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On Jul 16, 2012 01:36PM ET in Environmental Defense
By Seyi Fayanju
When it comes to providing public transportation options for their residents, the cities of the Southern states rank low compared to their peers in other sections of the country, and unfortunately, Louisiana’s largest urban areas are no exception in this regard. Indeed, when the Brookings Institution conducted a survey of public transit provisioning in America’s 100 largest metropolitan areas last year, the researchers found that seven of the worst 10 cities for public transit access were located south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Not one city in the Southeastern United States was ranked in the top 20, and only three – including New Orleans, which ranked 26th – cracked the top 40. Baton Rouge placed a less-than-exemplary 82nd.
But if the middling performance of southern Louisiana’s cities on the public transit survey is any indication, then why (and how) do so many residents of New Orleans, the Bayou State’s largest metro area, live without cars? This paradox is all the more striking when one considers the city’s well-documented history of hurricanes, floods, and mandatory evacuations – instances when having a set of four wheels wouldn’t just be a luxury, but effectively a necessity. In this post, we’ll look at some of the factors behind this situation, and why steps to address transit access could benefit the region’s economy and its emergency preparedness efforts.
Carless by choice?
Looking at car ownership statistics for coastal Louisiana parishes collected by the Census Bureau, one sees the striking variability in car ownership trends within the region, especially when comparing automobile access rates in its densely settled core (e.g.) Orleans Parish, against household car availability in nearby sections of the Mississippi River Delta and the Chenier Plain.
One might believe that it’s a question of wants rather than needs. After all, much of New Orleans was laid out well before the 20th century, and even today, many of the city’s neighborhoods remain pedestrian-friendly. In addition, having a sedan or an SUV might not be a major priority for New Orleanians when there are functioning buses and streetcars available.
In reality, though, the overriding factor behind carlessness isn’t choice; rather, it is financial constraint. The payments associated with maintaining an automobile, periodically filling up its gas tank and keeping it insured, are often too burdensome for the 29,000 Orleans Parish wage earners (equivalent to 22% of the city’s civilian employed population) who take home less than $15,000 per year.
Think about what this means from a broader perspective. The carless – often poor and predominantly members of minority groups – are cut off from job sites in suburban and rural areas that are unreachable by train or bus, limiting their potential ability to participate in restoration projects and other work opportunities far from Louisiana’s urban centers. More significantly, when a major flood or a tropical storm is bears down on the region, and an evacuation order is issued, Louisianans without cars are left stranded, leading to predictably terrible outcomes for those left behind.
Why transport options matter for coastal Louisianans
Where resident automobile access is a serious concern, municipalities and state governments should coordinate evacuation strategies to save lives when disaster strikes. When Hurricane Camille was approaching the Mississippi coast in 1969, thousands of state residents were bused to inland shelters to ride out the storm. Though several dozen Mississippians lost their lives in the disaster, the death toll would probably have been much higher without a preemptive evacuation.
Admittedly, there has been commendable progress on the disaster management front in recent years. In the period following the storms and levee failures of 2005, Louisiana municipalities expanded programs to help those without cars during disasters, and the busing of residents from the New Orleans area ahead of the approach of Hurricane Gustav in 2008 was a dramatic improvement over the planning and execution mistakes that marred evacuation efforts prior to Hurricane Katrina’s landfall three years earlier. Local residents stepped up as well, establishing organizations that have earned plaudits for working with government authorities on disaster management coordination and response. These efforts could be further aided through the use of social media to establish carpooling networks for emergency evacuations. Perhaps a hypothetical service called Community Automobile Response (CAR) could allow local residents to help their neighbors and nearby citizens with a lift to a place of shelter prior to a storm’s arrival.
Even under normal circumstances, more could be done to improve access to buses and other forms of public transit in areas outside of urban centers. For example, given Louisiana’s extensive system of navigable canals and rivers, a system of ferry boats and water taxis could be used to link waterside towns and cities throughout the delta, and existing stretches of rail track used exclusively for freight shipments at present could serve as routes for expanded passenger service between New Orleans and nearby cities like Baton Rouge. Such moves would have the added benefits of broadening the pool of workers for resilience projects in coastal Louisiana and expanding the envelope of tourist attractions for carless tourists visiting the Big Easy.
With the summer storm season upon us once again, it will be important for emergency management officials to think creatively about ways to increase the number of transit options available for those who live without cars in coastal Louisiana. Thoughtful planning and coordination on this front could be a good step towards combating social vulnerability, improving community resilience and generating more employment options for people in coastal Louisiana.