In New Orleans, Death was Highest Among People who Lacked Access to Cars. In Baltimore City, the Percentage of Those with Lack-of-Access is Higher than New Orleans’s

November 2005 / Abell Reports / Workforce Development

The barriers to obtaining car insurance, inspection and licensing in Maryland are too high for Baltimore City’s poor. The once-a-century disaster in New Orleans highlights a day-to-day problem in Baltimore: the poor are not only left behind, they are left out.

A searing lesson learned from hurricane Katrina was that thousands of “poor people” could not evacuate New Orleans because they did not own a car, and for these thousands, car ownership was a matter of life or death: if you had a car, or access to one, you escaped; if you didn’t, you very likely were left behind. Margy Waller, a recognized expert in problems of transportation and poverty, writing in the Washington Monthly,
observes, “The difference between those who escaped with their lives and loved ones, and those who did not, often came down to access to a car and enough money for gas.”

For Baltimore City, the disaster forces a painful confrontation with reality: Data show that if a disaster like Katrina had hit Baltimore, there would be a harsh replay of New Orleans. That is because of all American cities, outside of the mass transit-rich New York region, Baltimore is the American city with the highest percentage of people without access to a car.

According to data recently published by the Brookings Institution, 26% of the population of New Orleans have no “auto access,” while in Baltimore, 32% of the population have no auto access. Translated into “people”, in New Orleans 123,084 were stranded; in Baltimore, 205,544 would be candidates for this unhappy category.

The highly visible disaster in New Orleans calls attention to a less-visible day-to-day problem in Baltimore City: widespread lack of car ownership among the poor which not only threatens life, but livelihood–the ability, day by day, to get and hold a job and become a productive citizen. “Left behind in this car culture,” Ms. Waller writes, “are central-city poor residents without cars, who have become increasingly isolated from the American economy.”

Here are the high barriers to more widespread ownership of cars in Baltimore City, and recommendations for lowering them.