A Congesting Problem

Gina Yum

America is a car-dependent country. Heavy car expenditure subsidization, zoning laws that prioritize private over public transportation, and our large interstate system have made America’s close relationship with personal vehicles possible. This overreliance is responsible for many issues. Every year in the U.S., over a million crashes occur between motor vehicles and large animals. It is not just animal populations that are drastically impacted by private vehicles. Marginalized communities that consist of Black, brown, and low-income people face tremendous problems that derive from heavy car reliance.

The Interstate Highway System is revered for being one of the United States’ largest public works achievements. It allows people to travel from one corner of the country to another. However, it must be noted that this highway system came at a pretty hefty cost. Over a million people, disproportionately Black residents, were forced out of their homes. These residents were forced to abandon communities filled with memories, and many were not even financially compensated.

Racism was ingrained into the building of highways. There have been instances where planners intentionally designed routes to destroy Black neighborhoods. For example, in the 1960s, local Miami leaders had to decide where to place the I-95 freeway. They could either pave over nearby abandoned railways or Overton, the heart of the city’s Black community. Inevitably, they chose to displace 75% of Overton residents. 

This form of displacement is not a relic of the past. It is still happening. Interstate 105, one of the U.S. highways, cuts through many of Los Angeles’ core Black neighborhoods. In the process of creating this freeway, more than 21,000 people lost their homes. Systematic racism plays an unfortunate foundational role in highway projects.

Although transportation planners have a greater awareness of the systematic racism that is intertwined with displacement, it is still an ongoing issue in all parts of the United States. In the last three decades, over 200,000 people have lost their homes to federal road projects. The LA Times dissected this statistic further and found almost two-thirds of that displacement occurred in Black and Latino neighborhoods. The largest reason for this racial disparity is due to highway planners choosing to widen roadways through densely populated urban areas, rather than in rural or suburban areas.

People do not have to be physically forced out of their homes to be affected by American car reliance. Extended exposure to vehicles also contributes to air, noise, and light pollution. This leaves those who live near high levels of traffic, predominantly marginalized people, at greater risk of developing health issues. Socially disadvantaged California elementary schools were found to be more likely to be exposed to elevated levels of car transmissions than their socially advantaged counterparts. Cancer risk for road-source emissions is also higher in areas with larger amounts of low-income people and racial minorities. In 2019, the transportation sector was found to be the greatest contributor to human-caused emissions in the United States. Highway expansion and other traffic-related issues impact all individuals, and it is undeniable that marginalized people bear the largest burden from it.

To combat this, we need to advocate for more equitable transit. This can be done by prioritizing public and active transit plans. Communities of color are more likely to be reliant on public transportation than their white counterparts, so prioritizing public transportation would integrate equity into civic planning. Active transportation refers to human-powered transportation, such as biking and walking. Communities of color are unlikely to have close access to safe biking and walking infrastructure. Creating more bike lanes and walking paths would help advance equitable infrastructure. 

By prioritizing equitable public and active transportation, we would increase the general quality of life for all individuals, especially marginalized people. America’s car reliance is an issue where environmental justice is paramount, yet readily overlooked. 

Sources: California Environmental Justice Alliance, California Streets Initiative, Pew Trusts, LA Times, MoveLA, National Caucus of Environmental Legislators, UCLA Institute of Transportation Studies