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Mobility conversation heats up on highways, if they violated civil rights

Marc Lefkowitz  |  07/29/19 @ 10:00am  |  Posted in Transportation choices

A mobility conversation at the Cleveland City Club started out politely but ended with a painful reminder of how race and class were bound up in decisions involving billions of tax payer dollars.

<br />NOACA's update of the region's Long-Range Transportation Plan is an opportunity to change direction and promote better transportation choices.<br />Interstate 90 rendered neighborhoods in Cleveland into segregated areas. Aerial photo from Cleveland State University collection.

A raw nerve was touched — the history of the interstate highways. When NOACA Executive Director Grace Gallucci repeated her assertion that no ill will went into building highways, a young African American woman in the audience pushed back that they divided urban neighborhoods, and moderator Steven Litt sided with her, openly questioning if highway building was potentially a civil rights violation. Litt cited Richard Rothstein’s book “The Color of Law” to support the argument that highways were an intentional program of the federal government to siphon investment away from population centers out into farmlands and to exclude people of color from the post-war economic boom.

“When the highway system was built, that’s what people wanted,” Gallucci asserted.

It’s this attitude that hobbles progress, Rothstein writes. “The notion that our segregation is ‘de facto,’ arising from private discrimination, personal choices, and the unintended consequences of economic forces.

“But once we understand that our racial landscape has been created and maintained ‘de jure,’ Rothstein, a research associate at the Economic Policy Institute, continues. “By governmental law and policy, we can engage in a national conversation to design remedies.”

The moment for that discourse appeared, fully fledged, on the occasion on the release of the Cleveland Foundation’s report, “Cleveland’s Mobility Imperative.”

Gallucci did acknowledge that “our highway system is terrific and efficient, but it led to segregation by wealth and social status. We need to right those wrongs.”

To which Litt lobbed this bomb: “Why should (a more functional transit system and the inequities of the state of Ohio’s investment in highways over transit) matter to anyone living on a five acre lot in the suburbs?”

Jarrett Walker, a transit expert and panelist whose firm is working with Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority on a redesign of its bus system, added that it should matter to them because if their employees cannot get to work, it will be a problem for them.

“We have a system that was built by our grandparents on the premise that driving would be cheap now and always,” Walker said.

Gallucci continued, “The business community has made a lot of the decisions about where people go.”

Litt pushed back that redlining maps and documents from the government prove that highways were an intentional policy leading to discrimination. “Is what we’re talking about unconstitutional?”

“It’s often a subterfuge for what the business community wants,” said panelist and report co-author, Justin Glanville, adding that even with Ohio raising its gas tax, the vast majority of the money will be spent on new highways and unnecessary roads into farmlands.

Walker went further, arguing that the roots of the highway system are the very colonial power structure that the U.S. Revolution was fought to dismantle.

“The suburban view of the inner city is colonial,” he said, “where we extract resources from. We don’t think about it as a place where people live but where we go to get things.”

Walker points out that cities during the highway building era of the 20th century “envied” what the suburbs were getting in highway spending in their pursuit of a self-destructive agenda of urban highway building.

Rideshare like Uber is not the savior it is made out to be, Walker added. “They are taxis. Nothing has been invented. They are expensive to use and they create congestion.”

Walker says the extra wide streets in Cleveland can be an advantage — there are plenty of opportunities for road diets that are inclusive of more efficient — and more resilient — forms of transportation like biking and transit.

Gallucci said that Northeast Ohio can take back control and point development toward more equitable outcomes by following the recommendations of the Vibrant NEO report.

The Mobility report supports more investment in core areas like Cuyahoga County which has seen its foreign born immigration rate climb even while native born population continues to flee.

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