Tear Down Those Highways!

By Gil Rodan


The following piece is part of Progressive City's Planning for Just Transport series. Transport is fundamental to our existence – including access to key sources of livelihood, ranging from work to healthcare to educational institutions to childcare to stores. Yet, the right to accessible, safe and affordable transport – as a public good – is continuously denied on the basis of ability, race, gender, sexuality and class. With this in mind, authors have highlighted initiatives, strategies or actions that aim to secure more just forms of transit.


Oakland's Grove Shafter Freeway, 1968, by Russ Reid (Courtesy of Oakland Museum of California)

The web of highways that crisscross the American cityscape was created out of an express desire to provide wealthier white suburbanites with comfortable access to the resources and jobs in central cities, while destroying low-income and racially diverse urban neighborhoods—often intentionally. These deliberate policies were designed in a way that exacerbated racial and economic stratification and they continue to wreak havoc on the built environment to this day. No program for just transportation can exclude the reality of the violence promoted by highway-building. Instead, we must confront and dismantle the disastrous relics of our past in order to build the sustainable and equitable transportation infrastructure that the climate crisis of this century demands.


No program for just transportation today should ignore the deleterious impacts of highways on cities. Residents of poor and BIPOC neighborhoods that bore the brunt of highway construction suffer from poorer air quality and higher rates of respiratory illness than residents of wealthier and whiter neighborhoods. Furthermore, highways act as physical barriers enforcing racial and class-based segregation.


As Omer Freilla notes in his chapter from Highway Robbery (Edited by Robert D. Bullard, Glenn S, Johnson and Angel O. Torres, South End Press, 2004) highway construction, in concert with discriminatory financial and housing policies, was developed as a “massive welfare program for the white working class” that was predicated on the immiseration of urban minorities.


What cities need is not deceitful highway departments that rebrand their projects to widen the concrete snakes that have strangled cities so they can satisfy the needs of suburban real estate developers. What they need is a program of highway removal that centers community control and the right of return for the 475,000 displaced families in decommodified and community-controlled housing.


Highway teardowns present an opportunity to limit the outflow of urban wealth into the suburbs, while also providing urban communities a way to harness that wealth in order to secure better transit and safer mobility options for residents.


The money is certainly there. The California Department of Transportation’s 2021 budget alone included $10 billion for highway expansion and “improvement” projects, enough to fund several highway teardowns and develop community-controlled housing. Yet local, state, and federal transportation planners continue to invest in transportation programs that further inflame racial and economic disparities, treating the city as a resource to be exploited by those from the outside rather than as a place for people to thrive.


Highway removals present their own challenges, however. Following the teardown of San Francisco’s Central Freeway, the Black population of the freeway impacted zone declined by nearly 36% and nearby real estate values soared; showcasing the ability of freeway removals to be wielded as tools of real estate speculation. Without proper considerations, highway removals can have the effect of replicating the same processes of segregation caused by highway construction.


Highway removals must not be conducted with the ethos of urban renewal and master-planning whole cities and metropolitan regions, but with an emphasis on the needs of residents so they can enjoy the benefits of urban living while remaining shielded from the speculative tides of real estate capital.



Gil Rodan is a San Jose (California) based columnist.

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