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Re: WorldTransport Forum Lack of Automobility Key to New Orleans Tragedy

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  • Lloyd Wright
    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
    Message 1 of 1 , Sep 6, 2005
      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.

      Best regards,


      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.
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