RE: [CarFreeCafe] Portland State moving toward green future
- See below an interesting article on Katrina, Rita, cars and transit:
Original article in: http://www.emagazine.com/view/?2899
Carlos F. Pardo
GTZ Sustainable Urban Transport Project (SUTP)
Counting on Cars: A Disaster in the Making
By Jim Motavalli
Thursday, September 22 was celebrated as World Car-Free Day in much of the
civilized world (1,500 events in 40 countries), but there was no joy in the
Washington office of the conservative Competitive Enterprise Institute
(CEI). "Many people may well choose a car-free lifestyle, but the notion
that government should impose it in the name of sustainability is crazy,"
said Sam Kazman, head of CEI's Automobility Project.
Exhibit A for CEI is Hurricane Katrina, which demonstrated that not having
access to a car can be "deadly." Says Kazman, "It was a lack of access to
cars that led tens of thousands of people to remain in New Orleans. Cars,
rather than mass transit, were the key to evacuating hundreds of thousands
CEI took its jab at World Car-Free Day as the event was unfolding around the
globe September 22. Even while the ink was drying on the group's press
release, the great Houston exodus and SUV-based traffic jam occurred.
"Hundreds of thousands of people fleeing Hurricane Rita were stuck in their
cars throughout much of Thursday," according to the Washington Post, "with
many running out of gas and sweltering on roadsides in 100-degree heat as
they waited for authorities to bring them gasoline."
Family of E's Managing Editor gave up fleeing for Arkansas after driving
only 70 miles in 21 hours of sweltering gridlock in Houston. Several gas
stations the family passed were out of fuel, and one attendant explained
that although gas was actually available, trucks could not make it through
jammed roads to make deliveries. The family eventually ended up staying with
friends on the city's north side.
The ironic fact that Lilly Teng, an attorney, works for Chevron didn't help
her find gas to escape from Houston. Fifteen hours after she, her husband
and two small children set out for the home of relatives in Jackson,
Mississippi, they were still in their car near Beaumont, Texas, having
traveled only 90 miles. "We are trying to get out, but there is no way out,
now," she said, as she helped push the stalled vehicle. "This is an
evacuation route. It is not evacuating. We are ready to go, but we can't
Can you imagine what will happen if, as stated in existing nuclear
evacuation plans, the residents of the metropolitan New York area were told
to head for higher ground up I-95 to Vermont and Maine? The road is
hopelessly snarled on normal commuting days.
You might think that CEI would have issued a mea culpa over this turn of
events, but you'd be wrong. The think tank is sticking to its guns. Kazman
told me this week, "Houston illustrates that despite horrendous traffic
jams, huge numbers of people were still able to get out. If disaster had
actually struck in Houston, things would have been a lot worse if there were
as many people without cars as there were in New Orleans."
Kazman says his faith in mass automobile ownership is not shaken by events
in Houston: "It was very messy, but we got more people out than otherwise
would have been the case," he said. Messy, indeed. The Houston death toll
was 30, most of whom (23) were elderly people who perished in the tragic bus
fire along the evacuation route. In other words, they were not killed by the
storm but by the gridlocked "escape" from it.
Aha, says Randal O'Toole, a Thoreau Institute transit critic cited by CEI.
They died in a bus, and buses are public transportation, right? "I don't
consider this decisive, but it certainly isn't a good advertisement for mass
transit," O'Toole says. He writes: "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."
Whoa, wait a minute here! Skipping over the fact that it could just as
easily have been a car that caught fire, making the mass transit connection
weak at best, Rita almost entirely bypassed Houston, so comparing it to the
results from Katrina seems a stretch. The death toll in Houston would have
been only seven if no mass auto-based evacuation had occurred. Looking at
the pictures of stalled vehicles, I saw a sea of SUVs.
It's unclear to me why mass transit couldn't have effected an orderly
evacuation of both Houston and New Orleans, either using trains or buses.
Certainly it was viable in New Orleans, where the Amtrak station is located
downtown near the Superdome. The Washington Post reported, "Amtrak had
decided to run a 'dead-head' train that evening [August 27] to move
equipment out of [New Orleans]. It was headed for high ground in Macomb,
Mississippi, and it had room for several hundred passengers. 'We offered the
city the opportunity to take evacuees out of harm's way,' said Amtrak
spokesperson Cliff Black. 'The city declined.' So the ghost train left New
Orleans at 8:30 p.m., with no passengers on board." But other accounts say
it was FEMA that turned the Amtrak offer down.
New Orleans obviously had hundreds of available school and municipal buses,
most of which simply sat and flooded as Katrina unfolded. The blogs were
full of damning shots of warehoused buses, 146 in one overhead photo alone.
The arguing over this will go on forever, with some claiming the problem was
a lack of drivers, and fingers pointing both at FEMA and Mayor Ray Nagin.
O'Toole thinks it's all cut and dried. He counts 300 municipal buses in New
Orleans, plus 500 school buses. Fill the seats and there's room for 40,000
people. "Yet some 100,000 people in New Orleans alone, and well over 150,000
from the metropolitan area, were from families that had no automobile,"
O'Toole writes. "There were simply not enough buses to carry them all." You
mean to say, Randal, that they couldn't have made two or even three separate
trips? Remember there were days and days after Katrina's danger was known
and before it hit, ample time to plan and run an orderly bus-driven
Again, O'Toole says no, claiming "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." So they had control in
Houston, just because they were in the driver's seats?
None of this is to deny the existence of powerful issues involving race and
transportation. I'm not convinced that lack of automobile ownership is the
key to understanding what happened in New Orleans, but it is obviously a
factor in the city's high poverty rates. A New York Times chart shows that
35 percent of New Orleans' black population lived in poverty, versus only 11
percent of the white population. Most poor whites owned cars, but a majority
of poor blacks did not. "Modest Progress," a study on the relationship
between the black community and access to jobs in the 1990s, showed that
black people who owned cars were as likely to have jobs as whites with cars,
but take away the black-owned cars and there was a "substantial" difference.
"Our empirical estimates indicate that raising minority car-ownership rates
to the white car ownership rate would eliminate 45 percent of the
black-white employment rate differential and 17 percent of the comparable
Latino-white differential," the report said. Likewise, their research showed
that if public transportation allows city residents to travel to job-rich
suburbs, their employment picture improves.
But New Orleans does not have effective mass transportation. As someone who
has ridden on its fabled and historic streetcars, I can say they're quaint
and evocative but no substitute for a city-wide network of modern light
rail. Some 165 years old, the 13-mile-long St. Charles streetcar line moves
through the upscale Garden District at a snail's pace. There are two other
modest lines (1.5 and 3.6 miles) of more modern vintage. Looking for the
Streetcar Named Desire? It was eliminated in the mid-1950s.
O'Toole looks at this and sees not an undernourished transit system, but a
money pit and, as "a model for smart growth," a disastrous example. "If all
the money spent on New Orleans streetcars from 1985 to the present had been
spent instead on helping auto-less low-income families achieve mobility, the
city would have more than $6,000 for each such family, enough to buy good
used cars for all of them," he writes. Having said that, he doesn't think
that buying poor people cars "is the best use of our limited transportation
resources.." More cost effective, perhaps, are the state-sponsored programs
that help poor people afford automobiles (as seen in Wisconsin, Michigan,
Texas, Maryland, New York and others). But conservatives usually oppose this
kind of "handout."
Despite O'Toole's dismissive reference to "smart growth," New Urbanism
actually represents a great solution to increasing mobility for the poor
through transit-oriented development. As Smart Growth America's David
Goldberg writes, "All of a sudden we are all confronting the unstated
assumption that those without cars are not full citizens. Indeed it has
become shockingly plain that the poor and black of New Orleans were social
refugees before they became displaced citizens. Suddenly the fundamental
unfairness of metropolitan arrangements, the social equity issues we have
tried to raise in recent years, are front and center in the national
conversation. If we're lucky and smart, at least some regions around the
country will be taking a close look at the cruel isolation of their own
poor, disadvantaged enclaves."
It's not just about cars, it's about mobility. "Among barriers to work,
participants consistently identify transportation as a significant problem,"
says a survey entitled "The Effects of Car Access on Employment Outcomes for
Welfare Recipients" by two University of Tennessee professors. They don't
necessarily need cars if transit is there to take its place, but obviously
owning an automobile helps. One problem I had with Barbara Ehrenreich's
Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America is that when she went into
the belly of the underclass beast she kept her car, an option not available
to many of the working poor.
Sam Kazman still believes that what happened in Houston, while chaotic,
represents a system that works. "Having access to a car that will take you
where you want to go when you want to go is a crucial thing," he says. "Even
if the evacuation routes become jammed up, if you have enough patience and a
little bit of luck, you will make it. It's better than people relying on
government-sponsored mass transit."
Personally, I wished we'd learned other lessons from World Car-Free Day.
Anyone who's been to Europe has seen the pedestrian-oriented central plazas
and efficient transit systems that make it almost unthinkable (not to
mention hugely expensive) to own a car. If, say, Amsterdam, Holland
(protected by a billion-dollar dike update of the type President Bush
short-changed in New Orleans, but never mind) had been similarly threatened,
who could doubt that it would have been safely evacuated?
[Non-text portions of this message have been removed]