Tearing Down Highways Won’t Fix American Cities

Tearing down urban highways has entered the mainstream, leaving longtime advocates to start focusing on what comes next.
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Since 2008, the Congress for New Urbanism, a non-profit advocating for cities and towns built around people instead of cars, has been publishing reports identifying urban highways that should be torn down. In the first edition, the report was less a set of recommendations than a design competition, because, as CNU's Ben Crowther told Motherboard, "the concept frankly was difficult to imagine." People tended not to think about the highway running through their city, because virtually every American city had at least one, and it seemed to be the natural order of how American cities are.


But, in recent years, the Overton Window has shifted. Just last week, the New York Times ran a top-of-the-homepage feature with the headline "Can Removing Highways Fix America's Cities?" You can find a similar article published by virtually any other news organization within the last five years. (I am no exception, having written such an article two years ago focused specifically on Syracuse, New York.) Transportation Secretary Pete Butteigeg has spoken about it, President Biden has issued a memorandum acknowledging it, and a bill in Congress seeks to allocate $15 billion to address it. 

What all of these articles and politicians address is not just how American decision-makers built highways through urban areas, making them less pleasant places to live and work and exacerbating the flight of white Americans from the cities to the suburbs, but the highways' creators often intentionally targeted Black and Latino neighborhoods for demolition, drawing asphalt lines around and through their cities to reinforce existing neighborhood segregation. Neighborhoods that used to be walkable to downtown business districts and have a relatively prosperous commercial life of their own were cut off from economic and social opportunities. Homes were demolished by the thousands. These once controversial claims about how the federal highway program was used to kneecap Black and Latino neighborhoods are now broadly recited as historical fact, publicized by the media, and emphasized by the nation's highest office. 


And yet, change is slow. Crowther and the Congress of New Urbanism released the seventh edition of the Freeways Without Futures report today. It names 15 sections of urban highways across the country that are prime candidates for teardowns due to their age, need for expensive maintenance, and historic role in dividing once-vibrant communities. 

Of the 10 highways from the original report, two have been torn down (the Alaskan Way Viaduct in Seattle and the Sheridan Expressway in the Bronx) and a third is on its way (Route 34 in New Haven, Connecticut). Overall, Crowther told Motherboard, 38 different highway sections have been named in the seven editions, six have either been removed or the removal is underway, two have state Department of Transportation commitments to be removed, and three have been rebuilt. The remaining 27 are Schroedinger's highways, neither dead nor alive, waiting for their respective bureaucratic decision makers to open the box. One highway, the I-81 viaduct in Syracuse, has the distinction of being the only one on every edition of the report. It currently has a commitment from the state to be torn down and replaced with a four-lane road with traffic lights, bike lanes, pedestrian areas, and landscaping.


Crowther, an archaeologist by training, takes a serene approach to what others might deem slow and unsteady progress. Accustomed to dating urban structures to the century and, if lucky, to the decade in which it was built, he thinks more in the concept of what he described as "deep time." One can almost imagine an archaeologist in the distant future studying this brief period in American history where we foolishly believed building highways through cities was a good idea. Perhaps it will be such a blip on the vast timeline of human existence hardly any evidence of it will remain at all. That may be difficult to imagine given how largely they loom over our cities and transportation debates today, but so was the concept of tearing down highways at all just a few years ago. 

Still, a revealing transition has occurred during these few short years, ones that will perhaps be barely visible to historians studying this period in future generations. Recently, the question is less about whether tearing down a highway is a good idea—it is often difficult to justify repairing and rebuilding urban highways strictly on fiscal grounds—but what to do with the area once the highway is gone. Often, these projects achieve political momentum by building a coalition comprised of business groups, real estate interests, and civic boosters hoping to develop the land on the one hand and social justice groups seeking to reconnect and rebuild Black and Latino neighborhoods destroyed by the highway on the other. These two goals, while theoretically compatible, are often in tension, as "development" all too often sounds like gentrification and displacement to the very groups the highway teardown is trying to make whole. 


These are real concerns with no easy answers. They also highlight a critical distinction that often gets glossed over in all the coverage of urban highways in recent years. Typically, the highways themselves are described as racist rather than the people and institutions who planned and constructed them. The recent New York Times article is an illustrative example, beginning with: "Highways radically reshaped cities, destroying dense downtown neighborhoods, dividing many Black communities and increasing car dependence." This is factually correct, but gives the impression the highways sprung forth from a racist origin uncontrollable by humans. This (likely unintentional) mischaracterization is not lost on defenders of these highways; more than once while reporting on the I-81 project in Syracuse, I was asked by opponents of the teardown, "How can concrete and steel be racist?"

It can't be, but talking about racist infrastructure is much easier than talking about racist people and institutions, many of which still exist today and are now deciding what to do with the current highways. The New York Times article is hardly alone here, and otherwise is an excellent portrait of the challenges facing current highway removal projects. But one can read the entire article without learning who—both in terms of the actual people and the institutions they represented—actually built the highways and why.


This glossing over of actual people and their actions, likely unwittingly, furthers a flawed historical narrative that the urban highway expansion craze merely had unintended racist outcomes rather than being racist by design. This narrative, roughly speaking, goes: President Eisenhower wanted to build a series of highways that connected major urban centers, but state and local planners took it too far and rammed them through actual cities, too, something nobody intended to happen when planning for the Interstates occurred.

While linked by a national program, each urban highway was planned and built by state and local officials. They each have their own story. In Montgomery, Alabama, the director of the Alabama Highway Department avowed white supremacist Sam Englehart intentionally routed I-65 through the Black neighborhood of West Montgomery. He even went so far as to intentionally target the specific homes of Black people like Ralph David Abernathy that he didn't like. Not every urban highway has a backstory this heinous, but even the ones that don't feature white male planners, highway officials, and politicians more than happy to sacrifice minority neighborhoods for any and all potential benefits they thought a highway would bring.

The more one looks into the individual stories of each urban highway, the less the unintended consequences narrative makes sense. As historian Sarah Jo Peterson recently detailed

The highway industry anticipated the problems for urban transportation and for relocation that came with bringing expressways into urban areas. Of course, they did. To believe the myth is to believe that these highway leaders—hundreds of people across every state highway department and the federal government—were stupid. These men—and they were nearly all men and nearly all white—may have been many things, but stupid is not one of them.

In tearing down the highways—and more will be torn down, although probably not enough—we need to look past the concrete and steel. Highways are "racist" only insofar as the people and institutions who built them are. Tearing them down won't necessarily stop the same institutions and their direct descendants from doing something that will come to be regarded as equally harmful several decades from now. Or, as Peterson put it, "all infrastructure projects create winners and losers. The moral test for a society is how it selects and then treats those who are forced to sacrifice." 

Currently, we are struggling with the idea that mostly white suburban commuters should have to drive a few extra minutes so amputated communities can be stitched back together. As hard of a political project as that is proving to be, it is daunting to think of all the necessary steps that come next: hiring local minority workers and businesses for the project itself, mitigating the life disruption and air quality consequences of the construction, making sure the highway isn't replaced with an impenetrable multi-lane speedway with token sidewalks and bike lanes, and most importantly getting developers and real estate interests to leave money on the table so the communities that suffered through the highway's existence can benefit from its absence. With Crowther's view of "deep time" in mind, we might find tearing down the highway was the easy part.