How highways wrecked American cities

How highways wrecked American cities

It’s hard to picture American cities without
the highways running through their core, but highway removal projects, like this one
in Boston, can give us a sense of how disruptive it was when the US built huge highways through
the cities after World War 2. “These new highways will have a far reaching
economic impact on the entire nation!” That was definitely true. Highways revolutionized
the ways we transport goods. But inside cities, they demolished and isolated entire neighborhoods,
…they gave wealthy taxpayers a way out of the city and gave air pollution and traffic
noise a way in. And they redesigned urban life around the
car: Now 85 percent of Americans drive to work every day. So why did American cities agree to build
highways that were bad for cities?? It’s a really interesting question, and
part of it goes back to the 1930s, when a group of auto interests such as General Motors
and AAA formed something called the National Highway Users Conference.
They began lobbying for taxes that would help fund highway construction.
General Motors started to design what a new highway system could look like. And they displayed
that vision at the 1939 World’s Fair with “Futurama”, an exhibit featuring expressways
that not only connected cities, but ran right through them. It was a design that allowed
for more cars and less congestion. By 1955, the Department of Commerce echoed
GM’s vision with something called the “Yellow Book.” It laid out all the routes that interstates
would take throughout the country under Eisenhower’s Federal Highway Act of 1956, which funded
the national highway system. A lot of it is logical, its connecting most
of the US’ major cities, but the really interesting thing is that you also have highways
slicing right through the downtowns of many of these cities. Pretty much every major city
in the country — New York, DC, San Francisco, Philadelphia — you have major highways cutting through neighborhoods,
requiring the demolition of lots of housing and other sorts of buildings.
That’s largely because some of the key contributors to the plan were auto industry members — but no urban planners.
And that’s because the profession barely even existed at the time. Nowadays there’s
a value placed on preserving neighborhoods, keeping cities intact, and that concept really
just didn’t exist in the 40s and 50s … So when people were talking about connecting
the country with highways it seemed natural to drive them through the centers of cities
as well. Local municipalities were particularly eager
to build highways under this plan because 90 percent of funding came from the federal
government and the other 10 percent from states. There’s also a darker side to the reason why all these
planners wanted to build highways through downtowns and urban neighborhoods.
Highways not only paved the way for more and more white people to move into homogenous
suburbs, they also provided cover for targeted demolitions inside the city.
During that era, federal policies and implicit priorities in planners dictated that if you
had vibrant dense downtown neighborhoods filled mostly with African American residents, instead
of being preserved under the plan, they were slated as targets for removal. They were considered
“blight,” and an easy way of getting rid of that blight was by demolishing them and paving
a highway through it. “Neighborhoods and streetcars were pushed aside to make way for the automobile.” Look at the neighborhoods of Black Bottom and Paradise Valley in Detroit. When you go back to the 30s and 40s, these
are thriving, dense neighborhoods filled with hundreds of thousands of residents, of businesses,
and if you go back today, they’re mostly just empty grass plots.
This wasn’t just a historical accident, it became a pattern in cities across the country.
Poor and minority residents were displaced to make way for highways, and white residents
used those highways to commute into the city for jobs and commute back home at night.
The only exception to this pattern is in places where highways were slated to go through wealthy
neighborhoods. There were actually proposals to put a highway
through northwest DC. And through Greenwich Village in Manhattan. But you can guess what
happened there. Anywhere where residents had the means to
organize and protest, they were often able to stop the highways from being built, whereas
in places where residents didn’t have the political capital, and other sorts of privileges
that allow you to do that, their neighborhoods ended up being demolished, and they’re now highways today. Even before he signed the Federal Highway Act of 1956 Eisenhower was already a really big fan of highways in general. Part of that has to do with his time in Germany during World War 2, where he realized how important it is to have a good system of highways to transport goods and people very efficiently. But it also has to do with this military road trip that he took in 1919, where he went all the way from Washington, DC to San Francisco, California. And that road trip took 62 days at the time. Today, it takes about 42 hours. And part of that had to do with the state of cars at the time, but it also had to do with the state of roads at the time. After seeing that, he realized that 62 days was way too long to wait in any situation where they might need to defend the country. And that’s where he became such a big fan of highways.


  1. nothing wrong with highways connecting cities. But why IN cities? It makes no sense to just work in a city. The result is that (50 years later), most American cities are ghost towns, boring, ugly, very poor. In Europese they wanted to do similar things but people protested. So here the suburbs became ugly, boring and poor. There is a major difference however. The European inner cities now have become extremely hip, trendy, and popular while at the same time, people started to realize how ugly, poor, depressing, and boring the suburbs are. Result? It's nice to live in the inner cities and the suburbs are becoming better and better. The main question is why the US (but also Canada) doesn't follow. With just a few easy and cheap (important for you guys, I know! ;)) steps, you can greatly improve your downtowns. Start, for example, with allowing little stores to come back. The great chains basically destroyed social live. Put them (like in a lot of places in Europe) outside the city centers, along the highways, easy to reach with a car. With local stores (food & other necessities), cafés, bars, a cinema, sport facilities, etc… next to each other you increase the quality of life. Next, add some "street furniture", some art (might look useless, but actually helps a lot!), some fountains, some "real" parks, etc… Important as well is to remove at least 1 or 2 lanes of the streets. American city-streets usually have at least 4 lanes (2 for driving, 2 for parking). However, a lot of cities and towns also have open air parking places. The trick is simple: leave the cars at the parking places, remove the 2 extra lanes of a street, make the pedestrian area bigger, and your city becomes more friendly. Why? Because you literally bring people closer to each other. Believe it or not, you can see a good example of this in tiny Deadwood, SD. What you do is bring back jobs, recreate city life, improve living conditions. There is nothing wrong with capitalism. We all have capitalist economies. The problem is that (ironically), exactly like their communist enemies is Eastern Europe, (North) American capitalist developers forgot one major aspect: beauty.
    People need atmosphere, need joy, need beauty, need what the Germans call "gemütlichkeit", the Dutch "gezelligheid", the Danes "hygge", the spanish "buen vivir", the Japanese "mattari", etc… (not exactly the same, but similar)… Not just at home, but also in the outside world. On the streets, in the cities.
    (do I already sound like a hippy? Believe me, I'm a big fan of Eric Cartman ;))

  2. If I designed a highway system with an unlimited budget, there would be a ringroad around the outskirts of the city with a tunnel going under the city to serve as a bypass, perhaps with one or two exits in the middle of the city

  3. So corporations planned it and politicians gave it ok to go, government (with our taxes) paid for it and last corporations end up with alot more $, lol only in America

  4. This article talks about how some influential residents stopped a freeway from going thru their neighborhood.

  5. How did this tur n in to a race thing? Im so sick of hearing about it. Oh the white people did stuff… Please. Prob not even true.

  6. I watched Urban Renewal destroy Oklahoma City alive, I lived down on Main Street, Harvy Hotel, with my litle wife, 19 years she 18, we watched the entire city destroy by huge wrecking machines, The place looked like a war zone fot years, money ran out 1970's and it stalled. All in Vain, All The jobs are gone, Robbersons Steel, Western Electric Huge Plant on Reno 1 square miles mgf. plant I worked at after my Son was born 1971.

  7. Was interesting until you started saying it was a race thing, couldn't watch it. Leave it alone.

  8. That music at the beginning is really a tad too loud and kind of distracting guys, pay a bit more attention to your mixdown next time please!


  10. Be like Sydney and build tunnels right under the city centres. Why don’t you build tunnels underneath?

  11. Honestly I rather the highway of been built through a poor area then lower Manhattan like wtf its a buety

  12. I live in Melbourne, Florida, and in spite of all these consequences, I welcome greater connectivity. Outside of the larger cities (Miami, Orlando, Jacksonville, etc.), Florida is notorious for lackluster urban planning. The word “efficient” is not applicable to many street layouts. Almost everything here lies between I-95 and US-1, so it’s fairly easy to move north or south, then head inward from there. (Crossing the rivers/lagoons to go beachside is another story.) But any movement that’s not directly north-south or east–west requires winding and zigzagging through a convoluted labyrinth that just doesn’t make sense.

  13. You do know Eisenhower thought the Interstates would go around cities, don't you?

    And sprawl is more a product of city taxation than Interstates: developments in the 'burbs don't pay for streets & sewers, making houses there cheaper.

  14. We need more public/rapid transit. Highways are nice since they connect so many cities and places but they are unnecessary to build between cities and places really close by. Using where I live as an example (a city of almost 90,000 20 miles-ish from Indianapolis), lots of people drive from whatever city they live in such as Fishers, Carmel, Noblesville, etc to Indianapolis for work. It would make so much more sense to just have transit lines going between the cities to move the thousands of people going to and from work in Indy back to the suburbs. A highway cuts through near where I live and during rush hours makes all the streets surrounding so congested with so many people coming back from or going to work.

  15. 3:00
    The truth about Paradise Valley and Black Bottom in Detroit:
    These neighborhoods were segregated neighborhoods where African-Americans had to pay white slumlords excessive rents for old wooden shacks because the African-Americans were not free to buy or rent elsewhere in the city.
    I say this as a Detroiter.

  16. My hometown (Springfield MO) is one of the few major cities that doesn't have a huge freeway going through it. That being said the freeways in the area are CONSTANTLY being upgraded (*US 65*). South side infrastructure was virtually non-existent 25 years ago and today, you have the new James River Fwy, W. Bypass, and Kansas Expressway (south side residents have trying to prevent an extension of Kansas for decades now).

  17. In LA some freeways were built simply to segregate neighborhoods when wealthy African Americans were moving into white neighborhoods, like the Sugar Hill neighborhood

  18. In LA some freeways were built simply to segregate neighborhoods when wealthy African Americans were moving into white neighborhoods, like the Sugar Hill neighborhood, where the 10 is now, the whites moved out and the city turned the neighborhood into a slum through rezoning the area into multi family housing, then demolishing the neighborhood for the 10. Ridiculous to go to that extreme to avoid living next to non whites, but it sounds like something the alt right would advocate for.

  19. In LA some freeways were built simply to segregate neighborhoods when wealthy African Americans were moving into white neighborhoods, like the Sugar Hill neighborhood

  20. This feeds on greed, as stated 'no' planning and not enough affordable public transport.
    No doubt the automobile is the largest killer of us all.
    The system thrives on making people dependent on 'it', for water, food and shelter.
    The "Terminator" , the rise of the machines , has reduced society to slavery, the very opposite it claimed it would do.

  21. We kind of have that blight creeping into the city I've lived in my entire life. All the 'African Americans' love to move here a few hours away from Chicago because it's a cheap bus ride of $31 and they can move in with their families and sell a fuckton of drugs to make money without the police bothering them so much like they do in Chicago. Problem is there are constantly shootings happening now every summer when you used to never hear about them so good job on them 'African Americans' for bringing the blight back

  22. When you watch a vox video wondering if it would call highways racist and you know what it did. Highways are apparently racist

  23. The whole point of the highway systems originally was to transport military troops and equipment, then… I don’t know how public transportation got involved😂

  24. Whites cannot run away forever. Sooner, or later, they will have to deal with the cultural tensions, and cultural decay, which come with open borders, and multi-cultural immigration policies.

  25. Was the intent to have neighbourhoods along the highways or to have economic development (offices, companies, trades, industry) along them? I do think the intent was not to connect appartments by highways. These were rightfully and planned moved to the suburbs.

  26. So basically, gentrification and racist design aimed at disrupting poc businesses and communities in large cities. How shocking.

  27. This comment section:
    50% Simcity reference
    30% in [insert country] our highways go around cities"*
    20% "LOL according to Vox the US government was racist in the 1950s haha how ridiculous"
    * often not true (Birmingham, Genoa, Berlin, Glasgow…)

  28. President (General) Eisenhower also placed in bill that Highway must be straight and to be built so that if needed for purpose of war can be used as landing strips for military aircraft.

  29. President Eisenhower was impressed by the German autobahn system as compared to inferior comparative road transportation in other places in Europe. Robert Moses the urban planner deserves noteworthy mention for his conception of New York City's highway system, particularly the Cross Bronx Expressway and Brooklyn-Queens Expressway accomplishing there the goals of the urban planners describbed in this video. Alas the neighborhoods lost to concrete ribbons.

  30. As much as I agree with the sentiments of educating people on how the auto industry created the conditions for their own success, eminent domain is a legit thing if you approach it from a purely logical place. As a general idea, you can't have extremely small interest groups hold up progress and efficient markets/trade for their own individual comfort etc. Sometimes as much as I love my house or neighborhood, you have to allow better suited uses of land to replace less 'useful'. Whether the definition of useful is more artistic, aesthetic, cultural, profitable, or whatever, depends on the type of society the people want to create, but the mechanism for change should exist in my opinion.

  31. Boston has a ring road but everyone just take I-93 through Boston. if your coming from the south shore on route 24 go on Route 1/I-95 and you will go around Boston. also it meets up with I-93 anyway

  32. In Canada I’m Toronto we have a massive highways system in there we have like 8 400 series highways running though Toronto there all massive 8 lane highways

  33. Because it made our nation insanely obsessed with driving, which contributed to climate change and hatred of people with disabilities like me.

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *