Automobiles, Key to Katrina and Rita Evacuation

Commentary, Urbanization, Randal O'Toole

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 ). 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 ). To date, only seven other people are known to have died from Rita (see ).

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 ). 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 ). 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 ). In response to my suggestion that increasing auto ownership would have worked even better, Littman stated:

    1. Not everyone can drive;
    2. Older autos are unreliable;
    3. Autos can’t be used in some disaster situations;
    4. Increased auto ownership would increase congestion;
    5. Decreased hurricane deaths in the twentieth century due to automobility have been offset by auto fatalities;
    6. Some people who own autos may not be able to drive due to mechanical, medical, or economic conditions.

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 ). 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 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

    1. “Many people cannot drive an automobile.” No, but not everyone has to drive. 93 percent of U.S. white households own an auto, suggesting that at least 93 percent of all households could have at least one driver in them. As I said in my paper, using mass transit to move 7 percent is a lot easier than using it to move 27 percent.
    2. “Many older vehicles are unreliable.” I don’t see this as important. I know lots of poor people and have owned old, unreliable cars myself, yet if the car works it will get people across the bridge to safety. Again, use mass transit as a last resort, but transit will work better if it is needed by as few people as possible.
    3. “Autos can’t be used in some disaster situations.” Of course, but then, neither can buses or trains. The question is what works best in most situations. Even in the worst earthquake, for example, some roads will remain passable.
    4. “Increased auto ownership would exacerbate congestion.” Only if we don’t build more roads to accommodate those autos. I agree with Littman’s implication that poverty is a cure for congestion, but I don’t think it is an appropriate one.
    5. “The reduction in hurricane deaths is offset by increased auto deaths.” This is a non sequitur. Autos may be useful in a hurricane but they are useful for much more as well. Littman’s comparison makes it appear that the only benefit of autos has been hurricane evacuation. The numbers of deaths caused by autos today are very small compared with the amount of work they do. In particular, autos on modern urban freeways may the safest form of ground transportation available.
    6. “Even people who own a car may become non-drivers temporarily.” True but the numbers are small — certainly not the 27 percent of New Orleans households who lacked a car.

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.