Across the United States, the highway system dating from the 1960s was built without thinking about the social consequences. In many states, highways that cut through cities cut society in two.
The US Senate on Tuesday passed the historic $ 1 trillion infrastructure plan promised by President Biden. The « historic project » must now be voted on in the House of Representatives. He promises to renovate roads, bridges, electricity networks, expand internet access, all while respecting the environment and taking into account the fight against global warming. Nestled in this law, the destruction of « roads of racism ».
These » roads of racism » cut cities in two and draw a red line which delimits a kind of segregation. On the one hand, the « frequentable » suburbsmiddle classes, even upscale. On the other, minority communities, often poor and often black populations. These highways are part of the historic highway system of the United States. They were built between the 1950s and the 1970s. Town planners of the time sought to build where property values were lowest, and therefore cheapest to buy. Thousands of traders, businesses and residents left these areas and never returned. At the same time, it has allowed the middle class to settle in suburban areas and to make daily trips to the city center.
Degraded living conditions
These urban highways have dramatic consequences for the populations who live nearby, especially pollution. In the Bronx, a former resident of the Cross Bronx Expressway recounts: « As a son of the Bronx, I grew up in three places at the same time – home, school and hospital, because I had seizures. recurrent asthma « . According to US Congressman Richie Torres, originally from that New York City neighborhood, the asthma hospitalization rate in the South Bronx is two to three times higher than in the rest of the city.
In New Orleans, near the Claiborne Expressway , built in 1968, residents hear the sound of cars night and day, passers-by are suffocated by exhaust fumes. Around this urban highway, nearly 40% of the inhabitants live below the poverty line, against 25% for the rest of the city.
For the White House, which cited the example of New Orleans , these highways have caused the ruin and grief of underprivileged communities, destroyed businesses, polluted the air, « racism is physically embedded in some highways », Transport Secretary Pete Buttigieg said.
Remove all highways?
The solution proposed by the president is rather radical and the idea is not to destroy all the urban highways. What is likely to happen is that every state and every city will rethink space. In environmental terms, in terms of transport and in social terms, and this is all new. In Syracuse, New York, for example, part of the highway will be destroyed and a boulevard built instead. Traffic would be diverted elsewhere. This project alone is two billion dollars, supported by the State of New York and helped with federal funds. On the other hand, in New Orleans, officials have already announced that destroying Claiborne Expressway was not a priority, because it was too expensive .
This destruction is not necessarily well received by the inhabitants of the areas concerned. « It’s a virtuous signal, » a Syracuse resident told the BBC , » but it won’t help matters. » In the meantime, her 61-year-old neighbor washes her furniture as she does every day, covered by the dust from the highway.