Debunking the Mass Transit/Katrina Evacuation Myth

CEI’s Iain Murray opines on the myth that more mass transit would have aided New Orleans’ Katrina evacuation:

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 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. . . . . 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.

For more on this, see Adrian’s recent commentary.