Never Again Is Now: The Transportation Professions’ Responsibility to Work Toward Justice
Highways have often been over my shoulder in life. I grew up an asthmatic child, with my grandparents, near the Garden State Parkway in New Jersey. During summers, my father and I would take road trips to visit our family in Chicago, ending a few blocks off of the Kennedy Expressway (I-90), where my aunt, uncle, and grandmother lived in a two-family bungalow.
Today, my home is in the city of Beacon, New York, less than a mile from I-84. My front steps are quiet, but as I walk north on my block, traffic noise gradually fills my hearing. I moved into this house less than a year before writing this chapter, but it already holds cherished memories—none more so than bringing home my newborn son and growing with him.
Highways are alongside all of these meaningful places. It is easy, and awful, to imagine the road swallowing them up. The number of people who have experienced such dislocation staggers. Rebecca Retzlaff and Jocelyn Zanzot estimate that nearly 300,000 people were displaced by highway construction in just three cities in the mid-20th century. The Los Angeles Times found that 200,000 people have lost their homes to highway projects since 1990. The U.S. Department of Transportation has estimated that a million people were displaced by interstate construction between 1957 and 1977.
The distortion of the history of the interstates brings to mind a question frequently raised in politics: Which is worse, the crime or the cover-up?
Planning, engineering, and transportation professionals must address both. We have to tell the truth about the interstates, redress the harms done to people and neighborhoods, and seek accountability for the injustices of the past. We must recognize that our failure to grapple with the racist harms associated with highway construction has left us with laws and political structures that doom the U.S. to replicate them.
How Practice Should Change
Simply put, many interstate segments were built where they were because planners, engineers, and politicians did not value the neighborhoods they passed through or the people who lived there. This devaluation was the root cause of both highway routing decisions and a broader lack of investment in the highway corridor communities.
It’s not just that the interstates blighted Black and Latino neighborhoods and communities where poor people lived. It’s also that decision-makers, at least initially, did not care to help the people displaced, build affordable housing nearby, or improve streetscapes for the residents who remained. Early highway routing decisions created path dependence. Highways have been widened and widened again, subjecting neighborhoods to waves of destruction and displacement.
Today’s highway engineers are more willing to include mitigation. For example, Texas Department of Transportation engineers planning to widen I-45 in Houston—the latest project to befall Clayton Homes and Kelly Village, two of the city’s largest public housing developments—tout a new approach, including $27 million for affordable housing, separated bike lanes on local streets, and additional noise walls.
These community benefit agreements should be part of any project that asks geographically concentrated groups of people to sacrifice for the greater good. But we know enough about the legacy of interstates to question the extent to which future expansions of it further any greater good. The interstate system is functionally complete; several economists have concluded that further expansion largely moves economic activity from one place to another rather than increasing productivity. Further expansion imperils our ability to meet the climate crisis. In fact, if a significant portion of the bipartisan infrastructure law goes to highway expansion, the net effect of the law will be increased greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Georgetown Climate Center. And it’s difficult to imagine community benefits sufficient to mitigate the public health harms inflicted on highway-side communities, including asthma, cardiovascular morbidity, dementia, and traffic crashes.
There are many alternatives to expanding highways and disrupting the same communities again and again. The flexibility of federal transportation programs already gives states the power to reconnect neighborhoods. Over the last decade, for example, New York State’s Department of Transportation has reduced the footprint of highways in the Bronx, Niagara Falls, and Rochester, and is currently studying removal of interstate segments in Buffalo and Syracuse.
Most U.S. metropolitan areas lack effective public transit, such as frequent local bus service and networks of rail and bus rapid transit that serve regional trips. Cities including Denver, Austin, and Nashville have identified billions of dollars’ worth of needed sidewalks. Congestion pricing (tolls) and transportation demand management (working with employers and major institutions to incentivize trips by non-car modes) are proven methods of diverting traffic from highways. Large highway projects are frequently described as “transformational,” but the transformational actions we most need in the U.S. transportation system are those that end the scarcity of public transit, bikeways, and safe pedestrian routes.
These investments do have impacts. Building high-capacity transit or tearing down a highway brings noise and construction disruption. Neighborhood improvements can increase real estate value, leading to displacement of residents and businesses. When Black communities wounded by highway construction are “revitalized” as neighborhoods where Black people are unwelcome, this is not justice but the cynicism-inducing churn of racialized capitalism.
The Rondo neighborhood in St. Paul, Minnesota, offers a useful precedent for how human infrastructure can accompany hard infrastructure. In the 2010s, the construction of the Green Line light rail came with investments in affordable housing and public art. Local foundations worked with community organizations and lenders to provide forgivable loans and marketing and sales assistance to neighborhood businesses. Anywhere neighborhood-changing investments are made, governments should enact policies to keep tenants in their homes and preserve and create affordable housing. At the Sagamore Conference, attendees were asked to consider that “the responsibility is greatest where the potential injury is greatest.” We must revive that spirit within the transportation professions.
From Myth to Truth
The politics of the moment mean that, even as some local coalitions may successfully leverage federal funding and public opinion to remove highways and reconnect neighborhoods, states will continue to build highways through neighborhoods elsewhere. The momentum that does exist for reimagining urban highway corridors threatens to leave behind the original victims of the interstates, who deserve both justice and platforms to have their stories heard. A reexamination of the past is overdue, although it’s likely to be bitterly contested.
All myths are useful, and we have to consider the uses for which they are constructed. Transportation consultant Sarah Jo Peterson argues that the myth of unintended consequences allows the transportation professions to avoid confronting the harms inflicted disproportionately on Black people. But this myth has broader beneficiaries. In national politics, interstates have nearly always been cited as a totemic and bipartisan achievement, often as part of a list that includes the Moon landing and the World War II mobilization. Whereas social programs such as the New Deal and the Great Society are too ideological to be unifying, the highway system is a metonym for the collective good.
Discussing their original sins risks disrupting this symbology—which, of course, is one reason why it must be done. We must redress past harms and then similarly embrace the spirit of “never again is now.” When we find histories that have been purposefully buried, we have to unearth them. In the light of day, we can chart new paths.
This essay originally appeared in From Justice and the Interstates: The Racist Truth About Urban Highways, edited by Ryan Reft, Amanda Phillips de Lucas, and Rebecca Retzlaff. Copyright © 2023 by the authors. Reproduced by permission of Island Press, Washington, D.C. Featured image: the Cross Bronx Expressway, under construction at 176th Street and Southern Boulevard, via Lehman College Library.