- What up, world?
Myles Bess here.
Did you all know that the United States is home to the biggest road network in the world?
That's why we love a good road trip movie.
Even if you count all the American road trip movies ever made, we would never be able to feature the 4 million miles of roads in this country, enough road to go around the world 160 times.
But fact is, we pay a steep price for our automobility.
And that price is our health, felt hardest by Black, Latinx, and low-income communities across the nation.
So today we're asking, will removing more highways in America make our communities healthier?
(image screeching) Now, before we talk about removing highways, we need to first talk about how we got into this huge highway craze to begin with.
Let's take a trip down memory lane.
First stop, the Great Depression.
FDR is one of the first presidents to say, "Yo, we need better roads and infrastructure so people can get back to work," leading to one of the first laws to build a network of superhighways.
But the U.S. didn't really put the pedal to the metal until our second stop, the 1950s when our obsessions with highways grew exponentially thanks to, well, war.
Eisenhower, who was in Germany during World War II, was inspired by their Reichsautobahn, their highway system, which was super efficient at moving goods, supplies, and people.
So efficient that had nearly helped Germany win the war, which, well, terrified Eisenhower.
It got him thinking, "Shoot, Americans need that, too."
So once he became president, with the start of the Cold War and fears of nuclear weapons on the rise, Eisenhower got even more amped on infrastructure.
What if there was a hydrogen bomb?
What if my fellow citizens needed to escape a nuclear disaster?
What if another war broke out and we couldn't deliver supplies to our military?
(bombs exploding) (dramatic music) So in 1956, he pushed the U.S. to pass the Federal-Aid Highway Act.
By the '90s, there were nearly 45,000 miles of interstate highway completed.
(tires screeching) (horn honking) (car crashing) (alarm beeping) Where did they put these tens of thousands of highways?
And how are these infrastructure decisions made?
In short, which communities were prioritized for safety, access, and investment came down to racial segregation.
For the two decades following Eisenhower's highway bill, these projects displaced over 1 million people.
Some of the highways were built around Black neighborhoods, isolating Black communities away from the rest of white America.
Now you gotta remember, the '50s were a time of big changes in America.
Courts all over the country were striking down racist laws of segregation, meaning integration was on the horizon, and highway development came just in time as white suburban folks feared the encroachment of Black city folk.
Highways gave these builders a reason to create like real physical barriers between white and Black communities as the legal barriers came down.
- In the case of freeways, they didn't really care about the people that they were affecting on the ground in these communities largely for racist reasons, to put it bluntly.
- That's Chris Sensinig, the founder of ConnectOakland and an urban designer who's been working to remove some of the highway here in my hometown of Oakland.
- One of the most direct impacts is just pollution.
There are pollution coming from the cars.
There's particulate matter from the degradation of tires.
And you breathe that in, and then you're more susceptible to asthma and other respiratory illnesses.
- This type of impact is called environmental racism, which is racial discrimination in environmental policy decisions, aka, if it's toxic, build it near low income Black and Brown people, and that includes highways, waste treatment centers, oil refineries, you name it.
According to one study, here in Oakland you can see that disparity in just two neighborhoods 15 minutes apart from each other.
In West Oakland and downtown, which are predominantly Black and people of color, 50% of childhood asthma cases were caused by exposure to traffic-related air pollution.
Over there in the predominantly white area of the Oakland Hills, only 20% of new childhood asthma cases are caused by exposure to traffic-related air pollution.
The life expectancy numbers are also glaring.
In West Oakland, life expectancy is almost seven years lower than the country's average.
That number jumps to 14 years when looking at Black folks in West Oakland versus white folks in the Oakland Hills.
And we don't even have enough room in this episode to talk about all the other factors of inequality that impact health outcomes, like food deserts, maternal mortality rates, and, of course, COVID-19.
But since we are above the noise, I gotta include this one here.
- There's also the noise.
(traffic whooshing) (horn honking) The noise is constant.
It's always there.
It's like a constant buzzing.
(siren wailing) And that can shorten attention spans.
- And the inequality felt by Black neighborhoods in Oakland largely holds true across the U.S.
So here's where removing highways comes into the picture as one solution to environmental racism.
- Communities should not need to justify why they want to remove urban highways.
It's about the people on the ground.
Highways in urban areas need to justify their existence to stay, including their economic, social, health, and physical benefits for the communities that they pass through.
- There's a bunch of cities that have already removed portions of highways, like Oakland, Rochester, and Seattle.
There's also a bunch of cities that are thinking about removing highways, like Austin, Dallas, and New Orleans.
And I know for me it's hard to imagine a world without highways.
I mean, I love a good road trip and I'm always ordering stuff online, like literally every day.
How are the trucks supposed to get around?
And won't traffic become a nightmare?
Well, the truth is, most of these projects target highways that are already decaying or are hella underused.
It's a common misconception that entire freeways are gonna get demolished.
I mean, remember, we're talking about 4 million miles of road here.
There's no way we're just gonna get rid of all of that.
So what are the potential upsides to removing highways?
Let's take a look at a highway removal project in Oakland, the Mandela Parkway.
- [Chris] So the freeway was pushed to the edge of the community, instead of bisecting the community, and created a new street with public parks in the middle.
You know one thing it did?
It moved a lot of the pollution further to the edge of the community.
- The annual black carbon levels around the parkway decreased 25%.
Plus, this project led to new bike lanes, over 150 affordable housing units, and 68 species of trees, which is pretty cool.
And that's nice for some people.
You know, I'm not knocking the progress here in Oakland, but Oakland and a lot of other cities are still dealing with the decades of damage that has been caused since the days of Eisenhower.
What processes, if any, exist that can provide some form of reparations to communities still feeling the effects of these decisions?
In recent years, activists have pushed for the government and politicians to do something about highway reparations.
And just in 2022, President Biden proposed $1.9 billion in grants to fund neighborhood access and equity as part of the Inflation Reduction Act to help rebuild communities impacted by highways and infrastructure, aka, a PC way of saying reparations.
I mean, it's certainly a lot of money, but as you can imagine there's a ton of bureaucracy involved and the government moves slowly.
One thing that seems clear to me, any proposed solution to remove highways should involve the people from the impacted communities.
What do y'all think?
How have highways impacted you and your community?
Would you remove part of a highway in your city to make room for a park or something like that?
Let us know in the comments below.
And as always, I'm your host, Myles Bess.
(upbeat music) (bells chiming)