I do not drive in the South…And here’s why.
Editor's note: The following piece first appeared on the ViaNolaVie blog, which covers life and culture in New Orleans. Fellow Frances Roberts-Gregory is a climate justice educator, feminist graduate researcher and environmental consultant who lives, works and plays in New Orleans. When not occasionally teaching environmental studies at Tulane University or Bard Early College New Orleans (BECNO), she engages youth around flooding and stormwater management for the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice. She ultimately hopes to increase the representation of women of color and youth in climate policy spaces locally and internationally once she files her dissertation and becomes the first in her family to graduate with a doctoral degree.
I must confess: I do not drive or own a car. I love to travel. And I live and teach in the oh so Dirty South.
What?! You don’t drive???? Why? These questions normally follow my somewhat embarrassing admission of guilt, usually after I explain to friends or colleagues that I need assistance with traveling to community meetings and would like to carpool. The Deep South is known for its’ car dependency. In fact, I would argue that there is nothing stranger than seeing an adult in the South who intentionally does not drive a car. Especially in Louisiana. For one, Louisiana lacks a comprehensive intercity public transportation system that connects rural and urban parishes, so a car, Greyhound/Mega bus ticket, or bae with a car is necessary for anyone who wants to travel throughout the state. A car is also necessary when we consider the reality of unnatural disasters in coastal Louisiana and the need to evacuate quickly to higher ground. During Hurricane Katrina, many low-income individuals were unable to leave the city of New Orleans and died because they did not have access to a car or sufficient funds to leave. A car is similarly extremely helpful for a researcher like me who travels across Southeast Louisiana to talk to women about their experiences living on the frontlines of fossil fuel and petrochemical industries. Many small Louisiana towns and parishes are only accessible by car. Then there is the reality that many jobs require a car due to a disconnect between routes and major employers. Truthfully, a car in the American South represents freedom, prosperity, modernity and even the right of passage to adulthood.
Thus, my car-less lifestyle is truthfully puzzling and alarming to loving friends and family who worry about my safety and sanity (cough, cough- my mother). My family is from rural North Carolina where the nearest Walmart and Piggly Wiggly is at least a 20-30-minute drive. Yet, as the title of this article suggests, I do have my reasons. I am an environmental, energy and climate justice scholar-activist who currently resides in New Orleans. This means that I have devoted my life to spreading awareness of how we should switch to renewable sources of energy, promote climate change awareness and fight corporate entities that pollute our soil, air, water, food and homes. I am also a working-class Black woman finishing up my doctoral research at the University of California, Berkeley, where I study how Gulf Coast women of color resist environmental racism and imagine fossil fuel free(-ish) futures. Ironically enough, my current home New Orleans ranks as a great walkable city for car-less folk and bike lovers due to its’ flat landscape and small size. I also grew up in East Coast cities such as Arlington, Virginia and Newark, New Jersey where there are ample options for public transportation and a car is not required to travel across state lines or conduct business as an environmental professional. I became an adult in cities like Oakland, Atlanta and New York where it is very easy to enjoy life without a personal vehicle. In fact, going car-less is a trend in many of the metropolitan cities I call home.
Unsurprisingly, I am also a lover of cheap and affordable train and budget airline tickets (shout-out to Spirit Airlines!) which allow me to travel across the United States and thus far explore cities in Europe, the Caribbean, and Africa. Although I am concerned about the United States’ dependence on what we call a dinosaur economy, my work and research require me to fly a lot, so I do not have the lowest carbon footprint. Furthermore, I love to explore new geographies and I cherish my independence as a solo traveler. I benefit from the production of fossil fuels while I actively work to dismantle the extractive systems the contribute to widespread species extinction and rampant human rights abuses i.e. the climate crisis aka looming earth apocalypse. I even have friends and acquaintances who work in these extractive industries because they are the primary employers in the state of Louisiana. Talk about stewing in contradictions!
This tension between fossil fuel dependence and resistance consequently inspires the conceptual framing of my ongoing dissertation research and forces me to think critically about “practicing what I preach”. Although I recognize that there is no one-size-fit-all solution when it comes to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, I try when I can to fight the Goliath known as the energy and petrochemical industries through my personal and political choices. I walk or take the streetcar/bus whenever I can using the RTA app. I bike when it is not over 100 degrees and humid AF in the city. I lyft or uber when I’m running late, and I also carpool with local environmentalists from organizations such as 350 New Orleans, the New Orleans People’s Assembly or the Gulf Coast Center for Law and Policy. I’ve rode buses sponsored by Justice & Beyond, the Alliance for Affordable Energy or the Louisiana Bucket Brigade when heading to public meetings in Baton Rouge to support net metering or marches in Death Alley (formerly known as Cancer Alley) to bring awareness to the disproportionate siting of industrial facilities like a Formosa plastic plant in rural Black communities. I telecommute to work and use social media and phone applications to conduct interviews for my climate justice research. I’ve made it a point to get to know my neighbors and build solid relationships with friends so I can hitch rides out of town whenever there is a threat of a hurricane. I’ve even signed up with Evacuteer to support city-assisted evacuation. I’m all about mutual aid and community safety nets which have a long history in social justice and anarchist circles, as well as Black, Brown and Indigenous communities.
Most importantly, I’ve circumvented the crisis of repeatedly losing a car during the frequent rainstorms and associated street flooding that impact the city of New Orleans. Anyone who lives in New Orleans knows that the city has one of the highest rates of car insurance in the United States and that it is highly likely that you will damage or lose your car as a result of street flooding and potholes. In fact, the city often suspends parking restrictions on elevated neutral grounds and sidewalks during rainstorms. This, however, does not protect my countless neighbors in mid-city, treme, the marigny or the 9th ward who have lost their cars in sudden, unexpected street flooding. This also does not do much for a community organizer from Donaldsonville I know who was forced to have his car towed across parish lines after some metal sticking out of a pothole near Tulane University scraped off the bottom of his car. A colleague at the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice jokingly mused one day to me that it would be better for me to buy a kayak than a car considering all the hazards associated with car ownership. Even The Big Easy Magazine has published satirical articles on the need for blue kayaks to replace the blue bikes (that to some serve as a symbol of ongoing climate displacement and gentrification) in order to survive the frequent floods.
I’ve ultimately concluded that a car is a gamble for someone like me who has limited funds and cannot recover from the loss of said investment when the pipes become clogged and the pumps fail to handle the more frequent and intense rains associated with a changing climate and rising seas. Potholes and street flooding in neighborhoods that formerly did not flood are the new norm for a bowl-shaped city located below sea level. The city is sinking as a result of both the pumping of water out of the city into Lake Pontchartrain by Sewerage & Water Board and decades of infrastructural and drainage mismanagement. I can’t afford, emotionally or financially, to lose a car in a street flood. My frustration threshold has already been breached by the periodic Entergy power outages and boil water advisories I experience as a New Orleans resident. It’s just tew much.
I’m also adverse to owning a car because of the impact of oil and gas on frontline communities of color. The NAACP’s Environmental and Climate Justice Program promotes transportation justice and advocates for a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and an increase in efficient, clean energy. Their 2017 Fumes across the Fence-Line report discusses the impact of air pollutants from oil and gas industries such as methane on health outcomes in African American communities. According to the report, “The life-threatening burdens placed on communities of color near oil and gas facilities are the result of systemic oppression perpetuated by the traditional energy industry, which exposes communities to health, economic, and social hazards. Communities impacted by oil and gas facility operations remain affected due to energy companies’ heavy polluting, low wages for dangerous work, and government lobbying against local interests.” Other EJ scholars like Robert Bullard bemoan the connection between transportation racism, social inequality and disaster. After Hurricane Katrina, the restoration of streetcars in tourist areas were prioritized over local bus lines that primarily service low income residents and communities of color. Race and transit have always been connected in American history.
For these reasons and more, I currently carpool and use alternative modes of transportation. Yet, this also creates new vulnerabilities and inconveniences for me when prices surge on ride sharing apps on rainy days and during festival season. I remember the day I left my classroom at Tulane and was dismayed to learn that not only was the campus flooding, forcing me to walk through high water, but ride share app prices were surging. My normally $15 ride from Tulane to the 9th ward was closer to $40. Most working class or low-income families would not be able to afford that price and would be stranded or be forced to wait until prices went down to travel. Still, it’s cheaper and less emotionally trying for me buy a monthly RTA pass ($55) and use ride sharing apps than to buy a car with insurance and other fees. I am just forced to work on my time management because it often takes over an hour and half to travel across the city using public transportation.
Perhaps not everyone can relate to my conclusion. For some individuals, life without a car is completely unimaginable. This is my choice now, in 2019, as a single working-class woman without the added pressure of having to hurriedly take kids or ageing relatives to doctor’s appointments using public transportation. Yet, according to the Climate Action for a Resilient New Orleans report “Most of our local travel is in cars, often driving alone, which adds significantly to our greenhouse gas and particulate air pollution.” We must address our cultural aversion to carpooling and bus riding if we are to prepare for fossil free(-ish) futures. To be clear, I’m not advocating that everyone abandons their cars because I don’t think we should solely burden individuals with responsibilities that ultimately lie with corporate entities that overwhelmingly contribute the most to greenhouse gas emissions. But I can’t help but recognize that a car symbolizes America’s addiction to fossil fuels, individuality and consumption like no other technological innovation. The reliability of cheap fuels is not promised, and the climate crisis will force many of us to take up strange behaviors and radically adapt to emerging realities. And as indigenous scholars remind us, this is not the first, nor last apocalypse- apocalypse is ongoing and we are post-apocalyptic. If nothing else, we should advocate for greater funding to be put towards regional transits systems to address social inequality and connect low income families to jobs, groceries and good schools.
Many spiritual traditions and philosophers reflect on how change is the only constant in life and visionary author Octavia Butler reminds us that God is change. In my evolving Afrofuturist ecological worldview, it’s probably better to practice carpooling and figure out mutual aid systems now, while its still voluntary, then to wait and be forced to resort to car-less(–ish) futures. For me, this approach is a part of my strategy to equip myself emotionally for inevitable future changes. This approach is also a part of my strategy to build deeper connections with my neighbors and colleagues so that I might survive the breakdown of systems and governance. Despite what the techno-enthusiasts and engineers might have you believe about the viability of carbon capture and geoengineering technologies, I think it’s much safer to bet on community ties when it comes to emergency management and disaster preparedness. Techno-fixes won’t save us from climate change or social inequality. As I see it, when we ride together, we inevitably share with one another, comfort one another and live more harmoniously together. I’d rather be in a car with my fam than in a car by my lonesome. Besides, I learn so much as a budding anthropologist about human behavior, community values and local politics by walking, riding the bus and gossiping with my lyft/uber drivers.