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Originally published Wednesday, September 14, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Guest columnist

Mobility counted most in fleeing New Orleans

People will be debating the causes of the New Orleans tragedy for years to come. But one thing is already abundantly clear: For individual...

Special to The Times

People will be debating the causes of the New Orleans tragedy for years to come. But one thing is already abundantly clear: For individual New Orleanians, automobility made the difference between safety and disaster.

"The white people got out," an article in The New York Times declared shortly after Hurricane Katrina hit. But that isn't quite true. White families with cars got out, as did black families with cars. Families without cars, white and black, for the most part did not.

Over the past century, the number of deaths due to natural disasters such as hurricanes, tornadoes, floods and fires has steadily declined from as many as 12,000 in a 1900 hurricane to a few dozen per year up until this year. This decline is largely due to the increased mobility provided by the automobile.

People with cars can leave before a storm hits. When earthquakes or other unpredictable events take place, people with cars can move away from areas that lack food, safe water or other essentials.

What made New Orleans vulnerable was that a third of its households do not own an automobile. This compares with just 10 percent of households in the rest of the nation. When 90 percent of people can evacuate themselves, coordination of the remaining 10 percent is far easier than if public officials have to help 33 percent move.

Automobiles provide many benefits other than just emergency services. Numerous studies show, for example, that low-income people are far more likely to have a job, to earn more and to get out of poverty if they own an auto than if they must rely on public transit. Many anti-poverty groups today are working to help low-income families buy their first car.

Rather than help its low-income residents achieve greater automobility, New Orleans transportation planners decided years ago that their highest priority was to provide heavily subsidized streetcar rides for tourists. Planners rejected the idea of building an elevated freeway through the city that would have helped people escape no matter how deep the flood waters.

Instead, they spent around $160 million building five miles of tourist-oriented streetcar lines and were planning to spend another $120 million on another line. That money would have been enough to buy a brand-new car for every low-income family in New Orleans that didn't own a car.

While that might not have been the best use of the region's transportation funds, it would have produced far more benefits than the streetcars — not to mention helped save the day after Hurricane Katrina.

When I suggest these ideas to some of my friends, they are outraged. What about community and cooperation, they say? But community is achieved by helping our neighbors, not by being dependent for transport on a government agency that may just leave the buses to be flooded in a parking lot.

Buses are so much more efficient than cars, my friends add, that people should use them to escape a disaster instead of driving. But buses are too uncertain. Are they going where you need to go? Will they take your pets and belongings? Will one be around to take you back when you are ready to go home?

Because no one wants to be dependent on the whims of other people's rules and schedules, many carless New Orleanians who had an opportunity to take a bus preferred to stay.

Personally, I would rather bicycle or take the train anywhere than drive. But we can't let personal preferences or ideology get in the way of the basic facts: Most New Orleanians with autos were able to escape, while most without autos were not.

What does this mean for Seattle? Many Seattle residents dream of building a New Orleans-like city with high densities with low rates of auto ownership. This will only make Seattleites more vulnerable to our own forms of natural disasters.

Longtime residents know that Seattle can be hit by windstorms and floods, not to mention the Northwest's own peculiar brand of disaster: volcanoes. When — not if — Mount Rainier blows up, if the winds happen to be from the southeast, a monorail to West Seattle is not going to do you much good.

Randal O'Toole is the director of the American Dream Coalition (www.americandreamcoalition.org) and author of "The Vanishing Automobile and Other Urban Myths." E-mail him at The Thoreau Institute in Bandon, Ore., at rot@ti.org

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