Linda Poon is a staff writer at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
Urbanites who battled the construction of the Interstate Highway System in the 1960s saved some neighborhoods—but many highways did transform cities.
In 1955, the U.S. Bureau of Public Roads released the “Yellow Book”—a national blueprint to build out the 41,000-mile Interstate Highway System. The series of maps laid out the proposed routes for this massive project, which was set to be completed by 1969.
In the beginning, things went smoothly enough: Highway engineers encountered little opposition from communities in the rural areas. But then builders tried to expand the network into major cities—and the age of the freeway revolts began.
Most famously, in New York City the writer and urban visionary Jane Jacobs took on Robert Moses, rallying community opposition to his grand plan for the 10-lane Lower Manhattan Expressway that would have destroyed parts of Little Italy and SoHo. Similar eruptions of resistance stymied highway builders in many other cities. In the greater Washington D.C. metro area, lawsuits filed by residents not only canceled some highway construction, but diverted part of Interstate 66 connecting D.C. to Virginia from its original route. One (brief) survey conducted by the U.S. Department of Transportation between 1967 and 1968 recorded 123 separate highway revolts and road-related protests.
A recent working paper from the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia looks at how the freeway revolts shaped the current Interstate map—and how that, in turn, shaped today’s cities. Using data on U.S. cities and neighborhoods from 1950 to 2010, economists Jeffrey Brinkman and Jeffrey Lin also detailed the negative local effects of the highways that did get built—something that Lin says often gets overlooked by policy makers.
“Highways allowed better transportation between cities and more people access to opportunities in cities—but there are costs,” he tells CityLab. “I think you really need to balance the benefits at a national scale against these local effects.”
The report measures the growing influence of public resistance during the Interstate-building era. The closer to city centers highways were planned, and the later they were built, the less they resembled the routes mapped out in the Yellow Book. Those in the suburbs were more likely to be built according to the original plan. And while freeways constructed between 1955 to 1957 most resembled initial plans, by 1993, the correlation between planned and built highways fell from 0.95 to 0.86, falling especially low among routes in neighborhoods near city centers.
The paper also puts the success of the freeway revolts into perspective. Despite celebrated wins like the unbuilt Lower Manhattan Expressway, the Interstate system was still constructed mostly according to plan, says Lin. The revolts did help usher in federal policy changes that prioritized local input, historical preservation, and the environment. But in most cities, highways came anyway. And when they did, they disproportionately affected those living in communities of color and neighborhoods with lower education attainment: By the mid-1960s, white neighborhoods with more affluent, better educated residents had more success putting new policies to use and keeping highways at bay.
Those protests initially came as something of a surprise to highway planners, state officials, and even mayors, who figured highways would be universally welcomed as revitalization tools for struggling downtowns. “Among economists, it had generally been thought that highways affected cities by reducing commuting costs, which improved accessibility,” Lin says.
But as the report details, that benefit was enjoyed mostly by those who lived outside the city, helping to spur further suburbanization. Inside cities, commuting benefits were eclipsed by the negative effects on the quality of life for those who lived near freeways.
In city after city, urban highways split neighborhoods, walling residents off behind impenetrable “border vacuums” and creating barriers that blocked communities from accessing opportunities across town. That, in turn, hindered employment and income growth, and made travel within cities more difficult. A three-mile trip within cities, according to the researchers’ analysis on historical and modern travel data, increased by two to three minutes on average over the highway-building era. And for trips shorter than 2.5 miles, they saw a 20 percent decline in travel volume between 1953 and 1994.
Over time, the construction of urban freeways sped population loss and lowered land values in city neighborhoods. The flight to the suburbs and the decentralization of American cities, the report says, was fueled not only by the commuting benefits that highways provided but by the desire of more affluent urbanites to escape the negative effects of increased noise and air pollution that these roads inflicted.
This grim history isn’t news to the current generation of highway resistors: From Portland to D.C., planners and local electeds continue to pursue Interstate expansions, often in the name of “traffic relief.” Even as cities like San Francisco and Seattle successfully remove urban freeways, others construct new ones. Every year, the U.S. Public Interest Research Group calls out these “highway boondoggles;” this year’s nine worst offenders are set to cost taxpayers $25 billion dollars. Lin hopes that their working paper will give the planners and promoters of these roads pause. “Our goal was be more precise about the cost of highways and to quantify how bad these quality of life effects are,” he says.