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The Hidden Health Risks of Highways

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Highways are a huge part of our everyday lives in the United States, but could the traffic pollution they cause be shortening our lives? Myles Bess explores the health impacts of freeways and looks at removing them as a potential solution to the harms caused by environmental racism.

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What is the history of the highway system in the U.S.?

Short answer: former U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower.  He had seen examples in his early career of highways in America, but it wasn’t until WWII when he was Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force in Europe that his dream of an interstate highway system really started to take shape. While stationed in Germany he saw how the allies used Germany’s ~Reichsautobahn~ (their high-speed roadway system) to move goods, supplies, and people super efficiently, helping them nearly win the war. His thinking was that Americans need highways to get around, be evacuated in case of an emergency like war, or move supplies in case of a war. So after becoming President, he passed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956. By the ’90s there were 45,000 miles of road built.

How did highways segregate and displace communities of color?


The United States was still racially segregated at the time of highway expansion. Communities of color were not prioritized when some of these choices of where to place highways were made. Black and white communities were largely divided, and many of the highways were literally built around Black neighborhoods, isolating those communities away from the rest of white America. This also led to displacement as some highways were built right through neighborhoods, tearing down housing and businesses displacing and destroying Black communities as they weren’t protected and considered as politically valuable as wealthier white communities were.

What is environmental racism?

Now that we know how, why, and where the highways were placed,  what impact are they having on us today? Environmental racism is racial discrimination in environmental policy decisions. Looking at Oakland and Los Angeles as examples, we see that folks who live closer to highways have higher exposure to the pollution which can cause an array of health problems such as asthma, other respiratory issues, lower life expectancy, and potential developmental delays for children.

What are potential solutions to highway pollution and displacement?

Many cities across the U.S. have removed portions of freeways or have announced studies to look into removing them. One argument that’s always brought up is that removing highways could increase traffic, or commuting would be worse somehow. However, most projects are only talking about removing a portion of a highway– not the entire thing– and typically the highways being proposed for removal aren’t used as heavily as other portions of the highway or are in poor condition. There’s also the question of reparations: how do we compensate the communities most impacted who are still dealing with the effects of highway expansion today? In 2022, President Biden proposed 1.9 billion dollars in grants to fund “Neighborhood Access and Equity” as part of the Inflation Reduction Act to help rebuild communities impacted by highways and infrastructure. While it remains to be seen how this funding will be distributed and implemented, it is considered an important step towards progress by many affected communities.


Can Removing Highways Fix America’s Cities? (The New York Times)


This New York Times article compares before and after aerial shots of various American cities during the highway boom and explores the successes and challenges of removing highways in the city of Rochester, NY.

A Brief History Of How Racism Shaped Interstate Highways (NPR)


This NPR Morning Edition interview dives into the history of the interstate highway system with NYU Law Professor Deborah Archer.

The racist history of America’s interstate highway boom (LA Times)


This LA Times article explores how the planning of the highway system was influenced by racist decision-making and discriminatory housing practices.

Assessing the Distribution of Air Pollution Health Risks within Cities: A Neighborhood-Scale Analysis Leveraging High-Resolution Data Sets in the Bay Area, California (Environmental Health Perspectives)


This scientific research paper assesses the health risks of those living in high traffic-related air-polluted areas in the Bay Area.

How Interstate Highways Gutted Communities—and Reinforced Segregation (History.com)


This article explores how the interstate highway system displaced thousands of poor, Black communities in various cities all over the United States.


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