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Looking for the off-ramp from the highway trap

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To say out loud that highways are a net negative, you risk being branded a modern-day heretic. After all, haven’t freeways provided economic growth, transportation efficiency, and accessibility through personal mobility? Perhaps, but in fact there have been many trade-offs and ill effects from the proliferation of highways which have been largely dismissed and ignored because they fell onto the poor and communities of color.

Should we be asking if highways are a false promise that have given only the illusion of mobility?

The wide corridors of asphalt, steel guardrails and yellow lane stripes appear to be invitations to quickly careen through crowded cities, but in reality, the so-called expressway is a clogged traffic artery during most commutes.

Every major American city is sliced by a least one highway. Seventy years ago, planners sold these beefed-up thoroughfares as progress as essential to our future prosperity. The automobile promised freedom, and highways were going to take us there.

Instead, they divided cities, displaced people from their homes, chained us to our cars, and locked us into a high-emissions future. And the more highways we built, the worse traffic got.

Nowhere is this more visible than in Texas. In Houston, Dallas, and Austin residents and activists are fighting against massive, multi-billion-dollar highway expansions that will claim thousands of homes and businesses, entrenching segregation and sprawl.

Highway construction often ripped through historic neighborhoods of color. The use of eminent domain can force long time multigenerational residents out of their homes. This results in the severing of social ties and destruction of cultural hubs.

Highways prioritized cars, making car ownership essential. This disadvantages low-income residents, folks who are more likely to rely on public transportation and many with ambulatory challenges. Weakened public transit due to the focus on highways creates a cycle of dependence on cars, a burden for those who can't afford them.

Highways are major sources of air contamination, toxic storm runoff and noise pollution. These pollutants disproportionately impact minority communities where highways were often built. This environmental racism leads to increased respiratory problems, localized higher lead levels and other health issues, worsening existing health disparities.


Megan Kimble is an investigative journalist and the author of Unprocessed. A former executive editor at The Texas Observer, Kimble has written about housing, transportation, and urban development for The New York Times, Texas Monthly, The Guardian, and Bloomberg CityLab. She lives in Austin, Texas.

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*This interview will be recorded on Tuesday, April 2, 2024.

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