Counting on Cars: A Disaster in the Making

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 of people."

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 go."

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.

© Jack Edwards/New Orleans CVB

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 evacuation.

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?

JIM MOTAVALLI is editor of E.


Smart Growth America

Thoreau Institute

Were the Buses?

World Car-Free Day