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Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Fifty years of Interstate destruction

The WaPo has an article today about the Interstate Highway System, which came into existence when President Eisenhower signed the bill on June 29, 1956, fifty years ago tomorrow.

Dan Ryan Expressway in Chicago (I-90/94)

That curve, and a couple of others like it, have always represented for me the destructive power of the Interstate system. The bill that Eisenhower passed provided for 90% federal funding--but most of the decisions about where the freeways would run, and which contractors would do the work, were left to state and local governments. Ten percent of the money, almost all of the control to decide whose houses get to stay and whose will be demolished. Ten percent of the money, almost all of the control to decide which contractors get the multi-million dollar contracts and which don't. A perfectly irresistable offer to local bosses like Chicago's Mayor Richard Daley. All of the land shown in the photo above, and most of the land for miles around, was already developed when the Dan Ryan was built in the early 1960's. The land is flat and there are no rivers within a few miles of the curve shown. That is, the fact that the freeway curves here, saving some neighborhoods while destroying others, was almost certainly a political decision, not an engineering one. My guess is that the decisions generally went against the poor, the black, and anyone who opposed Daley.

While in grad school at the University of Illinois, I wrote a paper investigating the effects of the Interstate highways on Chicago. A quick calculation determined that clearing the land for the highways had destroyed a far larger area of developed Chicago than had the famous fire of 1871. And census data show that Chicago's population peaked in 1950 and started to decline just at the time that the freeways were built, losing people to the distant suburbs. The effect in Detroit was even more stunning, with more than half the population leaving the city in the decades following the start of freeway construction (anyone who has ever driven in Detroit in the summer knows that the freeway construction has never been completed). I-75 was built through the heart of Black Bottom, a vibrant predominantly African-American neighborhood which was the birthplace to some of the best jazz in this country. Similar destruction occurred in cities around the country, except in those places like San Francisco and New Orleans which refused to let the freeways destroy their neighborhoods.

The interstates have obviously contributed to sprawl and the huge growth in auto usage and associated pollution, global warming and resource depletion. By current standards, Eisenhower was a pretty good president. But his favorite project has turned out to be a disaster of historic proportions, just like that of our current pResident. So--Crappy birthday to you, Interstate Highway System!