Are cities for cars or people? That question underlies the better part of a century of urban planning in the United States, and since the 1950s, cars have largely won out. Ribbons of asphalt and concrete slice and dice their way through D.C., prioritizing commuters and their cars while making residents second-class citizens in their own communities. At a moment when the need to create a more environmentally, economically and racially just world is as apparent as ever, let’s flip the script and put people first.
Urban planning is fundamentally about allocating space for the different goods and services that people need – a hospital or grocery store here, an office or factory there. But to quote 1960s folk singer Joni Mitchell, we’ve all too frequently “paved paradise, put up a parking lot.” But which paradise do we decide to pave? Whose homes, businesses and communities are swept away for parking lots, freeways and interchanges?
While this politically fraught process played out differently state to state and city to city between roughly 1950 and 1970, the broad strokes of highway construction are the same. New highways built with federal funding under the administration of former President Dwight Eisenhower linked downtown to new, racially segregated suburbs outside the city. Urban freeways cut through minority and nonwhite neighborhoods, destroyed residents’ homes and forced them to move elsewhere in the city or out of town entirely. But urbanites didn’t just watch as transportation officials paved over paradise – they formed unlikely alliances to save their communities, organized protests and lobbied public officials.
So what happened to D.C. when the grids of Pierre Charles L’Enfant, who designed the layout of the nation’s capital in 1791, merged with highways? In 1955, the U.S. Bureau of Public Roads published its “Yellow Book,” a literal roadmap to connect the nation with highways. Among other designs for what would become the Capital Beltway and the Anacostia and Southwest-Southeast freeways, the Yellow Book envisioned a downtown loop running through the heart of D.C. In the 1960s, both the “inner loop” and the spurs that would have connected it to the “outer loop” earned the ire of grassroots activists whose neighborhoods and livelihoods, from Georgetown to Brookland, were on the line. If not for the work of the Emergency Committee on the Transportation Crisis – a coalition of white and Black residents – in addition to Georgetown students and neighborhood associations, the plan would have razed a historic Quaker meeting house in Dupont Circle, leveled U-Street and destroyed innumerable homes and businesses, forever changing the D.C. we know today.
Highways might seem politically neutral – they’re just a way to get from A to B, after all. But it was auto-obsessed southern conservatives in Congress who pushed for highways in the then majority-Black and still politically underrepresented D.C. Nor is it a coincidence that the city’s wealthier residents west of Rock Creek Park escaped the worst of the highway construction, save for the Whitehurst Freeway that casts a shadow over the Georgetown Waterfront. But the short stretch of the Whitehurst Freeway pales in comparison to the Anacostia Freeway across town, which cuts residents of Wards 7 and 8 off from miles and miles of riverside recreational space.
Freeways don’t just take up valuable public space or tear down neighborhoods – decades after officials constructed these highways, car-related air pollution on highways and busy roads in Wards 5, 7 and 8 is prematurely and disproportionately killing residents who are poorer, less educated or people of color. Those same three wards account for more than half of this year’s 24 traffic fatalities.
Yet with some 70 years of hindsight, there are still plans to widen I-270 in Maryland with express toll lanes to alleviate traffic – never mind the fact that more lanes, express or otherwise, aren’t a solution to congestion. And in Houston, home to the 26-lane wide Katy Freeway, plans to widen I-69 would displace more than 1,000 Black and Latino residents in the surrounding area.
Fortunately, not everyone is convinced that the future rides on four wheels – the fight to reclaim space from cars is playing out across D.C. right now. The National Park Service closed Upper Beach Drive, a two-lane, tree-lined parkway that runs through Rock Creek Park, to vehicular traffic at the beginning of the pandemic. Commuters gave way to cyclists, joggers and picnickers, who’ve been safely roaming and recreating in the park over the past two years. But NPS has plans – pending a final decision – to seasonally reopen Rock Creek Park, turning serene public space back into the morning drive outside of the summer months.
Upper Beach Drive demonstrates the power that federal officials still have over urban planning in D.C., but there’s plenty that the city is doing, and can do, on its own. When the designed but yet-to-be-built 11th Street Bridge Park reaches completion, it’ll connect residents of Anacostia to Navy Yard, and vice versa, with bike paths, footpaths and outdoor recreation space. And with ambition and federal funding, city officials could tear down some freeways entirely – Detroit just received roughly $100 million to replace a sunken highway with an at-level boulevard.
We don’t have to imagine a less car-dependent future – we already have tantalizing glimpses of one. The District Department of Transportation’s Open Streets events have opened miles of the city’s roads to pedestrians and cyclists since 2019, and this weekend’s H Street Festival transformed space for cars into space for community.
Let’s return to where we started – are cities for cars or people? We can leave urban space in the hands of two tons of steel and rubber like we’ve done for the past 70 years, or we can claim the city for ourselves. I prefer the latter – we can, we will and we must ensure that cities are for people.
Ethan Benn, a junior majoring in journalism and mass communication, is the opinions editor.