Last year, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg unveiled new efforts to address the problematic racial legacy of interstate highway construction, dedicating $1 billion to “reconnect cities and neighborhoods racially segregated or divided by road projects.” Buttigieg’s efforts were quickly assailed by critics who lamented the “wokefication” of the interstates.
But with the interstate system turning 67 years old this year, it is important to understand its many troubled legacies, including those that Buttigieg has pledged to address. Although planners knew early on that the interstates could disproportionately harm urban communities of color, officials made policy choices that cemented stark racial divides — and the creation of mythic lore surrounding the freedom of the open road worked to obscure them.
In 1956, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the National Interstate and Defense Highway Act, making the interstate system a reality.
Created in the era of Cold War competition, the construction and engineering of the system came wrapped in scientific language that obscured its impact. Engineers, planners and others deployed technical and scientific jargon that not only established the interstates as the height of modernity and a necessary step for the nation’s present and future, but also helped shield the system’s architects from criticism. They could explain away issues and counter criticisms with technocratic arguments beyond the reach of most protesters of the time.
Unprecedented in its size and scope, the law imposed new design standards that emphasized greater flow, wider freeway lanes, as well as larger and more complex interchanges. And from 1958 to 1966, the project was the largest source of federal funding to the states.
But while earlier state and urban highways had snaked around older communities, the 1956 act favored straight lines that sliced through neighborhoods. In the two decades following its passage, nearly 1 million people lost their homes to highway construction.
Non-White residents and homeowners were disproportionately affected by this massive displacement. Discriminatory federal housing policies such as redlining, alongside racism at the local level, had denied people of color from obtaining cheap, federally-subsidized mortgages for single-family homes. The result was the creation of booming, nearly all-White suburbs, while populations of color lived in segregated, crowded, often urban communities with declining housing values and conditions — the exact neighborhoods that planners, engineers and politicians targeted for highway construction.