Is highway removal needed to fix our cities?

Highways have played a significant role in shaping the American urban landscape since the mid-20th century. However, many of these highways, built with the intention of facilitating suburban commuting, have divided up neighborhoods and caused long-term harm. Recognizing the adverse impacts of these highways, cities across the United States are now embracing a new movement – highway removal. In this EthicalGEO Blog, we explore the history of highways and neighborhood division, the success of Rochester’s Inner Loop removal project, current plans for highway removal in the US, and emphasize the importance of reconnecting communities.

During the construction boom of the 1950s and ’60s, newly constructed highways crisscrossed American cities, often cutting through existing neighborhoods. These transportation networks disrupted communities, destroyed homes and businesses, and disproportionately affected Black neighborhoods. Highways became physical barriers, isolating communities from each other and exacerbating racial and economic disparities. Often cutting straight through Black neighborhoods and segregating the landscape, these highways not only brought with them a plethora of negative effects such as noise pollution, environmental hazards, limited mobility options, and reduced access to essential services, they also severely devalued homes within the communities they ran through. 

Rochester’s Inner Loop Highway was built in the 1950s in Rochester, New York, demolishing homes and businesses, and isolating the city’s  downtown from nearby neighborhoods. It’s construction displaced many Black families and made the inner city more hostile to anyone without access to a car. The transformation project, which began in 2014, has converted the sunken expressway into a street-level boulevard. The renovations have freed up 6 acres of land for redevelopment, generated economic growth, and facilitated increased walking and biking activity.

Inspired by the success stories of projects like Rochester’s Inner Loop, a growing number of cities around the country are now considering or actively pursuing highway removal. Syracuse, Detroit, New Orleans, and Dallas are among the cities facing pressures from local residents and activists to address the negative impacts caused by highways. The movement has gained momentum with the support of the Biden Administration, which has identified racial justice and climate change as critical considerations in transportation planning. President Biden’s proposed infrastructure plan includes $20 billion for reconnecting divided neighborhoods, and Congress is working on translating this proposal into legislation.

Critics have expressed concerns about the heightened potential for gentrification resulting from new developments. It is crucial to balance community interests, ensure affordability, and avoid displacing long-term residents during revitalization processes. Furthermore, expertise and funding are significant barriers to highway removal, but the proposed legislation and grants from the Department of Transportation aim to address these challenges.

Highway removal represents a paradigm shift in transportation planning, focusing on reconnecting neighborhoods, rectifying historical injustices, and promoting sustainable and equitable communities. While there are still challenges to overcome, cities across the US are recognizing the need to address the harmful impacts of highways and are actively exploring ways to remove and reimagine these infrastructures.