Why U.S. Highways Perpetuate Racial Injustice

Cars rush down both sides of a major highway with five lanes on each side, with parts of Chicago visible in the background

Car travel has long been synonymous with American culture and notions of freedom — from the national pastime of cross-country road trips to the name “freeway” itself. But the U.S. interstate highway system was built on the backs of low-income communities of color across the country, and many of those communities are still suffering from its effects to this day. Highway construction in the mid-20th century tore apart thriving Black and brown neighborhoods, displacing roughly a million people and saddling the remaining residents with air pollution and declining economic opportunity. Far from promoting freedom for all, the U.S. highway system remains a monument to racial injustice that has reinforced de facto segregation for decades. While some efforts are now underway to begin reconnecting communities and repairing some of the harms of this history, far more is needed to build a transportation system that advances equity, mobility, and sustainability for all.

The history of U.S. highway construction enshrined the interests of white Americans over the well-being of communities of color.

  • Under the Eisenhower administration, the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 committed billions of dollars to construct an interstate highway system. From 1958 to 1966, the project was the largest source of federal funding to the states.
  • These projects also emerged in the context of civil rights struggles, as white Americans began moving out of cities and into the suburbs. This phenomenon, known as “white flight,” cemented de facto segregation and disinvestment in urban communities of color.
  • The highway program was intertwined with “urban renewal” efforts that targeted communities of color for demolition in favor of freeways designed to make easy commutes from white suburbs to metropolitan centers.
  • Highway planners often met resistance from local communities. But while white communities were frequently able to change construction plans, Black and brown communities were largely ignored.
  • In Los Angeles, wealthy Beverly Hills was able to stop a highway project proposal in the neighborhood in 1975, while communities of color like Sugar Hill and Boyle Heights were torn apart by highways despite years of local opposition.
  • Highway builders claimed they focused on taking property in Black neighborhoods because the land was cheapest there — an outcome of government-backed mortgage redlining policies that discouraged investment in Black areas.

Highway infrastructure continues to disproportionately burden communities of color with pollution, disinvestment, and hampered mobility.

  • Studies show that living near roads and highway infrastructure increases the likelihood of respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, particularly asthma
  • Highway construction devastated the economic hearts of many communities of color, destroying businesses that had once been crucial economic lifelines in communities already suffering from racist zoning policies and disinvestment. 
  • In New Orleans, a once middle-class Black neighborhood fell into decline following the construction of the Claiborne Expressway. 
  • Research shows that proximity to roadways — with their noise and air pollution — reduces property values on top of the negative quality of life and economic impacts. 
  • Neighborhoods adjacent to highways are also more likely to be chosen as sites for polluting industrial facilities like incinerators and fossil power plants. In Denver, some communities adjacent to the I-70 highway are also suffering from pollution from nearby chemical refineries and factories.
  • The displacement caused by mid-century highway construction created overcrowding conditions in other neighborhoods. As a result, crime rates rose in the years following highway projects. 

Highway removal and capping efforts have had positive effects on highway-adjacent communities without exacerbating traffic congestion.

Despite growing awareness of these injustices, infrastructure funds are overwhelmingly being used to build more highways, contrary to climate and equity goals.