Tearing down the highways

From the birth of the Interstate Highway System in 1956, it was an article of faith across the political spectrum that building highways was an unalloyed good for the nation. Highways represented mobility, good jobs, the ability to flee the congested, troubled city for the greener pasture of the suburbs. Supported by massive funding from federal and state governments, a web of high-speed, limited-access highways soon stretched across the country, not only connecting far-flung cities but often plowing straight through them.

The momentum, money and political support remained with highway building for decades. Yet over time, opposition to unrestrained construction on environmental, social-justice and quality-of-life grounds gradually gained traction. Although highways have remained the knee-jerk transportation solution in most suburban and rural areas, in central cities – where residents have had to live cheek-to-jowl with high-speed traffic – highways have come under attack, especially the high-speed, limited-access freeways.

Over time, opposition to urban freeways gained enough momentum that President Biden, in his $2.2 trillion infrastructure proposal, for the first time made dismantling them a major focus of federal funding. A bipartisan deal reached on June 24 would cut Biden’s proposed spending approximately by more than half, but opponents of urban freeways have room to advocate that highway removal be part of a final bill.

A number of emerging issues have put the freeways in the crosshairs: calls for racial justice, vehicle emissions and their role in climate change and public health, and the need to make cities more functional and livable. Has the time finally arrived to unbuild much of the urban freeway system?

Freeways Come to the City

The age of high-speed freeways began immediately after World War II and was kicked into high gear by the launch of the Interstate Highway System during the Eisenhower administration. Freeways promised a new era of mobility, with individuals able to move about at will in private vehicles — no longer bound to public transportation routes and schedules. It also supercharged an existing trend of white flight from central cities to the suburbs.

But through the 1960s, most suburbanites still worked and shopped in the cities and needed a way to get there. So in addition to the interstates connecting far-flung cities in a continuous web, freeways also were built to carry suburbanites into and out of the cities. To make room for the roads, paths had to be plowed through built-up urban areas – and for reasons of logistics, cost and, frankly, racism, the paths chosen tended to be through or alongside low-income neighborhoods of color. Very few large or medium-sized cities escaped the freeway builder’s bulldozer. Cities from New York to Los Angeles, Detroit to Dallas, Birmingham to Baltimore were radically reshaped for the convenience of the suburban motorist.

The onslaught of urban freeways had a devastating impact on urban, mostly minority communities. Thriving neighborhoods were often cut in half and what remained suffered abandonment and decline. The health effects of those who remained in the freeways’ shadows were severe: According to the Environmental Protection Agency, they are subject to “higher rates of asthma onset and aggravation, cardiovascular disease, impaired lung development in children, pre-term and low-birthweight infants, childhood leukemia, and premature death.”

One of the most destructive of the early urban freeways was New York’s Cross-Bronx Expressway, one of 13 expressways totaling 130 miles rammed across the city between the 1940s and 1960s by freeway enthusiast Robert Moses, the city’s and state’s hyper-powerful overseer of highways, parks, public housing and much more. The seven miles of the Cross-Bronx displaced tens of thousands of residents in vibrant, mostly working-class and mixed-race neighborhoods, leaving abandonment and blight in their wake. As described by Robert A. Caro in his Moses biography The Power Broker:

[W]here once apartment buildings or private homes had stood were now hills of rubble, decorated with ripped-open bags of rotting garbage that had been flung atop them. . . .[L]obbies [were] littered with shards of broken glass that once had been big ornamental mirrors and with the stuffings from the armchairs and sofas that had once been their decoration, and smeared with excrement not only animal but human, from winos and junkies who slept in them at night.

Another community-killing urban freeway was Interstate 244 running through Tulsa, Oklahoma. During the recent observance of the centenary of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, in which the thriving Black neighborhood of Greenwood was destroyed by white racists and as many as 300 people were killed, little attention was paid to how the construction of the freeway in the late 1960s and early 1970s killed the neighborhood a second time. Following the 1921 massacre, Greenwood eventually made a partial recovery; a new Black community arose from the ashes of the old, with 242 Black-owned business spread over 35 blocks. But the new freeway effectively obliterated Greenwood once again, displacing residents and forcing out all but a handful of businesses. Ironically, the freeway was later renamed the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Expressway.

The Opposition Takes Root

At first, resistance to urban freeways was scattered and ineffective. But as the roads’ destructiveness to the lives and fabric of communities became evident, a nascent anti-freeway movement took root. One of its early manifestations was here in the DC area in response to a plan in the 1960s to crisscross the densely populated – and majority Black – District with high-speed freeways that would destroy entire neighborhoods.

Residents of the District were at a disadvantage in opposing the federal highway plan, in that they had no elected local government to fight on their behalf — DC then being governed by federally appointed commissioners. Yet grassroots activists, led by the determined Sammie Abbott (later Takoma Park mayor), as well as Black civil-rights leaders such as Julius Hobson (later a DC councilmember) created an energetic coalition to challenge the freeways. Stopping “White Men’s Roads Through Black Men’s Homes” became the battle cry. While a few segments of freeway were eventually built, most of the planned roads were scrapped due to the activists’ persistent and effective organizing, a remarkable David-over-Goliath outcome. Within DC, transportation planning going forward focused on the new Metrorail system, although the region’s suburban highway system continued to expand.

Yet more often than not across the country, the roads were built and neighborhoods were plowed under. By the 1970s, however, the building of urban freeways was running out of steam. The growing environmental movement had focused attention on vehicle pollution and the need to find alternatives to internal combustion. Opponents of new freeways had gained enough clout – and support among elected officials – to, as in DC, put improved public transit at the center of transportation planning. This stood in contrast to transportation planning in suburban and exurban areas, where the highway network continued to expand.

But the urban roads that were built during the freeway boom mostly remained in place, crisscrossing cities, contributing to pollution and poor health and posing a barrier to economic development. While they provided mobility for suburbanites through the city, they posed barricades for city residents in getting around their own communities; they were giant walls or trenches cutting off neighborhoods from each other. People in those communities began to ask: Why can’t we tear those freeways down?

The Freeways Begin to Fall

One of the catalysts for the teardown movement took place largely by accident. The 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake that struck the San Francisco area badly damaged the elevated Embarcadero Freeway. For years there had been calls for removing the freeway, which cut San Francisco off from a large swath of bayfront. After the earthquake, the city had to choose between pouring millions into repairing the freeway or, for less cost, demolishing it. It chose the latter. Today, in contrast to the unsightly freeway that once stood, an attractive boulevard runs past the historic Ferry Building, and San Franciscans have been reunited with their waterfront.

Embarcardo Freeway in 1960. Image from Slate.com

One recent removal was the Inner Loop East in Rochester, NY, a sunken freeway that was filled in and built over with help from a grant procured by the Obama administration. While the project was deemed largely a success in restoring the urban fabric, local officials regard rebuilding the freeway-scarred community as a work in progress. And while there have been new affordable apartment buildings built along the route, much of the new residential construction has been of the high-end variety.

More urban freeways are under study for demolition. The Congress for New Urbanism has identified 33 freeways in 28 cities that have been proposed for removal.

Does Freeway Removal Bring Displacement?

Removal of urban freeways would reduce pollution in cities, provide for better health outcomes and stitch back together the urban fabric that was disrupted by walls and trenches rammed through living neighborhoods. However, many low-income communities fear that removal of freeways, while making neighborhoods more livable for current residents, would also make them desirable to outsiders – thus triggering gentrification, rising property values and, ultimately, displacement of the neighborhoods’ original inhabitants. Freeway removal is in its early stages, but developments following the removal of the Rochester Inner Loop East show fears of displacement are well-founded.

The track record around the United States is not good when it comes to ensuring that the original inhabitants of a neighborhood reap the benefits of physical improvements, rather than being priced out of their homes and forced to move to less-desirable environs. Social justice demands that those who suffered the years of pollution and disruption caused by urban freeways enjoy the benefits of their removal. But how can this be guaranteed?

Cities can require that new housing built in the vicinity of former freeways contain a substantial percentage of affordable units. They also can institute strict rent control to protect current tenants. But experience shows that this is at best a partial solution. If a neighborhood grows in desirability, there will be fierce pressures from developers to build market-rate housing and high-end businesses, which they will sell to urban leaders as “growing the tax base.” More creative solutions are demanded, but they will swim against the tide of a capitalist real-estate market.

Freeway removal’s many benefits shouldn’t be dismissed due to concerns about gentrification. However, demolition proposals must incorporate strong and creative plans for preventing the involuntary displacement of existing residents.

Could Freeway Removal Come to DC?

While DC is, thanks to activists in the 1960s, less burdened by freeways than most other major cities, there still remain a number of high-speed roads that many residents and political leaders might find expendable. Interstate 395 cuts through DC for three miles south and east of the Mall; in the District the road is also known as the Southeast and Southwest Freeways. The freeway was built between 1957 and 1963 as part of the “urban renewal” campaign that destroyed and then rebuilt most of Southwest DC. The once-thriving Black area was dismissed as a “slum” and swept away by federal planners to be replaced by a substantially gentrified quadrant. I-395 runs through a variety of DC neighborhoods, some low-income and minority, some upscale, all subject to its noise and pollution.

I395 jutting through DC

One freeway that directly impacts predominantly lower-income Black communities is Route 295, also known as the Anacostia Freeway. That road, built between 1957 and 1964, slices through DC neighborhoods just east of that waterway, alongside and through residential areas, parkland and military installations for more than seven miles. The perils of a freeway through a residential area were made plain on June 23, when a truck struck a pedestrian bridge over the freeway, causing it to collapse. Fortunately, no pedestrians were on the bridge at the time, although five persons in vehicles were injured. And with one of the few pedestrian paths crossing the freeway destroyed, the road became an even greater obstacle to mobility for residents.

Then there’s the elevated Whitehurst Freeway, which runs for just under a mile along the Georgetown waterfront. Although Georgetown today is one of the District’s toniest neighborhoods, it had a much larger Black and working-class population when the freeway was built in the late 1940s. Georgetown residents have called for its removal for years, as it is ugly, polluting and mostly duplicates the routes of surface streets. But advocates for its demolition have failed to gain sufficient support among elected officials.

Georgetown's Whitehurst Freeway

For this article I solicited comment from several DOT councilmembers as well as the District Department of Transportation. It appeared that most officials didn’t care to address highway removal. One did: Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen.

“Yes, I support the removal of highways that harmed and continue to harm communities built by Black and indigenous people,” Allen commented. He cited 395, which runs through his ward, and 295 as likely candidates for demolition.

“The question of what to do with the space has to be answered by residents who would be most at risk of displacement and with an eye toward repairing the past,” Allen added.  “I don’t pretend to have all of the answers, but in any conversation about creating new public spaces or new housing, those voices need to be prioritized.”

Will More Freeways Be Removed?

The growing consensus within cities is that many freeways should go, but getting rid of them is not an easy process. Tearing down a freeway is a costly affair, although usually cheaper than keeping it in good repair – and many cities, through inertia or lack of funds, do neither, letting them deteriorate until they become unsafe. A recent study found that about a third of urban roads are in substandard condition. The trigger for removing some freeways could come when they become so decrepit that demolition is the only sensible solution, as with the Embarcadero.

There also is resistance from drivers, largely in the suburbs, who still travel to the city and would rather zip through at top speed than take a leisurely drive down a scenic boulevard. The highway lobby, consisting of oil companies, automakers, developers and highway builders, also are part of the opposition. The demolition of any highway undercuts the message of the more roads, the better. And while hardly anyone is clamoring to build new urban freeways, in some cities expanding existing ones is still on the table, as in Houston. There, the Texas state government was in the process of adding three lanes to I-45 through Black and brown communities – in the face of opposition from the local government – until the Federal Highway Administration stepped in earlier this year to halt the project, at least temporarily, on civil-rights and environmental grounds.

Yet the Biden administration’s support for large-scale urban freeway removal is a sea change. As recently as 2016, the Democratic Party platform called for building more roads. Now, five years later, a Democratic president calls for tearing some of them down. With such a shift in momentum, some freeways are bound to fall. Considerations of social and racial justice, the environment, livability and common sense demand that they do.

DSA member Bill Mosley is a longtime transit advocate and worked for three decades as a public affairs specialist at the U.S. Department of Transportation.

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