Car-less in the Eye of Katrina

September 6, 2005, 5:00 AM PDT

By John Renne

The reason so many lives are in jeopardy from Hurricane Katrina is a result of our extreme dependence on cars and the lack of planning for public transportation, both for regular use and for emergencies, writes John Renne, a professor at the University of New Orleans, evacuated just days before the hurricane hit.

Photo: John RenneMass chaos. A storm of biblical proportions. Hell on earth. These are just a few accounts used by the media to describe the scene in the hours and days after Hurricane Katrina. As I write this, I am refugee in Texas just days after the storm. There are approximately 100,000 people stranded in New Orleans hoping for transport out of the City. An important question not discussed by the media is why so many people were left behind? The reason so many lives are in jeopardy is a result of our extreme dependence on cars and the lack of planning for public transportation, both for regular use and for emergencies.

A brief background about my short experience in Nawlins

My wife and I moved to New Orleans on August 10, 2005. I was hired by the College of Urban and Public Affairs to help launch a new program in transportation studies at the University of New Orleans (UNO). Upon finding an apartment in the Lower Garden District, I navigated the public transportation system for the first two weeks of my job traveling about one hour in each direction to and from work - a journey that only takes about 20 minutes by car. The actual travel time only takes about 30 minutes on transit but each day I would spend up to 35 minutes in each direction waiting for a transfer, which was only supposed to take about 10 minutes.

It was clear very quickly that most middle class locals have long abandoned the transit system in the Big Easy. I should note that last year the Regional Transit Authority (RTA) expanded its streetcar line down Canal Street. This is a positive step forward but only a small band-aid in attempting to revive a transit system mostly used by tourists and those with little or no choice.

The poorest in New Orleans rely on the transit system for their travel needs. According to the US Census, in 2000, an astonishing 27 percent of households did not own a vehicle. Not surprisingly, 27 percent of households in New Orleans are also below the poverty line. This translates to approximately 120,000 residents that have little choice in their travel plans outside of walking, cycling, or using public transport. One would assume that a city in danger of hurricanes would have a plan to evacuate the poorest third of its residents by using buses and trains. Over the past year, there has been a massive effort to educate the citizenry about the contra-flow highway lanes. The threat of hurricanes in New Orleans is not new, but to the best of my knowledge, no plans were ever created to evacuate residents who do not have access to cars.

A mass exodus

On Saturday morning the phone rang - the big one is coming. Being carless (but with means to rent a car), I called around to find a rental, and sure enough several companies were already sold out. We were lucky and found a car, but many were not so fortunate. Most carless residents in New Orleans could not have afforded a rental car even if one had been available. Despite taking 5 hours to drive to Baton Rouge, the contra-flow highway evacuation plan worked well. Everyone fortunate enough to have a car was able to leave.

During the long ride out, we listened to several local radio stations. I was astonished that no information was available to evacuate people without access to a car. I even called a radio station and asked the DJ why no information was being given for those without cars. A few minutes later, the station announced that all residents without the ability to leave must go to the Superdome for shelter - this was their plan for the carless.

Sunday came and still there was no announcement to evacuate residents without cars - the Superdome was still the only answer. Around noon on Sunday, I called the local ABC news station to ask if there was anything that they could do to pressure the governor and mayor to use public transportation to evacuate those without cars. The news station told me that Amtrak had stopped service on Saturday and the mayor had just announced that some buses would transport residents out of the City. In my view, this was a little too late.

It is my understanding that RTA has the capacity on its buses to evacuate approximately 25,000 people per day. Had a plan been in place, they might have been able to transport 50,000 or more people out of the City before the storm hit. Had a good plan been in place, school buses and trains could have probably evacuated the majority of the 100,000 or so tourists and residents now stranded in the City.

My intent of this story is not to point fingers at the RTA or the City of New Orleans. Over the next several weeks and months we will do a lot of learning about how to minimize the damage of future disasters which unfortunately are inevitable. Part of this learning should include mandatory evacuation plans for all major cities that take into account the use of public transportation to efficiently evacuate those with and without cars.

America needs to take public transportation seriously, not only when things are going smoothly, but also for evacuation from natural disasters and terrorist attacks. Public transit was essential in saving lives as well as the economy of New York during and after September 11th. It could have helped save lives New Orleans but because we never took it seriously, 100,000 people are in jeopardy today.

When we rebuild New Orleans, we need to create a transit system that not only serves the poor but everyone. This system needs to efficiently move people around the City and in the case of another hurricane, it should be an integral part of an evacuation strategy. I think all cities could benefit from the learning that will take place in New Orleans. After all, have you ever asked if your transit agency has a plan to evacuate the carless in your city?

John L. Renne is an Assistant Professor and Associate Director or the Maritime and Intermodal Transportation Center at the College of Urban and Public Affairs at the University of New Orleans. He also teaches the Planetizen course, PLAN-215: Sustainable Urban Development, Smart Growth, and Transit Oriented Development

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