Foxx decries highways’ effects on cities; US DOT can help the cause with rulemaking

By Eric Sundquist

In a widely covered March 29 speech and interviews, U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx described some of the negative effects that highway building has had on cities— particularly middle- and lower-income neighborhoods.

The former Charlotte, N.C., mayor recalled his own childhood in an urban neighborhood, where highways moved through traffic but degraded local conditions.

According to an interview in The Atlantic:

When his grandparents bought the house in 1961, he says, the area was part of an interconnected networks of streets and homes, a true neighborhood. Later, the state added two highways, cutting the house and its neighbors off from the rest of the city. There was one road in and out after the highways were completed, and the neighborhood slowly became a place where no one wanted to live or open a business, and where not even the pizza-delivery guy would go.

“That infrastructure sent a signal to me about my life,” he says.

Foxx described such effects in several big cities. From the Washington Post’s summary:

  • Miami: “I-95 cut the heart out of Overtown, a thriving black community.”
  • New York City: “They call the Staten Island Expressway the Mason-Dixon Line.”
  • Los Angeles: “The Century Expressway was one of seven freeways that led to decay in African American and Latino communities.”
  • Seattle: “I-5 was built through the city’s oldest blue-collar community, despite residents’ concerns they’d be isolated from the rest of the city.”
  • Baltimore: “Robert Moses wanted to plow through a West Baltimore community known as Harlem Park, a then-thriving middle-class African American neighborhood. Harlem Park was destroyed before the project was stopped.”

Foxx’s department has an opportunity to better balance the competing needs to move traffic and to maintain local connectivity and livability: A pending rulemaking on system performance and congestion, as mandated by MAP-21.

If those rules, for example, push for faster-moving traffic on surface National Highway System corridors in urban and suburban areas, they could continue the trend, identified by Foxx, of allowing highways to degrade neighborhoods.

Eric Sundquist is Managing Director of SSTI.