Clear-cutting neighborhoods in South Los Angeles to make way for the 10 Freeway in 1961. Photo via USC Libraries, Los Angeles Examiner Collection

The US interstate highway system was once a marvel of modern engineering, allowing the movement of goods and ideas that ushered in an era of unprecedented prosperity. But when those highways reached the cities they connected, they plowed through the lowest-income areas, physically dividing neighborhoods and financially devastating communities.

A new initiative announced by US Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx today is focused on repairing the inequality in American cities that those highway projects institutionalized years ago.

“Although our highways have served as a powerful economic engine, we now have the clarity of many decades of hindsight,” he said on a call today. “Unfortunately instead of connecting us to each other, highway planners separated us.”

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It’s no secret that highways shoved a large portion of urban minorities out of their homes. Examining data on the types of properties demolished to make way for highways showed some trends, Foxx said, namely “substantial displacement of the poor and people of color.” If you add urban renewal projects—misguided “slum removal” programs that leveled low-income housing in many cities during the 1960s and ‘70s—about two-thirds of the urban displacement happening over the last half of the 20th century targeted the poorest Americans.

After physically separating the urban core from the waterfront, San Francisco’s double-decker Embarcadero Freeway was famously removed after being damaged in a 1989 earthquake. Image via Wikipedia

Some cities are already working to fix decades of bad transportation decisions. Foxx gave examples like Los Angeles’s Crenshaw Line, a new light rail line that broke ground last month. By connecting the city’s Expo Line to LAX, it will travel through an underserved area of South Los Angeles—a place that has already been eviscerated by the construction of several different freeways.

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Foxx also advocated for highway removals and freeway caps—an increasingly popular way for cities to improve quality of life and reclaim valuable real estate for housing and public space. He specifically mentioned Rochester, New York’s plan to tear down a highway and Columbus, Ohio’s Cap at Union Station that spans a freeway to reunite two neighborhoods.

The fix doesn’t always mean massive infrastructural overhauls—sometimes it’s as simple as better tech. Modeling, like the Alphabet-backed data platform Flow, might help a city understand how street use will change with the adoption of autonomous vehicles. This is an idea that’s central to USDOT’s transportation funding bonanza Smart City Challenge, which is giving $40 million to one of seven cities to build the transportation system of the future.

Boston’s Big Dig project famously buried miles of highways under a series of parks and promenades that kept the city intact. Photos MASS DOT and Rose F. Kennedy Greenway

Perhaps the most encouraging thought is that it’s not too late for cities to change. Remember the passing of last year’s $305 billion FAST Act which allocates transportation dollars to projects all over the country, but way too much of that money for projects like widening highways? “These decision-makers have a lot of flexibility,” said Foxx when asked about FAST, and urged cities to revisit their plans, especially with projects that would make existing divisions worse.

In rural areas or other places underserved by transit, Americans will still need to rely on vehicles for decades, and Foxx acknowledged that repairing roads for drivers and freight is a critical part of making transportation work for everyone. But there’s no reason to have highways pummeling through the centers of cities. It’s time to undo some of the worst urban planning mistakes that the US ever made.

[USDOT]