Analyses of the failure of all levels of government to prevent and then effectively manage the Katrina calamity in New Orleans have missed the point. Rather than blame bias towards poor people and African Americans, the deeper cultural explanation results from over fifty years of suburban sprawl dominating land development and home building. The sprawl culture has bred automobile apartheid: first class citizens are in motor vehicles; second class Americans are pedestrians, bicyclists, and transit passengers who certainly include poor people, but also millions of middle class Americans. When emergency plans and government officials running preparedness and response activities largely ignore the plight of second class citizens no one should be surprised.
The answer is not that more people should have and depend on automobiles as some right-wing pro-sprawl and pro-car activists have claimed. After all, the number of vehicles already exceeds the number of licensed drivers and excessive car use produces our petroleum dependency that threatens our economy. Be clear. Automobile apartheid means that anyone who wants mobility through walking, bicycling or public transportation suffers discrimination by a built environment and government structure designed for automobiles. In the past 20 years, when sprawl has run rampant, the number of trips people take by walking has decreased by more than 42 percent. Walking to school has also decreased by a similar amount. And, yes, overweight and obesity have climbed as automobile addiction has increased.
Personal freedom and independence should mean more than the ability to go where and when one wants. Americans should also have the freedom to travel how they want. When cars are the only option and people are car slaves, freedom is diminished. As Americans drive more miles to do just about everything, and spend more time stuck in traffic congestion, especially on weekends, they lose precious time, personal energy, and money. And after the New Orleans fiasco, now they must worry about becoming stranded in some kind of natural disaster or act of terrorism.
Even in normal times, government has largely ignored public safety for second class citizens. In the past 25 years some 175,000 pedestrians have been killed on America's roadways. Though Americans make less than 5 percent of their trips on foot, 12 percent of all traffic fatalities are pedestrians, and some 60 percent of those deaths occur in places where no crosswalk is available. Though few students walk to school, in 1999 nearly 900 children ages 14 and under were killed and 25,000 injured in pedestrian accidents with vehicles. Each year about 175 children are killed by vehicles in between school and home. There is also bad news at the other end of the age spectrum. The highest rate of pedestrian fatalities is for Americans age 70 and over.
Sprawl-intense Sunbelt areas are the most dangerous for pedestrians. Atlanta's pedestrian fatality rate increased 13 percent from 1994 to 1998, and the 1998 rate was over twice that in Portland, Oregon, New York City, and Philadelphia. Automobile apartheid also has a social justice dimension. The Atlanta rate was 4 per 100,000 for African-Americans, 10 for Hispanics and less than 2 for Caucasians.
While the New Orleans illustration of automobile apartheid stands out, government officials have long behaved badly. The traffic studies chief of Prince George's County, Maryland once said: "The street should be strictly for cars." New York City's Department of Transportation deactivated 77 percent of the pedestrian walk push buttons at intersections and left the signs telling pedestrians to use them. For 25 years cars whizzed by hapless pedestrians waiting for a useless walk button to stop traffic. In early 2003 Georgia's Department of Transportation disclosed it was against having trees between sidewalks and streets, because sidewalks are "auto recovery zones." The Commissioner said: "the protection of intermittent foot traffic should not come at the expense of a motorist's life." Apparently, air bags and seat belts are not good enough for first class citizens.
Though we know how to build streets that are safer for pedestrians through traffic calming techniques, most governments spend a paltry sum on this compared to road maintenance and expansion. Consider that a five-year study in Oakland, California found that children living within one block of a speed hump are 50 to 60 percent less likely to be injured by a car as compared to children whose streets lacked humps. Oakland installed 1,600 speed humps and child pedestrian deaths and injuries dropped 15 percent from 1995 to 2003. Reducing vehicle speeds is nearly always a low priority compared to moving traffic. Yet the probability of a pedestrian being killed when a vehicle is traveling at 15 mph is 3.5 percent, which jumps to 37 percent if the car speed increases to just 31 mph, and to 83 percent at 44 mph. For sure, if streets are to serve people, then car speeds must be reliably reduced.
One Katrina lesson for American society is that it is time to acknowledge the sprawl culture and its automobile apartheid. Long before the recent spike in gasoline prices, millions of Americans have abandoned sprawl living in their search for less automobile dependency; they have sought homes near transit stations, closer to work, and in pedestrian-friendly communities. Now we need government to stop all the subsidies and biases for automobiles and fairly serve all citizens. More focus on public transit is needed. The Victoria Transport Policy Institute analyzed rail transit in the U.S. and found that the total national subsidy was offset by more than four times higher economic benefits -- $12.5 billion versus over $53 billion. In Portland, Oregon, 75 percent of light rail riders said they could drive but choose transit. In Salt Lake City, 45 percent of light rail riders were new to public transit; in Denver it was 39 percent.
Americans are smarter than their elected representatives. A 2004 national survey by Associated Press found that 51 percent of respondents believed that the higher priority for government spending is expanding public transportation, versus 46 percent for building more roads. In the congested Atlanta region, a survey found that 61 percent think that the long-term solution for traffic congestion is expanding mass transit and creating communities that allow for shorter trips, compared to just 22 percent supporting new road building. Let those Americans who stick to heavy vehicle use deal with traffic congestion and high costs, and let others have an opportunity to slash their automobile addiction.
Joel S. Hirschhorn is the author of "Sprawl Kills – How Blandburbs Steal Your Time, Health and Money," and was formerly Director of Environment, Energy and Natural Resources at the National Governors Association.
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