After World War II and the economic boom of the 1950s, the federal government began the construction of the U.S. interstate system under the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956. This allowed states and cities to be connected like never before. However, while it may have allowed more people to travel longer distances, it also displaced many people and necessitated owning a car.
This was especially the case in big cities, which destroyed low-income communities to make way for the new mass transit toward downtown. These communities were also primarily made up of people of color. Midwestern cities such as Kansas City, St. Louis, Dallas, and Fort Worth, TX have the most highway miles per capita.
However, some cities like Rochester, NY are removing highways that separate the city between the haves and the have-nots. According to the American Planning Association, “Since removing the so-called Inner Loop in 2017, the city has rebuilt the street grid and parceled out new spaces for affordable housing, retail stores, and a local museum expansion.”
In addition to creating a homelessness crisis, the construction of the interstate system significantly increased the importance of cars. Before then, other forms of transportation were more common, including subways, trains, and trolleys. Cities were also designed in a way more friendly to pedestrians.
As interstate travel became more common, many white people moved out of cities and into suburbs (a.k.a. “White flight”). People of color were not afforded this opportunity partially due to economic circumstances but mainly due to discriminatory suburban housing codes which did not allow people of color to move into the new communities.
Highways also allowed for redlining within cities. This means that white neighborhoods and POC neighborhoods would be separated. Both of these developments meant more segregation and fossil fuel emissions. Who would stand to gain from that?
Automobile companies promoted and benefited the most from the creation of interstates. According to Vox, “The roots of the interstate system go back to the 1930s, when General Motors, AAA, and other industry groups formed the National Highway Users Conference to influence federal transportation policy.”
The lack of a car, especially in places with little to no public transportation, is a bigger factor than ever before. Most governments try to cut social services as far as possible while not inciting violence. This means public transport is likely to worsen in the foreseeable future in the U.S.
Unhoused people are particularly vulnerable to car dependency. Their communities are likely no longer walkable, many metro systems are gone, and public buses can only go so far. Making the few dollars it would cost for those modes of transportation could be done in a day’s work, but saving for a car or a phone to call an Uber/Lyft is impossible.
Some people complain that people who are homeless just need to get a job. But, how can a job be found when they can’t go anywhere? If unhoused people must save money to access adequate transportation, they would need a job first. But, to find a job they would need sufficient transportation.
It’s this paradoxical thinking that reveals the hidden message behind it all. Governments and corporations do not care about poor people, let alone people who are homeless. Consequently, they have made income inequality in the U.S. the worst in its history through their actions.
As is the case in most political issues, the masses are left to defend what is ethical. Advocating for the removal of highways in cities, better walkability, and more public transit is a good start. In general, the world needs more compassion. None of us is better than the next. None of us deserves more or less than the next. Numbers, more specifically corporate profitability, should never be more valuable than human life.