Sunday, November 19, 2006

Ummm, what if you don't drive a car?

Entry for Friday, 23 September, 2005

I couldn't help myself today. I googled (is that really a verb?) some people I know or used to know who live in Texas to see if they lived anywhere near where Rita is supposed to hit. One person that I know from AIPAC (America Israel Political Affairs Committee - if I remember soon I'll write about the conference in DC this past spring. We had a great time.) and another person I used to know whom I somehow had in my mind that lived near Houston, but it turned out to be Dallas. In case you're wondering, there doesn't seem to be any danger.

What prompted this was an article my husband brought home from work. This article discusses a topic that we discuss frequently at home - careless urban planning - except with a rather nasty twist. The article is entitled "No Exit From the Danger Zone" and details a problem that we had wondered about but no one has been reporting - that emergency disaster plans, including our town's, have no provision whatsoever for people who don't own cars. The emergency instructions issued for us, and most if not all other places, say things like "put a spare set of car keys in your emergency pack" and "make sure your tank is at least half full at all times" and "be sure an have blankets, kitty litter, and distilled or purified water in your car." Apparently it hasn't crossed emergency management's mind that many people, especially in large cities, simply don't own a personal private vehicle.

This article actually admits that places such as New York City are actually "unevacuable" for exactly this reason. Subways and commuter rails that run on electricity are not likely to be operative in a serious disaster, for obvious reasons. Buses are simply stuck in the same traffic quagmire that cars endure - as was gruesomely evidenced today near Dallas when a bus load of elderly people exploded while sitting stuck in an endless line of crawling cars. Trying to walk out of a major disaster is the only option left for many people - and as New Orleans demonstrated is not even moderately practical. New Orlean's mayor, from what I have heard, turned down an offer from rail companies to help ferry people away. And of course, we all saw the photographs of buses sitting there unused in their parking lot - with water up to their rooftops. No one even considered using them to evacuate people who didn't have their own transportation. By the time anyone realized 77, 462 households in New Orleans didn't own cars (that's about 200,000 people), it was way too late to do anything for them.

Houston, apparently, is a city that actively promotes mass transit and has even more car-less households that New Orleans. The interstates that were turned into giant parking lots were a sad picture (especially since I'm pretty sure emergency management guidelines call for the lanes of highways to be reversed as soon as an evacuation emergency is declared, which apparently wasn't done until much later) but no one was talking about trains at all. A train car can hold about many more people than a bus, and can travel a great deal faster.

But don't hold your breath. Miami-Dade county, for example, says in their guidelines that "public transportation may be provided" for those who lack cars. May be provided. Think about it, class. But beware - it's way too easy to claim it is economic triage. Many people who can actually afford a car choose not to have on in large cities with good mass transit systems. Instead think of it as another symptom of the same disease that has, ironically, caused the exact opposite problem - sprawl. The same mentality that has caused countless neighborhoods wherein people couldn't get to food or medicine or work without a car if their lives depended on it has spawned city evacuation plans that presume everybody has a car. After all, both divisions of government, planning and emergency management, usually work closely together. They get their degrees from neighboring university departments and generally share the same professors in "urban planning" - the ones who, by and large, destroyed medium and small downtowns and created endless suburbs to keep people from living in the large ones. It shouldn't be any surprise that their view of evacuating urban areas is a tad myopic.

Well, it's about sundown here, and I have to go. Hope you have an enjoyable Shabbat.

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