During a recent press conference, Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg contended that “some beltways and interstates and highways were built…to be racist.” He used this argument to justify the $1 billion in the recent infrastructure bill aimed at “reconnecting communities” as well as other spending that will supposedly be focused on disadvantaged communities.
The argument that highways were racist stems from two sources. First, Robert Caro’s book about Robert Moses claimed that Moses deliberately built overpasses on New York City parkways too low to allow buses in order to keep blacks and other minorities (who would presumably ride buses and not drive cars) from reaching popular recreation areas such as Jones Beach. Second, the anti-highway movement of the 1960s claimed that highways were deliberately targeting black neighborhoods to force them out of cities. “No white man’s freeway through black man’s neighborhood” became the rallying cry.
Both of these claims are serious distortions of the truth. Caro’s book was simply wrong. The truth is that the New York legislature had forbidden truck traffic on parkways for safety reasons. Since trucks weren’t going to use the parkways, Moses didn’t make the overpasses particularly high, but they were still high enough to accommodate the buses of the day. As documented by Mark Romaine, most of the overpasses are archways, and today some taller buses might not be able to fit under the lower parts of the arches (right lanes), but they can fit under the central parts (usually the left lanes). Besides, there were plenty of alternate routes to recreation areas that were already served by transit.
The black neighborhood claim is a little more complicated. After World War II, many American inner cities were filled with obsolete multifamily housing that most people considered undesirable. For example, many buildings were five or more stories tall but didn’t have elevators, so people living on the top stories had to climb many stairs. Many of these buildings had emptied out as people moved to single-family homes in the suburbs, and the remaining occupants tended to be poor, including many blacks and immigrants.
Urban planners of the day called this “blight,” and they believed that property owners wouldn’t voluntarily invest in improving or replacing these buildings because no one would spend a lot of money on a new building whose value would be brought down by adjacent blighted structures. Thus, they decided to use the government’s power of eminent domain to buy blighted neighborhoods, clear them of the blighted structures, and then sell the land to developers who would build new housing, at least some of which could be occupied by the people evicted from the blighted housing. That part never worked very well because of the time delay between evictions and construction of new housing.
When Congress created the Interstate Highway System in 1956, which included funding for several thousand miles of urban highways, city planners — not highway engineers — decided to route many of those highways through blighted neighborhoods, not because they were inhabited by blacks but because the cities wanted to rid themselves of obsolete housing. Fundamentally, the real problem was not blight but job and education discrimination that kept blacks poor so that the only housing they could afford was housing no one else (except similarly poor immigrants) wanted.
Today, the anti-automobile lobby is using claims of racism to justify their anti-highway programs. The reality, as I’ve pointed out before, is that highways and automobiles are the most egalitarian form of transportation ever devised. They don’t discriminate based on race, gender, or religion. While auto ownership requires some base level of income or wealth, it is less expensive in the long run than urban transit or intercity passenger trains, both of which were used mainly by elites before governments began to subsidize them.
Turning this around, any efforts to discourage driving will hit low-income people the hardest. Traffic congestion especially hurts them because their jobs tend to have less flexibility about locations and starting times than those of higher-income people. Truly just transportation policies would focus more on increasing auto ownership and reducing congestion so that auto drivers could make it to their jobs and other meetings on time.
Randal O’Toole is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute in Washington, DC and director of transportation policy at the Independence Institute, a free market think tank in Denver. A version of this originally appeared in his blog, The Antiplanner.
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