New Orleans transit and evacuation issuesTom Kirkendall has a post (building on a Randal O'Toole bulletin) on how the transit-dependent, rather than the "automobile-dependent", are the ones that got left behind in New Orleans. Certainly, wider car ownership could have gotten more people out, although I would be very skeptical of any government program that funnels money from transit into car purchasing or subsidization programs. The core function of transit is to provide "transportation of last resort" to those who either can't afford a car or are unable to operate one (handicapped, too young, too old, whatever) - and providing a car to every poor family does nothing for the second group. But car-enabling the poor also wouldn't be a congestion/gridlock disaster as one person commented on Tom's site. In a metro of 1.3 million, there are certainly many hundreds of thousands of cars. An additional 26,000 for the households O'Toole describes would not materially impact congestion in the city.
Disasters do seem to be a fair argument for buses over rail, because buses can be rapidly re-adapted to evacuation uses and rail cannot. From what I have read, between school and transit buses, New Orleans and Louisiana had the resources and the time to evacuate its poor population if it had chosen to do so. Why didn't they? My guess would be a couple reasons. The first was they had nowhere to take these many tens of thousands of people. And even if they did, odds where high (at least in their mind) that everything would turn out ok, as it has dozens of times before, so why go to all the trouble to transport that many people when you'd just have to bring them right back in a couple days? Much easier to simply warehouse them in the SuperDome and the convention center until the danger passes, then release them back to their homes. It was really the most politically expedient solution. And honestly, it actually could have worked out ok if they had pre-positioned all the city's buses (school and transit) in the highest-ground parking garages near downtown, and then immediately brought them into action when they realized the city needed evacuating. Enough of the city stayed high-and-dry to allow buses to get to both of those shelter locations and get out of town. Combine that with a robust bus-canvassing of low-lying neighborhoods in the two days before the storm to bring those people into the downtown shelters, and thousands of lives could have been saved.
So, IMHO, New Orleans' failure was on the planning and pre-storm action side, not their transit investments. The street car lines are modest, relatively low-cost and are very functional for New Orleans' tourism industry. Disaster planning should be a factor in transportation planning, but not the dominant one. For example, Houston has chronic street flooding, but that doesn't lead me to advocate an outrageously expensive elevated monorail system cris-crossing the city.
The truth of the matter is that the deaths in New Orleans were a very preventable tragedy (without much cost), which makes them all the more sad.