The Tragic History of Highways Demolishing Cities — It’s Not Over Yet

This video from Vox provides an excellent overview of how the Interstate Highway System wiped out whole city neighborhoods in the post-war era.

It’s hard to believe that federal and local officials ever thought it was a good idea to uproot urban residents to clear paths for highways, but what’s even crazier is that we’re still doing the same thing today.

  • douglasawillinger

    A good but somewhat overgeneralized video, that could have asked why there was not a greater use of lightly developed railroad-industrial corridors, rather than the cutting of all new swaths.

    Also, it erroneously stated, while showing a graphic of the Lower Manhattan Expressway, that a highway was to go through Greenwich Village, when in fact the LME was further south, through SoHo, in a new swath along the north side of Broome Street..

  • Andrew Barash

    Good video. What seems to have been lost over time is the fact that people wanted highways before they were built, and demanded the government find a way to fund them. The initial US highway system was dangerous, and people spent hours commuting, and there so many traffic fatalities that the public demanded change. What grew into the interstate system was a response to those conditions. To simplify it as some totally external cadre of auto manufactures and highway contractors conveniently removes the strong public and political support at the time to build the system.
    The timing also seems to get blurred. The notion that the highways were built, and then the suburbs popped up is incorrect. The surburbs really began after WW II, when returning soldiers started young families. Once that happened, the old US system strained to accommodate the new demand, which fueled momentum for new highways.
    Those new highways would correct the problems of the US system, in removing access (driveways, intersections), and improving geometry). When the Interstate system finally came on line in the 1960’s, it was estimated that it saved 5000 lives in its first year due to these safety improvements.
    The challenge (and what this video focuses on) was how the interstate system would work once it arrived at a major city.
    Some felt that the interstate system should focus on regional/national City to City transport, but studies clearly showed that the majority of traffic was actually happening from the Cities outer ring to its inner core. Because of this, and the cost of the proposed interstate system, states and the Federal government felt that to make the huge cost worthwhile, the system needed to accommodate the most traffic.
    The cost was a huge factor. It was the biggest infrastructure project the world has ever seen. When it came time to design for the City alignments, cost had a huge role in determining where the route would go. Engineers were told to find the cheapest routes, and unfortunately in built-up cities, that meant disadvantaged areas or wetlands (referred to back then as “slums”, or “swamps”). Coupled back then with an insensitivity by local leaders to those areas, and a want for “urban renewal” meant that the freeways were routed through those areas.
    And in Cities, the freeways made true to their promise of moving traffic. Huge numbers of vehicles pass through the core of all the US major cities.
    But, all that mobility and safety provided by the interstate system has had a staggering cost and impact on the adjacent and surrounding urban areas. The freeways have created huge divides or “scars” in our urban areas. The have cut off and divided communities, and don’t support (or are hostile to) pedestrian and bike modes.
    Cities are still working today to reconcile what the interstate systems have done. Some cities are tearing down redundant, or damaged connections, and rebuilding those areas. Others have built lids over the freeways to reconnect neighborhoods.

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