Fifty years ago, the late Rosa Parks refused to give
up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama bus, catalyzing history-making
Imagine, however, if Rosa Parks had lived in New Orleans
in September 2005 and was trying to escape from the gathering clouds
of Hurricane Katrina. Would she have jumped in her car? Would she
have bought a train ticket? It is likely she wouldn't have found
any bus seat. Would she have survived?
In light of Hurricane Katrina, millions of Americans
were forced to make such nerve-racking calculations. And their
transportation options, unfortunately, depended on race. Those with
cars largely escaped. But African-American and Latino households
are much less likely than white families to own a car, leaving us
with those indelible images of people of color crying out from the
A great deal of attention in the last two decades
has been focused on the "digital divide," the concern
that unequal access to new forms of technology such as the Internet
are leaving people behind based on their class and race. But Hurricane
Katrina exposed the "internal combustion engine" divide,
the alarming disparity in car ownership that literally was the difference
between life and death for many Gulf Coast residents.
A recent report on racial disparities in car ownership
reveals that one in four Black households (24 percent) and one in
six Latino households (17 percent) does not own a car. This is
compared to one in fourteen white households (7 percent) who are
car-less. In the eleven coastal counties with the highest incidence
and future risk of hurricanes, people without cars are disproportionately
people of color. These include counties in Houston, Providence,
New Orleans, Tampa, New York City and Miami. In Orleans Parish
New Orleans, for example, over 35 percent of African-Americans,
26 percent of Native Americans, and 27 percent of Latinos don't
own a car, compared to 15 percent of whites.
Emergency planning for Katrina and other preparedness
efforts is heavily focused on traffic management for those who have
cars. There are also some publicly funded emergency evacuation
plans for people in institutions such as hospitals, nursing homes
and mental health facilities. But there is inadequate planning
for those who simply don't own cars. New Orleans had only one-quarter
of the number of buses required to evacuate all its car-less residents.
Beyond being able to save one's life, owning a car
is often a stepping-stone toward job security and prosperity. Unfortunately,
the invisible "engine" divide also influences a person's
ability to find and retain a decent job. Without a car, many jobs
are unreachable, and many small business ideas are unachievable.
A growing number of jobs are located outside of urban centers on
freeway beltways and in suburban communities, areas with weak or
nonexistent public transportation.
The challenge for many people of color is not only
owning a car, but having a dependable car. A twenty-year old car
used for short city trips is not a dependable vehicle for a hundred-mile
journey to higher ground or a 30 minute daily commute to a job
in the suburbs. People of color tend to own cheaper and less dependable
cars. Contrary to the stereotype of the Cadillac owning African
American, at no time since 1992 has the median car value for people
of color been even half as high as the value of cars owned by white
Access to a vehicle is also essential for meeting
the basic necessities of life, such as obtaining medical care or
buying groceries, especially in rural areas. A recent national
study by the Children's Health Fund found that lack of transportation
was a leading factor in children missing doctor's appointments.
Eleven percent of African-American families and 21 percent of Latino
families missed out on medical care because of transportation issues,
compared to only 2 percent of white families.
Dependence on car ownership takes a big bite out of
a family budget. Americans now spend 38 percent more on transportation
than Europeans. For example, Detroit spends twice as much as Toronto
on its roads and Toronto spent eight times more than Detroit on
public transit. As a result, Detroit "motor city" residents
spent more than twice as much as their Toronto counterparts on transportation,
including the cost of car ownership and insurance, repairs and gas.
The "engine" divide is rooted in two larger
problems: the bias toward the private automobile in transportation
planning and our nation's larger racial wealth gap. Over the last
planning and suburban sprawl have "hard-wired" our dependence
on automobiles. Federal and state governments have consistently
shifted resources away from public transportation and toward highway
construction. Only 20 percent of gas tax revenue goes toward public
transport while 80 percent goes to building and maintaining highways.
Public transportation policies in many cities have failed to catch-up
with the changing demographics of where jobs are located, increasing
the advantages of car ownership.
But the "engine" divide is part of the larger
racial wealth divide. Between 2001 and 2004, the median net worth
of white families increased about 6 percent after inflation to $136,000,
while the black median wealth remained unchanged at $20,000, according
to the Federal Reserve. This racial wealth gap is the legacy of
several centuries of public policies and private corporate practices
that have encouraged white wealth ownership and disadvantaged wealth-building
by people of color.
In our zeal to promote an "ownership society"
with broadened wealth and assets for low-income people, policy-makers
have neglected the transportation piece of the puzzle. We need
to recognize how access to dependable transportation is a fundamental
step on the road to wealth-building. Owning a home in a new affordable
suburban community that has inadequate public transportation further
isolates families that don’t own private cars.
For ecological and quality-of-life reasons, the answer
is not necessarily to expand private automobile ownership. The
cost of private car ownership is prohibitive for many low-income
families. A growing number of communities already suffer from massive
traffic congestion and many car users suffer from longer and longer
daily commutes. More cars won't solve these problems.
Instead, communities need to focus on dependable public
transportation systems and job creation closer to transportation
hubs. A number of cities are encouraging business and job development
closer to subway lines and rapid bus routes. For example, the District
of Columbia has encouraged economic development on leased land near
Metro stations that includes mixed-use retail and light industrial
plants. This opens up jobs to car-less workers who have the option
to walk, bike, bus or train to jobs, reducing traffic congestion
and improving the overall quality of life.
People of color bear an unfair share of the risks
resulting from public policies that are biased toward car ownership.
Given the present bias in our emergency planning, car ownership
is a matter of life and death. But not owning a car also stalls
out many people of color on the road to prosperity, closing the
highway to jobs that require private transportation.
These problems are solvable, but we must first see
the invisible divides that exist around us. Hurricane Katrina not
only dramatically revealed the grotesque racial and class divisions
in our country, but also pointed to some obvious causes, such as
our car dependent economy. An inclusive and dependable public transportation
system should be at the top of the list.
Meizhu Lui is
the Executive Director of United for a Fair Economy and the co-author
the new report, "Stalling the Dream: Cars, Race
and Hurricane Evacuation," available at www.faireconomy.org.