October 5, 2005
Automobiles, Key to Katrina and Rita Evacuation
The Associated Press reports that close to three million people escaped from the Gulf Coast area, the vast majority of them by automobile, in an "epic evacuation" prior to Hurricane Rita (see http://tinyurl.com/czojd ). Fortunately, few areas of the Gulf Coast are are transit-dependent as New Orleans. While more than 27 percent of the households in New Orleans had no cars, only 17 percent of households in Galveston, for example, are autoless, and autoless rates were much lower in most other areas.
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 (see http://tinyurl.com/b4atw ). To date, only seven other people are known to have died from Rita (see http://tinyurl.com/czojd ).
That's a far cry from the nearly 1,100 people killed by Katrina, the vast majority of them in transit-dependent New Orleans (see http://tinyurl.com/8pr8z ). An Associated Press poll found that most of the people who stayed behind in New Orleans did so, at least in part, because they didn't have a car (see http://tinyurl.com/85p9 ). The remainder stayed behind because they didn't believe the storm would be as bad as it was. In short, if you wanted to evacuate, you could if you had a car. Otherwise, you were probably stuck.
My colleague Michael Cunneen points out a further irony about New Orleans: The city had an opportunity to use federal funds to build an elevated freeway across town. But anti-highway groups successfully stopped this road and New Orleans expanded its streetcar system instead. "For a city under sea level threatened for two centuries by hurricanes," comments Cunneen, "by far the most useful means of transport are elevated roadways such as the one they rejected."
Our friend Todd Littman of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute argues that the solution to New Orleans' woes would have been a better planned and implemented mass-transit evacuation system (see http://www.vtpi.org/katrina.pdf ). In response to my suggestion that increasing auto ownership would have worked even better, Littman stated:
My detailed responses to these points are below. But my main response is simple: Autos worked. Transit didn't.
In fact, transit could NOT have worked in New Orleans due to its extraordinarily low rate of auto ownership. New Orleans' regional transit agency has about 300 buses (see http://tinyurl.com/doclg ). Add another 500 school buses and you have room for about 40,000 people with every seat filled. Yet some 100,000 people in New Orleans alone, and well over 150,000 people from the metropolitan area, were from families that had no automobile. There were simply not enough buses to carry them all.
Autos worked partly because people who owned autos were not dependent on the effectiveness or competence of public officials. I am not going to get into the debate over whether the federal, state, or local government was at fault, though I did find http://tinyurl.com/clc36 to be an interesting point of view. But even if enough buses had been available and public agencies had them all ready to evacuate, 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.
People who have automobiles have a freedom and independence that is not shared by people who depend on transit. A sound transportation policy should increase auto ownership among low-income people so that almost everyone can share this freedom and independence. If the automobile has negative impacts, control those impacts; don't try to solve the problem by keeping poor people transit dependent.-- Randal O'Toole Responses to Todd Littman's Points
My main point, which Littman ignores, is that auto ownership provides huge benefits to the owner, only one of which is a greater ability to escape disaster. Littman claims that giving a car to a poor family can be a curse to that family, but this assumes that poverty is permanent and that no effort should be made to cure it. My suggestion is that helping poor people get cars (and I did not suggest that we give them cars -- I only used that to show how ridiculously expensive the New Orleans streetcars are) will help them get out of poverty. Littman's plans help condemn them to poverty forever.
We do not live in a world where everyone can drive and for that reason I support effective public transit systems. Rail transit is not effective, particularly for low-income people, which is why I am skeptical of it. The point of my article is to oppose those who want to reduce auto ownership rates. They are ignoring the huge costs that this policy would impose on families, both those trying to get out of poverty and those trying to escape a disaster._______________
Randal O'Toole is an economist and the director of the American Dream Coalition, which seeks to solve urban problems without reducing personal freedom. He is also the senior economist with the Thoreau Institute, an environmental policy think tank based in Portland, Oregon. He is the author of The Vanishing Automobile and Other Urban Myths: How Smart Growth Will Harm American Cities. He has taught environmental economics at Yale, the University of California at Berkeley, and Utah State University.