Lack Of Automobility Key To New Orleans Tragedy

Randall O’Toole of the Thoreau Institute, in his Vanishing Automobile Update #55, raises some intriguing questions about the disaster in New Orleans. Here are some excerpts:

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. …

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. …

About 26,000 low-income families in New Orleans don’t own a car. If all the money spent on New Orleans streetcars from 1985 to the present had been spent instead on helping autoless low-income families achieve mobility, the city would have had more than $6,000 for each such family, enough to buy good used cars for all of them. Add the money the city wanted to spend on the Desire Street streetcar and you have enough to buy a brand-new car for every single autoless low-income family — not a Lexus or BMW, certainly, but a functional source of transportation that would have allowed them to escape the current disaster. …

While I don’t think that buying low-income families brand-new cars is the best use of our limited transportation resources, it would produce far greater benefits than building rail transit. Studies have found that unskilled workers who have a car are much more likely to have a job and will earn far more than workers who must depend on transit. That is why numerous social service agencies have begun programs aimed at helping low-income families acquire their first car or maintain an existing one. …

Some thought provoking, out-of-the-box thinking commentary.

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  1. Actually, I have a study somewhere in my kit that says exactly that: the best way to provide mobility and improve the economic status of poor inner city residents is not more mass transit but simply providing them with a car.

    I suppose it could even be a ZipCar. However, I imagine there might be a problem with that plan in the case of an evacuation: everyone would want their ZipCar at the same time….

  2. Phil, check out Bassizzzt’s post:

    The buck stops here, err… I meant to say, the bus stops here.

    ~ the blue dog

  3. Though perhaps less offensive than the ____-bashing partisanship that sprouted after the disaster, this is still objectionable.

    There’s nothing wrong with urging car-ownership as an economic incentive. Using an ongoing tragedy is uncalled for, and as the ‘blue dog’ pointed out (one of them) there’s clear reasons why the evacuation didn’t happen.

    Nor does the math work out in reality: Under your scenario half the cars would be at least 15 years old, some as much as 30 years old. Encumbering a low-income family with the money-pit of a dilapidated jalopy won’t enable them to achieve mobility.

  4. John Alexander Golden Avatar
    John Alexander Golden

    I agree with the last part of that, subpatre. While it’s an interesting scenario, you’d have to take a lot more into account than just the cost of the car: think about gas, oil changes, maintenance (which, one could assume, would be higher since they would be older, used cars).

    I do like the idea of assisting low-income familes in such a purchase, however. There are a lot of jobs you can get away with mass transit, but some industries need the added mobility of owning your own car, or a family car…

    Still, interesting scenario. At least someone’s thinking outside of the box on this one…

  5. Interesting thoughts. My only concern with this is car insurance. In many cases, a car can cost $500 and the insurance can cost that much per year.
    If we start giving people cars that can’t afford them, we will have roads that are even more crowded, and many more uninsured drivers.
    We do need to evaluate this idea and see if there is a way to eleviate(sp) the problem.

  6. A very thought provoking post. Which lends itself to another idea, how about mopeds? They would serve the idea of transportation at a much lower cost, and would have the added benifit of reduced fuel expense.

  7. E M Risse Avatar

    I agree with “subparte.”

    It is at least “offensive” if not worse for O’Tool to try to justify his unsustainable reliance on autonomobility under the current facts.

    Sat AM I heard a detailed report of a man and his family from Metairie (with two cars) stranded in a hotel in Memphis. He did everything he was advised to do (got his aged father from a nursing home, etc.) but now what?

    There are so many things wrong with O’Tools “idea” … How many of those jalopies would make it to high ground…What sort of expressway capacity would be needed if everyone tried to go one place at one time … or get gas at one time … See our note on the myth of “roads for evacuation” in the WHAT YOU CAN DO ABOUT KATRINA posting…

    If we are going to build urban complexes … a sine qua non of contemporary civilization … these agglomerations must be defensable against wind, water, fire and earth. (Mother Nature or human terrorism.)

    Our Tuesday column documents that that was possible even for New Orleans if the 1973 Strategy had been followed.

    Private automobiles may have a role for the forseeable future but like horses, they are not the answer to mobility and access for functional human settlement patterns.


  8. In the Dominican Republic I saw a fellow going down the street with two pigs supended by straps; one on on each side of his moped. I asked him how he kept the pigs so docile.

    “They drunk”, he said.

    On another ocassion I saw a sixteen foot section of wrought iron fence going down the street, supended between two mopeds, like a hook and ladder truck.

    One problem with Mopeds is that, like a lot of small engines, they pollute like crazy.

    You can do a lot with vehicles much smaller than the average American car, and there is no reason why they have to cost nearly as much as they do, either, except for the many luxuries, and absolutely insane horsepower most people desire. Surely there is a market for a modern, inexpensive, model T.

    The high cost of car insurance in urban areas is one thing that drives people out.

    The study I mentioned above was published prior to Katrina, so it is hard to see that it is objectionable, in that sense.

    EMR warns us in another post not to sign up for the “Roads for Evacuation” myth. A few people may have been evacuated, or more likely merely rescued by helicopter, which is the most expensive means of transport ever developed, aside from the space shuttle. A few more may have been evacuated by airplane. But, as far as I can tell almost everyone else left by road.

    Perhaps EMR can explain to us what mythological method of transport could have done a better job at less cost? I know Amtrak goes to New Orleans, but there aren’t enough rail cars in the nation to handle that mess, and anyway, you still have to get to the station. Trains are really dangerous in flood situations: VRE routinely reduces speed on its trips after a heavy rain.

    I don’t see anything wrong with older cars: I routinely run mine more than ten years. Right now I have a truck 25, a truck 23, and a truck 15, and one 12. If vehicles had a deposit associated with them, and if we demanded that vehicle be built so they can be repaired, we would have a lot fewer junkyards, and the price for older, but serviceable, vehicles would be much lower.

  9. If we are going to make all of our cities defensible against wind, water, fire, and earth, and if we are going to harden the electricity distribution and transmission grid, and if we are going to provide for some sort of shared vehicle system for everyone who needs to go most anywhere, then it is going to take a lot of money.

    We knew new Orleans was indefensible. If nothing else it is evidence that we are not willing to raise taxes sufficiently to prevent disaster. In fact, the scenario that occurred was specifically considered, as were aerial attacks of the kind that ocurred in New York. The kind of expenditures that it would take to prevent such things were considered and rejected.

    Since we are not willing to raise enough taxes to prevent disaster, how can we hope to ever raise taxes enough to create Utopia?

    On Saturday morning the TV has shows on how to care for your garden. All these shows have one thing in common: it would take a staff of ten to actually carry out all these suggestions. In my life I have to put most of the suggestions in the same category as 80% of my wife’s honeydo list: WIBNI.

    WIBNIes are Wouldn’t It Be Nice If’s, but in my world most of them will never get to the top of the list where the money and time is.

    We can sit around Saturday morning and make plans for every possibility, but we only have money and time for a few. A perfectly planned society based on principles of functional patterns of human settlement is a lovely idea if you are willing to accept the elimination of most forms of self determination in the name of the public good, but in the meantime we don’t have the money or the time to pursue any but the most productive ideas: the 1973 strategy is already 32 years old, after all, and we are still waiting.

    Automobiles may not be the answer, but they are the best answer we have got.

  10. Anonymous Avatar

    It’s like a Roger Rabbit nightmare in which the big auto interests manipulate the people and politicians into believing that we needed an auto-dependant society in order to be safe (rather than in order to line the pockets of Standard Oil, Firestone, etc.–which ended up being the case in real life.)

    (By the way, as we all know, the movie was not totally fiction. Those comapanies were charged with some pretty serious antitrust violations.)

    Selling more cars is not the answer to poverty, but it is the answer to increasing Ford’s profits.

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