Tag Archives: interstate highways

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.


When We Don’t Ask The Right Questions….

According to Engineering News Record (yes, I know I read a lot of weird shit–blame this one on my spouse, who subscribes),

A congressionally mandated study is recommending a dramatic increase in current highway spending to launch an ambitious new program to upgrade and modernize the aging, sometimes congested, Interstate Highway System. The report also calls for a hike in the federal gas tax to help pay for the plan.

It’s hard to fault this conclusion; the Interstate Highway System, like most of America’s infrastructure, is in indefensible disrepair. But looking at only one element of an integrated transportation system is like blaming all the dysfunctions of our broken government on Trump, without reference to the broken political system that facilitated his emergence and election. (Yes, we need to “fix” the Presidency by getting rid of the current occupant ASAP, but we also need to address gerrymandering, vote suppression, the Electoral College, the filibuster…)

Transportation, like so much else in our rapidly changing world, is undergoing all sorts of changes. A report that focuses only on highways (and not all highways, at that) without considering the present and future operation of the entire transportation system– air, rail (freight & passenger), state roads, etc.–misses much of the picture.

What sorts of transportation should policies promote? (For that matter, have any policies demonstrated the ability to shift those preferences? How? And which ones?)

What would the evidence tell us if we were asking the  right (systemic) questions? What are the relative costs and benefits of shipping goods via rail versus truck, for example? (Data I’ve seen would suggest that we put more money into rail.) How do different modes of transit affect the environment? Which transportation methods are most energy efficient? What is the return on investment of repairs to highways versus repairs and upgrades to rail and air?

I am definitely not suggesting that we allow our Interstates to fall into further disrepair while we debate our approach to a more rational transportation policy, but America has a tendency to pay for mansions where cabins are all we need, especially when policymakers are hiring private contractors who can be expected to return the favor and support those policymakers when the next election comes around.

When lots of money has been spent on something, there’s a natural incentive to use it. (Ask any woman who bought an expensive dress that she subsequently realizes was a mistake.) It’s human nature to look for reasons justifying the original decisions–and to ignore alternatives that might be more cost-effective , convenient or make more economic sense.

If we want to base policy on sound evidence (which I’m not at all sure we do…),if we want good data gathered from sound research to inform our decision-making, it helps to start by asking the right question.

We desperately need a comprehensive analysis of America’s infrastructure. All of it.