It’s Time to Address Our Segregationist Urban Highways

February 2, 2020

As motorists take the Triborough Bridge—the “traffic machine” that connects Manhattan, the Bronx, and Queens—over the East River, the roadway makes an almost perpendicular turn north, away from the wealthy Upper East Side, before letting traffic out onto 125th Street in majority-minority East Harlem. Just a few miles away, the Northern State Parkway makes a 5.5-mile detour east to avoid wealthy communities on Long Island’s North Shore. Along Long Island’s South Shore, the bridges spanning the Southern State Parkway are very low—so low, in fact, that city buses cannot come close to the beaches.

In New York City and its suburbs, highways and roadways were systematically designed to filter traffic away from wealthy neighborhoods and into low-income ones and exclude low-income people from scenic areas intended for the affluent. This problem is not unique to New York—across the country, highway systems divide rich communities from poor communities and separate white people from people of color. But as the United States’ infrastructure ages and deteriorates, we have a unique opportunity to do something about it.

Half of America’s current highway systems have their origins in President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956. An unmistakable part of this program was a racially motivated desire to eliminate “urban blight”—code for low-income, minority communities. Highway construction was used as a justification for destroying and isolating black neighborhoods so often that James Baldwin famously dubbed urban renewal “Negro removal.” In fact, in the first 20 years of the interstate highway system, highway construction displaced over one million low-income people of color.

Absent physical barriers imposed by highways and bridges, residents of low-income communities have greater mobility and access to opportunities and health services in the city center.

Communities of color continue to live with the lingering effects of these infrastructure projects. The University of Virginia’s racial dot map, which maps the residence of every person in the U.S., color-coded by race, provides a shocking snapshot of American segregation, revealing sharp racial divides along the lines of major highways. In racially segregated neighborhoods, hospitals are often understaffed, provide fewer services, and are more likely to close. Children attend school in dilapidated buildings that exacerbate their asthma. Residents live shorter, sicker lives than their wealthy white counterparts.

Now more than ever, it is time to address the impacts of infrastructure-imposed segregation. The Federal Highway Administration’s most recent survey indicates that 20 percent of American roads are in poor condition and estimates that $1.4 trillion—over 19 times the Department of Transportation’s annual budget—in additional funding is needed to make American infrastructure safe and dependable. Rather than funding highway maintenance, we must urge cities and states to pursue highway removal projects and other large-scale alterations to the built environment.

Several U.S. cities have already realized the benefits of highway removal. Boston’s elevated Central Artery, constructed in the 1950s, once divided historic neighborhoods from the downtown business district and was referred to as the “other Green Monster.” But during the early 2000s, a project known as the Big Dig sunk the Central Artery into tunnels underneath downtown Boston. The elevated highway was demolished, and the space it occupied was transformed into a ground-level boulevard and urban park.

More recently, the city of Rochester, New York, was awarded $17.7 million in competitive grants by the Department of Transportation to convert a portion of its Inner Loop Expressway, described as “a noose, strangling the downtown area,” into a ground-level boulevard. The east section of the Inner Loop, which had been depressed below street level, was filled in and transformed into a ground-level boulevard, connecting communities of color to the city center for the first time since the 1950s. At the opening of this boulevard in 2017, Senator Chuck Schumer declared that Rochester had torn down its “proverbial Berlin Wall.” Altogether, Rochester spent $22 million on the removal project, and to date, the project has brought $229 million worth of new development into the city.

As these highway removal projects have demonstrated, reconnecting city grids can reintegrate communities that were isolated or disadvantaged by a highway’s initial construction. Absent physical barriers imposed by highways and bridges, residents of low-income communities have greater mobility and access to opportunities and health services in the city center. Successful removal projects have resulted in an increase of surrounding property values and the construction of thousands of new housing units on land otherwise occupied by highways.We have a short window of opportunity to begin to reverse the harms imposed by inequitable infrastructure planning. Across the U.S., citizens of cities like Denver and New Orleans have recognized this watershed moment and are mobilizing to advocate for highway removal. The #blvdtampa campaign has even garnered support at the state level to transform an 11-mile stretch of highway running through downtown Tampa, Florida, into a ground-level boulevard. As cities consider how to address their aging highways, we must ensure that the people poised to make a difference recognize the need for infrastructure removal and replacement. Let’s not waste this opportunity.

Mara Greenberg​ is a dual-degree candidate at the Columbia Mailman School and Columbia Law School. She is from Pittsburgh and plans on a career linking her interests in environmental health and the law. She does not know how to drive.

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