Sunday, September 04, 2005

One Lesson from New Orleans? More Cars for the Urban Poor

Among urban writers, it is fashionable to hate cars. The vehicle is blamed for causing Global Warming, paving the country side and destroying the walking center city. Permit me to say a couple of nice things about the car. The car provides access. Recent research has documented that it can help people access employment. More of New Orleans’ urban poor would have survived the disaster if they had had car access.

EXHIBIT #1: Steve Raphael and Michael Stoll published an intriguing paper for the Brookings Press see

"Our empirical estimates indicate that raising minority car-ownership rates to the white car ownership rate would eliminate 45 percent of the black-white employment rate differential and 17 percent of the comparable Latino-white differential."

How could this be? One causal explanation is that car access increases a person's ability to access jobs and reach them easily each day with a 30 minute or less commute. Public transit is cheap in terms of $ expenditure but is highly time intensive ( see

EXHIBIT #2 From today's New York Times: "Many blacks voiced suspicions that thousands of people were left to suffer and die in the floodwaters because they were, for the most part, poor and black."

Here is a "what if" for you. What if these households had access to a private vehicle? The New York Times quote hints that this group was powerless against Mother Nature. George Bush could not personally escort each individual to safety. An alternative method would have been for car enabled households to have driven themselves to safety.

EXHIBIT #3 If the Urban poor had cars, would there be greater support for public school competition and vouchers a la Milton Friedman? Armed with cars, the urban poor would have greater choice and would gain more from such competition because they could drive their kids further.

Fact: If 13% of Americans live below the poverty line are we really talking about so many new cars that congestion and pollution (the negative externalities associated with cars) would really be exacerbated? My suggestion in this post would improve the poor's quality of life at relatively low cost. I challenge you smart economists to show me the unintended consequences and deadweight loss from this proposal!!