Lack of Cars Creates Problems for Many in New Orleans

Debate over race, government failures should include cars and mass transit

One of the many shocking things about Hurricane Katrina the tragedy in New Orleans is how many people did not evacuate the most effected areas before the storm hit. There has been some interesting commentary on how long-term policies might have shaped events. Shreveport Times columnist Emily Metzgar wrote in the Los Angeles Times that the victims of the tragedy were already victims of a failure of policy to lift them out of poverty. But Robert Tracinski, editor and publisher of The Intellectual Activist, offers almost the opposite analysis, pointing out how welfare policies create the conditions and attitudes that should make the post-disaster chaos no surprise.

But the most interesting analysis I have seen yet is by Randal O’Toole, who points out that is wasn’t race or wealth (per se) that indicates who evacuated before the storm, it is who did and did not own a car. He examines how decades of policy decision designed to make the residents of New Orleans more dependent on transit doomed them to face the floods. Here is the full text:

Vanishing Automobile Update #55
Sept. 4, 2005
Lack of Automobility Key to New Orleans Tragedy
By Randal O’Toole
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.
“The white people got out,” declared the New York Times today. But, as the article in the Times makes clear, the people who got out were those with automobiles ( ). Those who stayed, regardless of color, were those who lacked autos.
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. There are significant differences by race: 35 percent of black households but only 15 percent of white households do not own an auto (see But in the end, it was auto ownership, not race, that made the difference between safety and disaster.
“The evacuation plan was really based on people driving out,” an LSU professor told the Times. On Saturday and Sunday, August 27 and 28, when it appeared likely that Hurricane Katrina would strike New Orleans, those people who could simply got in their cars and drove away. The people who didn’t have cars were left behind.
Critics of autos love the term “auto dependent.” But Katrina proved that the automobile is a liberator. It is those who don’t own autos who are dependent — dependent on the competence of government officials, dependent on charity, dependent on complex and sometimes uncaring institutions.
As shown in the table below, the number of people killed by hurricanes in the U.S. steadily declined during the twentieth century. Economists commonly attribute such declines to increasing wealth. Wealth differences are also credited with the large number of disaster-related deaths in developing nations vs. developed nations. But what makes wealthier societies less vulnerable to natural disaster? There are several factors, but the most important is mobility.
Number of Deaths Caused by Hurricanes in the U.S.
1900-1919 10,000
1920-1939 3,751
1940-1959 1,119
1960-1979 453
1980-1999 57
Source: Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory. Number for 1900-1919 is estimated as the exact death toll from 1900 Galveston hurricane is unknown.
People with access to autos can leave an area before it is flooded or hit with hurricanes, tornados, or other storms. When earthquakes or storms strike too suddenly to allow prior evacuation, people with autos can move away from areas that lack food, safe water, or other essentials.
Numerous commentators have legitimately criticized the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other government agencies for failing to foresee the need for evacuation, failing to secure enough buses or other means of evacuation, and failing to get those buses to people who needed evacuation. But people who owned autos didn’t need to rely on the competence of government planners to be safe from Katrina and flooding. They were able to save themselves by driving away. Most apparently found refuge with friends or in hotels many miles from the devastation. Meanwhile, those who didn’t have autos were forced into high-density, crime-ridden refugee camps such as the Superdome and New Orleans Convention Center.
Rather than help low-income people achieve greater mobility, New Orleans transportation planners decided years ago that their highest priority was to provide heavily subsidized streetcar rides for tourists.
* In the late 1980s and 1990s, New Orleans spent at least $15 million converting an abandoned rail line into the 1.5-mile Riverfront Streetcar line. * In 2004, New Orleans opened the 3.6-mile Canal Street streetcar line at a cost of nearly $150 million. * New Orleans was planning to spend another $120 million on a Desire Street streetcar line.
These tourist lines do nothing to help any local residents except for those who happen to own property along the line. The city was not deterred by its own analysis of the Desire line showing that each new rider on this line would cost taxpayers more than $20 (see table 7.2 on page 8 of
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 (see, for example, 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 (see
Yet when I point out the comparative benefits of providing mobility to low-income people vs. building rail transit lines to suburban areas that already enjoy a high degree of mobility, rail advocates often respond, “We can’t let poor people have cars. It would cause too much congestion.” Yes, as the Soviet Union discovered, poverty is one way to prevent congestion (see
New Orleans is in many ways a model for smart growth: high densities, low rates of auto ownership, investments in rail transit. This proved to be its downfall. While the city was vulnerable from being built below sea level, many cities above sea level have proven equally vulnerable to storms and flooding. In the end, New Orleans’ people suffered primarily because so many lived without autos, thus making them overly dependent on the competence of government planners.
Randal O’Toole is director of The Thoreau Institute.

Adrian Moore, Ph. D., is vice president of research at Reason Foundation.