January 16, 2018
In 2016, the US Department of Transportation released, at my commissioning, a comprehensive assessment of our national transportation system (USDOT 2016). In the introduction to that report, Beyond Traffic 2045, I noted,
Transportation matters more than just as a way to get us places. Transportation, for good or ill, shapes places.
Transportation serves a functional purpose, as it connects people to jobs and economic opportunity, education, health care, and other services. But transportation’s importance as a tool of social engineering has been underexamined. It has bridged distinct peoples and, at other times, in the name of expediency or cost, decimated communities. When we build transportation facilities, we define the important and the unimportant, the ins and the outs, and the areas that will bear fruit and those that will die on the vine. It would be a mistake to consider national transportation policy without giving adequate attention to the harmful and constructive ways a robust new transportation program could help a nation in need of physical and social repair.
The interstate highway system is at once a marvel of ingenuity and efficiency—built, as one of its designers promised, “to get farmers out of the mud”—and an example of how physical barriers can create and exacerbate social ones. No city was spared the system’s effects, largely affecting minority and low-income areas in Detroit, New Orleans, Los Angeles, Chicago, New York City, and my hometown, Charlotte. Many routes were selected based on where right-of-way could be acquired cheaply or, in the pre–Voting Rights Act of 1965 America, where communities lacked political clout to stop or redirect plans.
Many routes cut through the hearts of low-income and minority communities, often in conjunction with urban renewal programs that purported to remove urban blight. There are numerous examples of ensuing disparate impacts, be it the Dan Ryan Expressway in Chicago separating the Robert Taylor homes (an iconic, largely African American housing project constructed in the late 1950s and demolished in the mid-2000s) from the rest of the city or I-95 displacing 1,093 (out of 1,289) minority families in Camden, New Jersey.1
Although the interstate highway system connected cities to each other and to broader regional economies, it created economic casualties. These stories show why we must consider communities’ character, priorities, and needs when we make decisions about physical assets that will affect them. As Beyond Traffic notes,
Infrastructure designed to serve the needs of some can limit the physical and economic mobility of others. When infrastructure is built without regard to place or community, urban highways sever a city, runway expansion displaces a neighborhood, [and] crosswalks, bus stops, and railroad crossings become an afterthought. For instance, an interstate overpass constructed with the intention of decreasing congestion could in turn lead to residents having to walk underneath a dark and dangerous underpass to get to the closest bus stop or the local job that was previously an open pathway. When communities lack a voice in the transportation planning process and infrastructure is designed with solely mobility in mind, a child’s neighborhood is divided by transportation infrastructure in a manner that segregates one area from another, personal connections are cut, local businesses lose their customers, opportunity is lost.
Several protections were put in place in the decades after the construction of the interstate highway system, including environmental protection laws like the National Environmental Policy Act and the Clean Air Act, as well as safeguards to protect historical and cultural assets. But various factors continue to make it hard for all voices to be fully heard. These include a lack of political representation, overwhelming underrepresentation of minorities and low-income residents on state transportation boards, and inaccessible, rigid, and sometimes perfunctory public feedback processes.
Disparities in safe and reliable transportation options persist (USDOT 2016). For instance, fatality rates from traffic collisions in low-income neighborhoods are more than twice the rate in high-income places. Data from the American Housing Survey show that just over half of low-income households are within neighborhoods containing adequate sidewalks, with access disproportionately tied to income. The rate is 89 percent for high-income neighborhoods but only 49 percent for low-income neighborhoods. These disparities affect safety, as in Miami-Dade County, where low-income census tracts record nearly twice as many pedestrian deaths for every 100,000 residents as the rest of the county.
That’s why, as a national debate continues about increased infrastructure investment, we must expand our definition of what good infrastructure means as we upgrade existing facilities and invest in new ones. Metrics tend to focus on pavement quality, the structural integrity of bridges, or travel times to get from one end of a metropolitan area to another. These measures are important, particularly as we tackle the challenge of a system reaching old age. But managing our assets should be about more than replacing pavement and fortifying bridges. As we plan, prioritize, and build, we must be mindful of the communities that our investments affect and the people they serve. We must be open to rebuilding differently and in ways that improve upon the designs of the past.
Take, for example, Seattle, where the I-5 interstate divided the city in two, destroyed thousands of homes, and disconnected neighborhoods, including the working-class neighborhood of Cascade. Community members in the 1960s wanted to replace the highway with better transit and more affordable housing. Today, the region is at the forefront of broadening its transportation options, including significant expansions of its transit system using federal and regional funding and financing options. In Columbus, Ohio, investment in an innovative “traffic cap” reconnected a city once split by a highway.
Communities and their challenges are different, so strategies for addressing those challenges must be specific to circumstances, priorities, resource availability, and needs. Refining our approaches to identifying these challenges and the value of different solutions can help achieve better outcomes.
See “The Greatest Decade 1956–1966: Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the Eisenhower Interstate System, Part 2: The Battle of Its Life,” US Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration, last updated June 27, 2017, https://www.fhwa.dot.gov/infrastructure/50interstate2.cfm.
USDOT (US Department of Transportation). 2016. Beyond Traffic 2045. Washington, DC: US Department of Transportation.
The Honorable Anthony Foxx was most recently the US secretary of transportation under President Obama. Before his appointment, Foxx the youngest mayor of Charlotte, North Carolina, where he helped lead expansions of a major highway and transit and airport projects. As secretary of transportation, Foxx led an agency with more than 55,000 employees and a $70 billion budget that oversaw air, maritime, and surface transportation and placed $30 billion in federal grant assistance throughout the United States in all 50 states and US territories. Foxx urged Congress to pass the first long-term surface transportation bill in more than 10 years, ushered in a new wave of transportation technology through the Department of Transportation’s Smart City Challenge and the department’s first autonomous vehicle guidance. He has a deep working knowledge of new infrastructure opportunities and strong bipartisan political relationships, evidenced by his 100–0 confirmation. Foxx has a BA from Davidson College and a JD from the New York University School of Law.