Lack of Automobility Key to New Orleans Tragedy

The real cause of the tragedy in New Orleans was the lack of automobiles for evacuees, argues Randall O'Toole.

"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 ... people who got out were those with automobiles. 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. But in the end, it was auto ownership, not race, that made the difference between safety and disaster."

Thanks to Randal O'Toole

Full Story: Lack of Automobility Key to New Orleans Tragedy



Randal O'Toole - Blinded by Ideology

From O’Toole’s past writings it would seem that he’s contradicting himself here. As someone who has consistently argued for buses over any form of rail when it comes to public transportation, it seems that now he’s arguing that public transportation itself is the problem. Ironically the solution he proposes is a form of “automobile socialism” in which the City of New Orleans would’ve focused on “helping autoless low-income families achieve mobility” by outright purchasing used-automobiles for them.

To pay for this automobile utopia he disingenuously states a figure of $6,000, roughly the amount spent per each disadvantaged family on streetcar service over the last 20 years, as being adequate enough to purchase the mobility for each of them. Of course this is only true if you ignore the direct costs of automobile ownership that these individuals would had to bear – gas, insurance, maintenance, state taxes and perhaps the most significant – depreciation – as $6,000 used cars are not going to last 20 years, 7 - 10 is probably much more realistic, with maintenance costs becoming even more of a concern as these vehicles approach the end of their design life (a point that that Paul Weyrich of the conservative Free Congress Foundation has hammered O'Toole, Cox, et al repeatedly about in the past).

This isn’t even accounting the additional costs that everyone in the City of New Orleans would have to pay for such as increased expenditures for additional road capacity, parking, and emergency road services, or the various externalities that such a policy would produce such as declining air quality and a diminishment of the very quality of life that attracts tourists to the region, which is the arguably economic lifeblood of the city itself.

Other questions remain. What about the people that flew there business or vacation and didn’t have a private automobile at their fingertips? I imagine that many of them were stranded because they were unable to rent a car or secure a flight reservation in the brief 48 hour pre-hurricane evacuation period. Should we also buy cars for them??
If anything this is an admission of the weakness of a single modal transportation – one essentially based around road transport. Indeed O’Toole ignores how ineffective buses were at evacuating those who were left behind. Considering that the buses started pouring in Tuesday afternoon and it wasn’t until 5 days later most of the city was evacuated. And that was with the substantial help of air rescues by the Coast Guard and Air National Guard.

From what I’ve read in the news the buses were only able to accommodate from 35 – 40 people per bus. Assuming there were 150,000 left behind unable to leave prior to Katrina’s, which is a rather conservative estimate, that means close to 4,000 bus trips would’ve been necessary in order to fully evacuate such a large number of people out of harm’s way. Obviously the logistics of marshalling so many buses in the 48 hours prior to Katrina’s arrival meant that such a task would be extremely difficult or impossible. And this isn’t even considering how they would impact traffic congestion on the pre-existing evacuation routes. Air was never a particularly viable option to begin with. Most of the airlines ended their service from New Orleans at noon on the day before Katrina arrived, out of concern for both the safety of their passengers and their financial investment in the planes themselves.

Yes private automobiles played an important role in getting people out, but it was not an adequate solution for those who either could not afford to drive, could not drive, or simply didn’t have access to a car at the time (i.e. tourists and business travelers). In this particular situation a strong national rail system could’ve potentially evacuated most of those who fall into this category, especially when you consider that a typical, fully loaded passenger train can carry between 800 and 1,000 passengers. With a well designed passenger terminal comparable to Grand Central Station or what most European cities have it's not hard to see how they could’ve easily evacuated several thousand people per hour. Instead we have Amtrak, a pathetic excuse for rail transportation with 3rd World levels of funding whose only service to New Orleans is the occasional trans-continental trip (and even sporadic trips are in jeopardy). Obviously Amtrak wasn’t up to the task and the only other alternative that I heard someone mention on a New Orleans blog – piling people into freight cars – well let’s not even go there.

To me the real problem is that Randal O’Toole is unwilling to admit that putting all of your eggs in one basket is never a good idea. That and the sheer hypocrisy of an avowed free marketer/libertarian giving his support a rather unorthodox form of socialism only because it clearly supports his anti-urban, anti-social agenda. Both are just further proof of how blinded by ideology Mr. O’Toole really is.

-Matt Lyons

Hard to know where to begin

Wow, so much bad faith and, one suspects, outright lies, in one article that it is hard to know where to begin.

"...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." "

Yeah, do you think someone really said that? They objected specifically to the POOR having cars? I don't believe it.

Or how about this?

"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."

We're always dependent on the competence of those around us... our fellow drivers to stay in their lanes, the people who prepare food in restaurants to wash their hands, government officials to prepare and implement basic disaster plans.

Oh never mind, this kind of nonesense isn't worth paying attention to.

It's just another class warrior attempting to destroy society.


This is sick

To blame the New Orleans disaster on the lack of automobiles is absurd. It was a major hurricane combined with an accumulation of government incompetence and ideological denial.

Mr. O'Toole's continued efforts to promote automobiles and highways as the cure for all that ails us has reached a new low.

Bill Barker, AICP

Sprawl, not being carless at fault...

Looks like much of the flooded area was single-family home neighborhoods, the least damaged area was uptown towers. Perhaps sprawl can similarly be argued as the reason the evacuation failed and the damage so catastrophic. Huh Randall, huh?

No!!!! Conclusions are misguided.

The statement that "the poor in New Orleans - those who were left stranded - would have been better off if they all had access to cars" is true. There's no denying it. HOWEVER, as the fragility of our dependence upon tight energy supplies becomes more and more apparent to average people as they spend $70 to fill up their SUV gas tanks, it should be clear that none of this means that we should be putting ever more cars on the road. Whatver intellectually dishonest statistics O'Toole likes to throw out there, he simply does not understand that _these people without cars suffered because there was absolutely no viable alternative for them._ No passenger rail network to quickly ferry tens of thousands out of the city quickly. No fleet of hundreds of city buses shuttling people to higher ground. No plans for the hundreds of thousands without cars. Nothing except routes to drive out of town.

This catastrophe has shown that we underinvest in our nation's infrastructure at our peril. Had there been adequate infrastructure and planning, we simply would not have seen such destruction, both human and physical. O'Toole's tired complaints about planning and transit are wrong - in this case, dead wrong.

Worst. Article. Ever.

Why is an article like this even posted to this site? This is simply a shameless way to promote one man's personal agenda - nothing more. His conclusions sound like headlines in the Onion:

Smart Growth: The New Killer in America

4 Out of 5 Rail Advocates Agree: "We Can't Let Poor People Have Cars"

And I love how the only projects he picks on are transit projects. Because no money has been spent on useless highway projects in the New Orleans area since 1985. And of course he fails to mention that tourism (for which the streetcar lines were built) was the biggest money maker in New Orleans, one of the only industries that provided any revenue at all to those poor people rail advocates despise.

Don't get me wrong, public transit failed the people of New Orleans and this is something that must be examined and fixed. But this is an indictment of the elected officials and transit providers who were somehow not prepared for a disaster many have been predicting for years. This is NOT an indictment of transit as a whole however, and to do so misses the point entirely and is actually remarkably reckless and callous.

One more article by a car fanatic

One of the worst articles posted in the aftermath of Katrina. It is true there was governmental failure at different levels to address the needs of the car-less in New Orleans, but the solution to that is not giving an automobile to every one of them, the solution is to have an emergency plan in place. Knowing that a category 5 hurricane would be devastating to the region as such, it should have been imperative to have such a plan.

There are lots of bigger cities, inclusive of New York City which carry potential risks of being hit by a high category hurricane, but to counter that the government has evacuation and emergency plans. Their solution is not suggest that every family has a car. A well thought out and planned emergency management can seriously reduce the threat to human life and property losses. Daily life is not about emergency management and hence that cannot be allowed as something on which to build an urban fabric and create a pervasive auto centric society which the author suggests.

Think of 8 million people living in the New York City and a total of about 21 million in the whole metropolitan area. In the case of emergency evacuation would have to be by mass transit and not by cars.

The key to avoid such mistakes is having a plan in place, and not as the author suggests – don’t plan and let every one have an automobile.

One of the worst articles I have seen in a long long time.

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