The Myth And The Truth About Interstate HighwaysRoundup
tags: infrastructure, urban history, transportation, Interstate Highway
Sarah Jo Peterson, PhD, is an independent transportation consultant and the author of The Transportation Research Board, 1920-2020: Everyone Interested is Invited, National Academies Press, 2020.
Metropole Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of articles during April that examine the construction of the Interstate Highway System over the past seven decades. The series, titled Justice and the Interstates, opens up new areas for historical inquiry, while also calling on policy makers and the transportation and urban planning professions to hold themselves accountable for its legacies. Additional entries in the series will be added to the bottom of this page.
The transportation industry in the United States is still steeped in a myth about cities and highways, especially the Interstate Highways. The myth goes something like this: the Interstate Highways were intended to be a system for intercity (or interstate) travel, but they had unintended effects for cities because they became used inappropriately for travel within urban areas. I think of this myth as the dance of the intended and unintended, but perhaps @capntransit recently put it better: the story of “Saint Dwight and the legend of the True Original Interstate Highway System that was Good and Pure.”
The primary myth comes with convenient corollaries: a) everything bad about the Interstates in cities is actually the fault of urban renewal and city leaders; b) analyses of costs dictated which neighborhoods fell to the bulldozers; and c) urban expressways were so new that mistakes were made, but public protests in the 1960s brought needed reforms. Like many myths, they contain something that is sort of true, but there is also a lot about the myth and its corollaries that was intentionally constructed. I have traced at least one source of it back to the mid-1970s and—tragically—to what would eventually become an official work of history published by the federal Department of Transportation (USDOT).
I’m aware that I am dispensing here with the usual detached tone of historical scholarship. I have spent most of the decades of my professional life within or on the fringes of the transportation industry, defined here to include both the public and private sectors. I’ve lived inside this myth for much of my career. As a historian, I’ve watched the evidence mount, challenging the myth. However, the myth still serves its purpose: it prevents the industry from having to directly confront the sins committed in the name of the Interstate Highways, most significantly against Black Americans.
The myth’s damage isn’t only in the self-serving absolution that it gives the highway industry and the federal government. It is also in the knowledge about urban transportation—knowledge that was easily accessible in the 1940s and 1950s—that was erased. I posit that the moral failures around racial justice and the turning away from urban transportation—or people-oriented transportation—are connected. In addition, I fear that the myth and its fraternal twin—the decades of silence—continue to shape American transportation policy and practice in unacknowledged ways.
The Biden Administration has made a public commitment to advancing racial equity, and Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg has spoken of past harms in his public appearances. Credit, too, should go to Anthony Foxx, transportation secretary from 2013 to 2017, who significantly advanced awareness when he publicly shared the story of his childhood, growing up in a Black neighborhood cut off from the rest of Charlotte, North Carolina, by I-85 and I-77.
But we’ve been here before. In 1998 the Federal Highway Administration adopted a policy that required incorporating justice for racial minority and low-income populations “in all its programs, policies, and activities.” As someone who works in policy, I understand the inclination to move forward with new initiatives without stopping to take the time to articulate what happened, specifically, in the past. In this case, though, if the transportation professions just move forward, we will never examine how the past is still embedded in the present.
As a transportation professional, I am not categorically opposed to urban expressways. However, 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.
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