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The Fight to Reclaim Texas’s Highways for People

Freeways are a policy choice. Meet the Texans working to ensure we make different choices in Megan Kimble’s new book “​​City Limits.”

Story by Maylin Tu

Published on

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Freeways rip apart neighborhoods, displace primarily Black and Brown people and increase greenhouse gas emissions — so why do we keep building them?

According to a new book from Austin-based journalist Megan Kimble, “​​City Limits: Infrastructure, Inequality, and the Future of America’s Highways,” it doesn’t have to be this way.

Right now, a new generation of freeway fighters is battling freeway expansion across the country. Kimble’s book profiles three campaigns in Texas to build places for people, not cars: Stop TxDOT I-45 in Houston, Rethink35 in Austin and the campaign to remove the I-345 highway in Dallas. The book weaves together the story of the freeway fighting movement, portraits of people affected by freeway expansion and the history of highway building in America.

Next City talked to Kimble about the intuitive nature of induced demand, reclaiming land for housing and hope for the future. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Next City: Where did the inspiration for the book come from? What was the spark?

Kimble: I learned about a massive highway expansion in Houston, the I-45 project that will displace 1,200 people, most of them people of color. And then, in the summer of 2020, George Floyd was murdered by police and there were protests. In Austin, because our police department headquarters are right on the highway, people gathered right in front of the highway and eventually overtook the highway and stopped all traffic on I-35 for an hour. I went down to see that just to behold what was happening.

I found it to be a very moving moment because I-35 was built on the line that segregated Austin. It was built over East Avenue and it became this wall that separated communities of color from the heart of Austin. What struck me looking over the highway with police in riot gear was that racism remains very present in the way these structures contour and split apart our cities. It’s not just a story of some racist thing [of] U.S. policy in the past — it is very present. And so I had this lightbulb moment: “Oh, the highway is the story.”

What does a successful highway removal look like? What’s the hope for the future?

Lots of cities have removed highways: San Francisco, Portland, Milwaukee. There are really great examples around the country. I went to Rochester, New York to look at their highway removal. In 2017, the city filled in what was a sunken loop highway around the downtown. They filled in half of it, brought it to grade and built a two-lane city street with a bike lane — and then there was surplus land, so they built housing on it. It was six or seven acres of land that were quote-unquote liberated from the highway. And the city sold that land to developers who built housing, and half of it is rented at affordable rates to people. [Editor’s note: The city says more than 60% of units are designated for low-income residents.]

They did it in stages, so they’re now considering tearing out and filling in the rest of their inner loop. Because of that, you can go there and actually see the difference. You can walk up to this sunken highway and go on these bridges that cross it and feel what it feels like to be around what people there call a “moat.” Then two blocks away, you can walk up and it’s a city street. There’s this beautiful green bike lane, there’s benches and trees, there’s housing. People live there, and they have porches with bikes and plants. The contrast between this sunken highway and land that is used for people is really visceral and vivid to me.

It shows that another way is possible. We don’t need to remove every urban highway to have a huge impact on American cities. We could remove two miles in every city and free up hundreds of acres of land — almost every city in America has a housing crisis, largely because they don’t have enough land.

You describe highway building as an ideological battle. How does this play out both in the halls of political power, in Congress and with Texas DOT, and how does it play out on a more local scale?

I’ve sat in hearings at the Texas State Legislature and listened to people testify and say, effectively, public transit is for socialists and roads are basically free market capitalism. That is a political belief. We subsidize roads way more significantly than we subsidize transit, like five to one. There is a pervasive belief that roads somehow facilitate the free market, that they’re capitalism at its best, and that they somehow spring from the earth, unsupported by any kind of government spending. It takes 30 seconds to disprove that narrative but it is persistent.

There’s also a belief that car travel equals freedom. I’ve sat in public hearings and heard people testify that transit is this socialist handout to Americans, whereas highway spending supports business development. You can just look to any transit-rich country to see how that’s false — lots of places that have transit actually have thriving economies, and indeed, thriving local businesses.

It shows that another way is possible. We don’t need to remove every urban highway to have a huge impact on American cities. We could remove two miles in every city and free up hundreds of acres of land.

Houston, Texas. (Photo by Erik Mclean / Unsplash)

How does the fight against freeways look different than it did in the past?

I didn’t know before I started reporting this book how robust and effective the original freeway revolts were, that freeway fighters in the ‘60s erased highways from maps before they could be built. Today, what is really different about the freeway revolts is that most people like me have grown up with highways. I cannot imagine a different way. I grew up in L.A., I live in Austin — I’ve never lived more than a couple of miles from a highway. That’s true of many Americans who live in cities. What’s really different is like, there was a kind of energy in the ‘50s and ‘60s [as] people saw change, and they’re like, this is not what I want. This is not what I want for my community.

Today, what is harder to do is say, ‘This could be different,’ to communicate to people that highways are a policy decision. They are not just an immutable part of the urban landscape.

Was there anything that surprised you in the course of getting to know people and learning about their stories?

I went out and canvassed neighborhoods with this group Stop TxDOT I-45, which has knocked on thousands of doors across Houston. I shadowed them for days and one thing that surprised me was how many people in Houston understand induced demand. Lots of people don’t call it that, but it’s pretty remarkable to see how many quote-unquote ordinary people understand that phenomenon. Houston has the world’s most famous example in the Katy Freeway, which was expanded to 26 lanes — and then congestion got worse.

I have memories of sitting in someone’s kitchen. They’re hearing about this massive highway expansion and they’re like, “Well, that’s a bad idea. It’s not gonna fix traffic.” And you’re like, “Yeah, you should talk to our governor, because he doesn’t seem to understand that.”

We’re seeing increasing recognition of the destructive and racist origins of highways. How can we right the wrongs of the past?

In most cities, [the land to build highways] was taken from Black families or immigrants or Hispanic families. There’s this nonprofit in St. Paul, Minnesota that looked at a neighborhood called Rondo where I-94 was built. They calculated that the 700 homes that were taken to build a stretch of highway represents something like [$157] million of generational [wealth], because those homes would have appreciated. They could have been passed down to descendants. And that’s how generational wealth works in America.

So that, to me, is very compelling. Because it means if we can begin to think about removing highways, and free up land, the question of who should benefit from that land is very clear to me, it should be people who were harmed when it was created, or their descendants or people in that community. There’s lots of different ways to structure that kind of program.

Freeways take up a lot of land, and that land was taken from Black communities. To me, it’s like — well, give it back.

At the same time, we hear many arguments that the equitable thing to do is to expand freeways. How does that play out?

Number one, people have to get to work tomorrow, people need to feed their families this week. We have built car-centric cities and that’s how people survive. So, I totally understand and empathize with the fear of beginning to change that.

The research is clear that car-dependent cities are much more punishing for poor people. Driving a car is extremely expensive. In a city like Dallas, it consumes more than 20% of people’s disposable income, approaching how much they spend on housing. That’s because cars and gas are expensive. So if you build cities where people can actually use transit to get where they need to go, the research is clear that that benefits low-income families, because transit is simply much cheaper as a rider.

Megan Kimble (Photo by Lisa Woods)

I understand that that transition is scary. There’s a lot of distrust of planners who come from the top, who just say, “Hey, this is what’s best for your community.” Because that’s how people got interstate highways running through their backyards.

If you had to choose one moment in the book that sums up the major themes, what would it be?

My favorite moment in the book is when I went to the Eisenhower Presidential Library, and read a lot about the implementation of the Interstate Highway System, and learned about this guy, John Bragdon, Eisenhower’s deputy who was responsible for implementing the Interstate Highway System.

I knew before I went to the library that there was this meeting where he presents his findings to Eisenhower. At the library, I got the text of that meeting — literally, his note cards that he used are in his files. The presentation that Bragdon gave to Eisenhower is stunning. He says all of this stuff: Urban highways do not fix congestion. Everyone says to do that we need transit.

We knew. We knew in 1961 that this would not work. But for political reasons, we didn’t change course. That was when the whole book came into focus — it wasn’t supposed to be this way.

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Maylin Tu is Next City's Equitable Cities Reporting Fellow for Social Impact Design. A freelance reporter based in Los Angeles, she writes about transportation and public infrastructure (especially bus shelters and bathrooms), with bylines in the Guardian, KCET, Next City, LAist, LA Public Press and JoySauce. She graduated with a BA in English from William Jewell College in Missouri.

Follow Maylin .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

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