Sic Transit Maria Landrieu

Sic Transit Maria Landrieu

Murray Op-Ed in Tech Central Station
October 05, 2005

When Sen. Mary Landrieu (D.-La.) appeared on Fox News Sunday on September 11, she blamed the fact that so many people were left behind in <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags" />New Orleans on the administration's transportation policies: "In other words, this administration did not believe in mass transit. They won't even get people to work on a sunny day, let alone getting them out." This characterization displays a profound ignorance of the realities of urban transportation. Mass transit would not have helped; only increased automobility would have.<?xml:namespace prefix = u2 /><?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office" />

 

To be fair, Landrieu's statement does contain one important truth: transit is about getting people to (and from) work. Yet that important function does not coincide in any way with getting people from their homes to outside the city. A mass transit system is about carrying large numbers of people from certain congregation points within the city and its suburbs to areas of employment. For example, on the London Underground, the outer London station of Sudbury Hill sees 1500 people enter it every morning on their way to work, while Bank station, in the heart of the City of London, sees 38,000 people exit from the station to get to their places of employment. It should be obvious that the system is built to concentrate people into the center of the city and then disperse them from it.

 

This is a completely different job from concentrating people from their dwelling places and then moving them out of a city. For that, rather than transit, you would need a heavy rail system with large numbers of trains. Amtrak did have one train in the area leaving New Orleans during the evacuation that could, according to spokesman Cliff Black, have taken several hundred, but it is immediately obvious from that statement that over a hundred trips would have been needed to evacuate everyone by that route. It should also be noted that it takes an Amtrak train roughly one hour to go the 30 miles or so from New Orleans to Slidell, La., on the other side of Lake Pontchartrain. Amtrak was clearly not a practical evacuation option either.

 

So the solution to evacuation problems does not lie in rail transit. Buses are a potential answer. The city of New Orleans owns 364 buses, which at capacity could ferry around 22,000 people out of the city. Five trips could have taken everyone out of the danger zone. Yet there is still the concentration problem. The buses would need to have driven round on special routes collecting people, but there is no guarantee that people would have turned up to the designated collection points at the right time. The buses could certainly have been used to ferry people away from the Superdome and the Convention Center, but there is no guarantee that they would have significantly reduced the number of people who stayed in their homes.

 

The problem with all the transit suggestions for evacuation is their inflexibility. They require people to have reached certain destinations at certain times. The need to retain capacity for humans means officials take a stern line on pets taking up space, which discourages many from taking up the option. And there is the significant question of what to do with the thousands evacuated at the end of the journey. While bus transit can help, it is by no means the solution to complete evacuation.

 

Indeed, by all accounts it seems that there is one factor and one factor alone that was the major determinant in whether people left or stayed: car ownership. One need only compare how successful the Houston evacuation was with the New Orleans evacuation to see that. Among black households alone, 31% of those in the New Orleans area had no access to a vehicle, compared to just 16% in Harris County, where Houston is located (see here for the detailed figures). With much greater car ownership, bus transportation was used to much greater effectiveness.

 

As transportation system expert Randal O'Toole has pointed out, New Orleans, a compact city where no-one needed to drive is now known as a disaster city at least partly because people were unable to drive when they needed to. Transit would not have eased New Orleans' plight.

 

So if we are to think about ways to evacuate cities like New Orleans in the future, we need to consider ways to improve access for poor households to automobility. O'Toole points out that money earmarked for transit schemes could buy cars for the poor, although welfare schemes like that rarely work. Instead, the money could perhaps be split between measures to encourage car ownership among the poor and improving the infrastructure so that Houston-style gridlock becomes less likely. Measures to reduce the cost of car ownership would be central to this strategy.

 

We should also bear in mind that car ownership has been shown to improve economic opportunities among minorities by opening up new employment markets to them. If the nation is serious about righting the social ills exposed by the hurricanes this year, encouraging car ownership would be a very good place to start.