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The Growing Political Pushback Against Freeways

Every American city has two things: a ‘style’ of pizza, and a big, ugly freeway cutting through the central business district. In 1956 Dwight Eisenhower signed a Federal-Aid Highway Act that poured $114 billion (the equivalent to $530 billion in 2019) into building new interstate highways. This money was coming from the federal level but state and local governments had the final say on where to build them, and suburban commuters were given a new convenience at the expense of more diverse urban centers. Dozens of historic neighborhoods were knocked down in order to make room for highways and their on/off ramps. This ‘urban renewal’ also had racist and classist undertones; the same kind of language that was used to redline poor and ethnic neighborhoods in discriminatory housing and lending policies of the era was deployed as politicians cited replacing “urban blight” as a reason to locate freeways in minority neighborhoods. Some resisted, staging highway revolts, but few were successful. 

Now, there is a growing movement of questioning the logic of these urban pollution factories that pump toxic fumes into low-income and minority communities while reinforcing the car-centric mentality that has trapped much of the nation in a cycle of sprawl. Cities and communities nationwide are starting to reorient around pedestrians and public transit instead of cars. One of these is the town of Lancaster, California located outside of Los Angeles next to Palmdale. The city council converted a central arterial in their downtown into a pedestrian-friendly plaza. The project cost $11.5 million, a non-trivial sum for a town with a population of under 60,000. But studies have shown that this project generated more than $273 million in economic output and created 800 new jobs, all while significantly decreasing vehicle collisions in the area. 

Before and after of Downtown Lancaster, CA street redevelopment

A much larger example of a freeway removal project is Boston’s “Big Dig.” Bringing the city back to its former, walkable grandeur came not from entirely removing a downtown freeway but by putting the most egregious connection entirely underground. After decades of increasingly frustrating and harmful car traffic, city leaders knew they needed a change. The project was conceived in the early 1970s and officially began in 1982 but wasn’t fully funded from D.C. until 1991 thanks to a veto from President Reagan (just like their construction, the removal of urban freeways will usually need financing at the federal level). While it was finally open to the public in 2003, it wasn’t until 2006 that the last exit ramp was completed. In all, the total cost of the project exceeded $20 billion—a standout in the long history of expensive American public works projects. 

Before and after Boston’s ‘Big Dig’

Many think the impact the project has had on the city of Boston, however, outweighs the exorbitant cost. Estimated travel time reductions save commuters $186 million annually; over $7 billion in private investment in Boston stems from this project; over 7,000 housing units, 43,000 jobs, and 315 acres of new parks and landscaping replaced what used to be a highway.

The wind of opposition against urban freeways is blowing across the entire country. The Congress for New Urbanism counted 33 proposed highway removals in 28 American cities, from Detroit and Buffalo to Denver and Seattle, along with fifteen completed projects from around the world. Without fail these efforts revitalize the immediate area and drive pedestrian traffic to the boulevard instead of car traffic, giving local businesses a much-needed boost.

Yet, despite the apparent advantages to these projects Los Angeles is planning two separate highway expansions which, barring federal action, could end up destroying hundreds of homes in the process of adding lanes. “The construction of freeways and lane expansions have harmed generations of my family,” says Alex Contreras, local organizer and Freeway Fighter in Downey, CA. “My great grandparents saw their neighborhood bulldozed for the 101 in Boyle Heights. What happened to my great grandparents eventually led to the exodus of my extended family from Boyle Heights, a community they called home for generations.” 

Alex is a leader of the Happy City Coalition, a group in South LA fighting to stop the expansion of I-605. She is not the fourth generation in her family directly affected by a highway construction project and she’s had enough. “Today I’m fighting [The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority] to stop the bulldozing of my neighborhood in Downey because I know what happened to so many communities [in the past] and how transportation and city leaders ignored and still ignore the high cost of highway construction that offers no benefit to any of us,” she told me. She explained that despite the support that she has received, the biggest challenge she has faced in this fight to stop the freeway expansion is that the Metro Authority has continuously spread misinformation on what freeway expansions actually do. 

The common belief is that bigger freeways mean less traffic. But, a recent study out of UC Davis found that adding lanes on the highway induces demand and actually creates more traffic. To hear Metro Transportation staff tell elected officials and the public who rely on them for information that freeway expansions are necessary and good is frustrating,” Contreras said. “The science and data show that by widening freeways we only induce a demand for cars and cars only.”

California isn’t without its own history of freeway removal. The original highway revolts saved the city from an Embarcadero freeway that was originally intended to connect the Bay Bridge to the Golden Gate Bridge. Instead, the Embarcadero simply walled off the city from the waterfront for over thirty years by the section of the freeway that did get built. Luckily, Mother Nature had other plans. In 1989 the Loma Prieta earthquake brought the Embarcadero freeway down and it was never rebuilt. In its place: a multi-use boulevard was built with a streetcar line running down the middle. 

In terms of economic impact, housing in the area increased 51 percent, jobs increased 23 percent, and more than 100 acres of land along the waterfront have been reclaimed and revitalized as a public plaza. The waterfront promenade and the transformation of the city have had ripple effects throughout the Bay Area. “Once the Embarcadero opened up, San Francisco became a whole new city to me visiting from the peninsula,” says Palo Alto resident, transit rider, and former Mayor Adrian Fine. “From China Basin to Fisherman’s Wharf it was kind of like, ‘this is such an excellent stretch of shore and we’re gonna bike or walk it and hang out with the tourists and enjoy San Francisco.’” 

Across the bay in Oakland, the fight against freeways hasn’t been as successful. Just like many other Black neighborhoods in America, Oakland was encircled by freeways. To make matters worse it was then bisected as well, by a section of the I-980 freeway started in the 1960 but didn’t finish construction until 1985. There is now a growing movement to tear down this stretch of freeway that cuts Oakland in half headed, most notably by the former Oakland mayor and California governor Jerry Brown who again announced his candidacy to be the city’s mayor. 

Cities all over the world have been grappling with the repercussions of postwar segregationist development for decades, from Madrid to Montreal, Paris to Seoul. What we’re finding as we reclaim the city from cars is that pedestrians, bicycles, and trains aren’t just more efficient, less noisy, and less dangerous—they make city life better. Walkable cities may also be better for local economies. When cities build people-friendly spaces, the people (aka shoppers) show up. The political will to take cities back from freeways is snowballing in a way that might reshape our cities, leaving less room for speeding cars.

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