Highways And Civil Rights.

I typically do not link to media sources that are obviously partisan (unless that partisanship is what I’m highlighting), but I was fascinated by a recent post from Daily Kos about the Biden Administration’s recognition of the impact of transportation policy on civil rights.

I first became aware of that connection when my husband and I became involved with (largely unsuccessful) efforts to keep the state from rebuilding the Interstates that had carved up neighborhoods in our downtown fifty years ago. I pointed out that the routing decisions made at that time not only divided historic neighborhoods, but exacerbated public safety problems and delayed the ensuing commercial and residential redevelopment of our downtown. Those decisions also decimated Black neighborhoods, and evidence suggests that particular result was not accidental.

Since being confirmed as Secretary of Transportation, Pete Buttigieg has been emphasizing the role played by transportation in civil rights.

In an interview with Politico, Buttigieg again repeated that saddling Black communities with the pollution and bifurcation associated with highways was “not just a matter of halfway accidental neglect” but “intentional decisions that happened.” He’s vowing reforms; much of the rest of Politico’s article consists of former Obama administration officials expressing their own wary hopes that the time is now right for more sweeping changes.

The post goes on to connect the dots, pointing out that environmental policy is also a civil rights issue. The U.S. highway system is just one example, but it’s a powerful one.

Moving swiftly to electric vehicles would alleviate the thick soot buildups recognizable to anyone who has lived next to a major artery. Restructuring mass transportation networks so that more Americans can use them to get to more places both lessens the climate impact single-person transportation and allows residents of currently isolated neighborhoods access to far more jobs and services than they currently have. Removing highways to replace them with smaller surface roads and more green space not only stitches together now-divided neighborhoods, but lessens urban heat island effects that magnify heatwaves and further strains our electrical grids.

Those of us who live in Indianapolis understand the extent to which the Indiana legislature’s animus toward our efforts to improve the city’s inadequate mass transit is motivated by a belief that transit is used predominantly by “those people.”

The post also had a good explanation of the problem with spending a disproportionate share of tax dollars on highways rather than environmentally-friendly transit.

It is akin to the elevator problem in urban high-rises: The more floors are added, the more elevators are needed to transport people from one floor to another, and the more space those elevators take up on each floor. After a certain threshold, so much space must be devoted to the elevator shafts on each floor that there is little to no room left on each floor for actual living or office space; there is nowhere left for the people in the elevators to actually go.

In American metropolises, the space devoted to roads, highways, garages, parking spots, setbacks and related structure takes up so much space that it makes the islanding of each neighborhood a fiat accompli. You could not walk to a grocery store or other services even if you were motivated to do it, but need a car simply to drive past all of the infrastructure devoted to cars between you and it. Mass transit becomes less viable because the roads and parking spaces have imposed a cap on population density surrounding each stop, stretching out the fabric of each city and forcing transportation planners to either put an interminable number of people-collecting stops on each line or to decide that the majority of each neighborhood will simply not be served.

The situation we face with transportation is evidence–if more were needed–of Heather McGhee’s premise in The Sum of Us: decisions based on racism and the desire to disadvantage “those people” end up hurting all of us.


  1. One local example was the extension of I-65 through the near Northwestside–perhaps one of the actions you fought (thank you!). it bifurcated the neighborhood around the Holy Angels parish. Father Boniface Hardin and others tried valiantly to get officials to shift the path or use an underpass design but they were unsuccessful. Interesting, and sad, that you call the enormous impact “not accidental.” It still tears me up to see the houses that are close to the expressway and to think that they were once bordered by other homes in a neighborhood rather than six lanes of traffic. Yes, there is a clear connection between highway design and civil rights.

  2. Another unfortunate example of priorities being corrupted is the Red Line. Its path was charted so that developers could obtain TIF funds and develop in areas where younger, professional people would likely live, rather than in corridors where people who use mass transit actually live.

  3. One problem with correcting all of this, the filibuster!

    You can’t leave it in the hands of local government because things will never change, too many shenanigans, too many hands in the cookie jar, way too much local grift to attempt this sort of sea change being discussed.

    It has to be done federal level, and it has to be done with an iron hand.

    I look at Chicago, how the Dan Ryan split Chicago’s southside neighborhoods in half. And, after Chicago’s interstate network was established, they removed a lot of public transportation such as streetcars and trolleys that so many depended on for work and shopping or just visiting family.

    I think I mentioned months back about the former mayor in Chicago, Rahm Emanuel explored Elon Musk and his tunnel digging expertise, to bring transportation to the disadvantaged areas and eliminate the carved up neighborhoods, along with the food and employment deserts. Connecting these areas with accessibility to major hubs like the airports, freight terminals and ports, would increase the possibility of businesses locating in those areas that are some of the most disadvantaged but have readily available workers eager for a shot at the so-called American dream!

    The nice thing about going down, is that these tunnels would not affect the neighborhoods with right of ways and off ramps, just terminals for ingress and egress that would blend in to the neighborhoods infrastructure and flavor.

    I think that would be more aesthetically pleasing than going up, even though that could be a possibility. Raising thoroughfares well above neighborhood housing and eliminating those dividing lines through major portions of a city’s neighborhoods. As Sheila mentions, surface roads could be upgraded to handle traffic from certain points of ingress and egress although those ramps would take up a lot of real estate.

    Monorail transportation through neighborhoods with ingress and egress terminals could eliminate the congestion of transportation, large pillars strategically located through neighborhoods would only take up small amount of real estate and not divide up communities with unnavigable boundaries like tracks and such. These monorail systems that would rise above neighborhoods, could interact with an aggressive tunnel project to equally connect all parts of the city for equal access to goods and services no matter what part of the city persons would reside.

    It could be done, and it should be done, the quality of life and human dignity demands it. It’s been discussed, it’s been attempted in certain areas, but there needs to be a concerted effort to plow forward with this type of sea change infrastructure rebuild.

  4. The Hoosier Environmental Council called yesterday to ask me to call my state rep as the Indiana House will be voting today on IN Senate Bill 141 which will defund what scanty public transport we have, turning away $millions in federal transportation grant money.

  5. The reason for the location decisions of highways should be traced to those who profited financially by the choices and the politicians who approved their construction? Then there are those walls along interstates through urban and residential areas; who profits from those miles of construction?

    Mitch Daniels got his hard fought wish of the unnecessary extending of I 69 to Evansville which still is not completed due to lack of funds the last I heard. That argument was raging in the early 1990s when I was still working for the City.

    Now is a good time and this is a good place to ask a question which has puzzled me for many years; why is Shadeland Avenue an actual section of 465 “around” the city?

    mark small; I recently tried to find current information on that Red Line usage but found nothing. My grandson lived in an apartment in the 3000 block of North Meridian throughout the construction nightmare and the required travel pattern changes to come and go in the remaining single lanes in each direction with Indy Go buses frequently stopping to pick up and drop off passengers as traffic backed up behind them. Those living and working along the Red Line, and those needing access to businesses and homes, had to find alternate routes through nearby neighborhoods. How has that effected those areas and the maintenance needed on heavily traveled streets with primary streets no longer available?

    Public transportation is a misnomer when it does not serve the public needing that transportation. I don’t believe the public is against electric vehicles; I grew up riding those city buses with cables on the back connected to wires overhead. It is the location and the public being served that is in question

  6. Having lived in the Washington, D.C. area for around 15 years I can attest to two things: 1) the virtues of a good mass transit system; and 2) the utter backwardness of Indiana when it comes to developing such a system. I can’t think of a top-tier city (size, population, quality of life, economic opportunity- pick your variable) that doesn’t have one. We could walk out our door in Bethesda and catch a feeder bus to the Metro station. When I was back a few years ago for a short gig with one of the Departments, I had an apartment in Crystal City. I caught the bus right in front and in 10 minutes was across the river and walking into my office at 19th and Constitution. If I wanted to take a little more time, I could walk up to the Metro stop at Pentagon City; my office was 4 blocks from either of two stops.

    But convenience wasn’t the only thing I saw. In the years I was there I watched the siting of stations drive economic development in areas that really needed it. When we moved back to Indianapolis, I saw resistance to investment in public transportation based on circular arguments that came down to “we don’t need to improve the system because we don’t ride it- only “those people” ride the bus.” Well, you don’t ride it because you didn’t build it so you could.

    The day Hamilton county figures out what they could do with mass transit instead of building all their infrastructure for cars is the day Indianapolis dies.

  7. Amen to Mark Small. I worked at Hawthorne Community Center on the Westside for years, where you generally have to ride to the downtown transist center or walk long distances to get anywhere else on the that side of town. Go to Indy.net and look at the system map. The southwest quandrant of Marion County has the fewest routes of any sector. Yet we started “rapid” transit upgrades with the affluent Northside. This is why I did not support the rapid transit referendum. We need better, more decentralized route connectivity first to reduce commute times for workers before we start building more rapid transit amenities in neighborhoods where almost everyone owns a car.

  8. Like Patrick, I enjoyed the conveniences and occasional inconveniences of mass transit in DC. I took the red line every day from the Northeast end of the line to Farragut Square. It was simple and convenient. It wasn’t perfect, but it was so much better than anything we had in Indy since the great General Motors swindle of the early 1950s.

  9. John Sorg:

    Right you are! First things first. End the filibuster in the Senate. Push Moscow Mitch to the back of the room. THEN, we can once again have a functioning government.

    Republicans will never shed themselves of their racism and bigotry. It’s who and what they are and have been since Lincoln was shot. They have to go in toto if any progress on anything that benefits the working classes in this country.www.vernturner.com (new book just posted).


    Thanks for referencing Heather McGhee’s book. She nails it.

  10. Patrick; this wise quote fits all public services and infrastructure, “…you don’t ride it because you didn’t build it so you could.” The complainers don’t seem to be aware of the many thousands of ” those people” who pay their fair share of taxes which goes into maintaining services and infrastructure in the neighborhoods of the complainers. They also seem to have better public safety protection which “those people” are helping to pay for while being victims of lack of protection. There seems to be little or no trickle down of the taxes paid by “those people” and we retirees on Social Security to provide public services or infrastructure maintenance in our areas. We live in a “trickle up” tax world.

    Parking in downtown Indianapolis has always been a problem; and what was available was expensive. When I lived within 3-4 blocks of city bus service, I often rode the bus using a reasonably priced monthly bus pass.

  11. Nancy C. above said it well for Indianapolis area Hwy. 465 NW….I lived there when this Hwy. was built…circa 1965 I think…( Verbena Court )….the motor vehicle roar of that new Hwy. filled our house 24 hours per day….I think as years ensued there WERE houses built in my neighborhood that were even CLOSER to that Hwy. …I doubt the new residents enjoyed it very much…LOL

  12. I lived in Miami who built a great metro rail within the city and then connecting the faraway regions. I lived in a really nice apartment complex clear out in the boonies. We all rode to the metro station together and were delivered downtown in front of the bank within 45 minutes. When I drove to the bank, it was 90 minutes.

    It reminds me of what the donut rings around downtown Indy could have done with a little planning and foresight. Instead, we’ve got massive highways and roads leading to and fro, congesting the whole mess with constant construction.

    Patrick is right about Hamilton County, but they have to get over the mental construct that only poor people ride mass transit. That will be hard to do with all those uppity whites in Fishers and Noblesville.

    Speaking to the obvious, what system within our country isn’t influenced by racism?

    I read this morning that now Asians are on the hit list of the racist right-wing. Where is our IC in preventing these domestic terrorists?

    Oh yea, they are more concerned with Antifa and BLM.

  13. At the moment an infrastructure challenge is planning for an uncertain future that depends on the public “wokefullness” to the damaging future of AGW (anthropogenic global warming). The slower that we transition off fossil fuels the more costly our future gets due to relocating and making more extreme our weather, sea level and ocean chemistry.

    How will both the problem and the solution redefine Indiana? That depends on how long we drag our feet in mitigating the cause.

    It could bode more good than bad dependent I would guess on changes in precipitation as the completely connected world (a la pandemic) gets freed of their coal and oil addiction. At least sea level rise won’t be a big impact but the reality of the situation will be that all taxpayers will share the cost of the global impact in various ways.

    What we have to hope is that the downfall of the GOP frees us all up to do bottom up rather than top down urban planning.

  14. In the “what might have been” category at this point of Indiana history:

    Ironically, Indiana once had a really great electric railway mass transit system called the “InterUrban.” It was at one time the largest such system in the Country with 500 trains a day.
    One could easily and conveniently travel on it to virtually every major city in the State. Long gone now. Replaced by interstates and highways in the name of autonomous gasoline powered automobiles and trucks many of which were manufactured in Indiana (just might be a connection there somewhere).

    Indianapolis also once had a very good “trolley” system with the last iteration being electric powered. As Peggy Hannon alluded to above, the trolleys were, in effect, killed by General Motors in the 1950’s when they got (read “paid”) the politicians to replace the electric trolleys with diesel buses manufactured by GM. The tracks were paved over in many places in Indy, and large segments of those tracks remain under the pavement on many downtown Indy streets.


  15. “Speaking to the obvious, what system within our country isn’t influenced by racism?” Absolutely!
    Environmental racism is rampant in the U.S., and its existence seems to be coming to the fore, recently. Buttigieg may be able to work on remediating the issue, as the Biden admin. will, apparently, be favorable toward such an emphasis.
    Here, in Florida, one of the issues the Audubon Society is attempting to deal with is minimizing the environmental impact of road/highway building.

  16. Shadeland Avenue on the East side of Indy was envisioned as a by-pass called US 231. It was supposed to get you off of US 31 and around Indy. I465 came along and killed it before it was completely built.

    The city is still in the process of bisecting the good neighborhoods from the “bad” neighborhoods with a very highway like 38th Street. It is 7 lanes with no street parking, and while the posted speed limits are 35mph, nothing goes less than 40 or 50 mph. The recent bridge built for the Monon rail trail over 38th street is just another example reinforcing the disconnect. The new bridge links the parking lots for the State Fairgound with the State Fairgound itself, but only if you walk a block south to 37th street, and then a block north to 39th street to get on the approach ramps. A complete failure of urban design. The high speeds, and lack of street parking have virtually killed all of the retail that ever got established on the street, and the high speeds, noise and pollution have killed all but subsidized housing on the street.

    And yes the circular argument that the city’s Red Line is a failure so don’t finish the rest of the design seems like it is going to guarantee that nothing else will get built, and we will never get to see what the re-designed system might have accomplished. The main goal of the completed design was to eliminate the fact that every bus line had to go to the downtown transit center to make a connection.

  17. Besides Social Security and a couple of retirement streams, my only current income is as a part time proof reader. Someone must submit today’s least insightful comment, so here goes:

    In the last paragraph of Politico’s post, “fiat accompli” should be “fait accompli.” Of course any decent spell checker should have caught that (but few do, since they consider “fiat” a perfectly good word, regardless of context).

  18. Sheila and Vernon,

    Sheila, I’ve never read “The Sum Of Us,” I just ordered it and will receive it tomorrow. It will give me something to read as I’m waiting at the food bank for another pickup and delivery load.

    Vernon, just read the description of your book, ordered it on amazon. Will also have it tomorrow! Looks very interesting.

    I read a lot so I’m very excited for both.


  19. I recall in high school that we read a book that helped inspired Johnson’s war on poverty. One of the things that stuck with me is how driving on the interstates allows us to avoid seeing communities of poverty in our cities.

    Gleaners just gave lots of needed equipment to Rush County. We moved there when I was age 10 in 1962. Things were different then. There were manufacturing jobs and family owned farms. Rushville is 15 miles east of I-74. I doubt that tourists stop by there much at all. Small communities that are not close to an interstate exit often suffer because they are not seen.

    I sometimes wonder what would have happened to our transportation infrastructure if Eisenhower had supported mass transit industries instead of the auto industry. The auto industry supports an individualistic society and has created an additional burden on people in poverty because many cannot afford a reliable car. And people in poverty often live in “food deserts”.

    “Mayor Pete” is facing major challenges with transportation infrastructure. Not only are our roads and bridges not well maintained, they continue to disenfranchise people of poverty and prevent them from attaining upward mobility.
    So, yes, transportation infrastructure has kept people in poverty in the past and continues to do so in the present

  20. Unfortunately, nothing much will happen on the Democrats’ legislative agenda; transportation/infrastructure proposals, or voting rights, or immigration, or a tax increase on the 1%, or health care reform, and on and on, in the next two years, unless the filibuster rule is either repealed or at least reformed. McConnell and the Republicans are counting on it not happening.

    Seems to be a slight sliver of hope as both Manchin and Biden have now publicly come out for at least returning filibusters to their original “talking” form, rather than just having to send out an email. There are other possible “reforms” that could be used to pass at least some bills such as voting rights (Now, if we can just get my Senator Sinema on board).

    IMO, it’s absolutely crucial to the Democrats being able to successfully not only hold on to their majorities in the House and Senate, but perhaps increase that margin, that they pass all of that legislation before the 2022 mid-terms. Of course, in the long run, it may someday come back to haunt the Democrats if, and when, the Republicans regain control of the Senate. But it has often been the case, that if you give the people a popular program that improves their lives, it is very, very difficult to repeal.

    Discernably and demonstratively improving people lives is a great platform to run for election on! Beats “Mr. Potato Head!”

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