle
usage to combat extreme weather events. While any linkage between hurricane
activity and climate change is not fully proven, increased hurricane strength
and frequency is consistent with existing climate models. Instead of focussing
on how to drive away from the problem, it would perhaps be more fruitful to
figure out how to avoid such tragedies in the first place.
P.S. The article reminds of a quote from Mohatma Ghandi: "First they ignore
you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win." Perhaps the
article is indicative that car-free ideas are moving from being ignored to
being ridiculed. This could be progress.