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Texas, with its wide-laned roads and supersized highways, seems like an unlikely place for a rebellion against the supremacy of American car culture.
But last week a band of residents from across Texas descended upon the state’s department of transportation (DoT) to voice fury over new highway expansions that are set to displace thousands of people and raze hundreds of businesses, schools and churches. Meanwhile, the state is actively crushing local plans to encourage more cycling and walking as an alternative to driving.
Festering concern over the seemingly endless swelling of highways has even sparked an unusual intervention from the federal government, with Joe Biden’s administration launching a civil rights investigation last year into the Houston project that has paused its construction. “Federal transportation department monitoring and intervention on civil rights grounds is rare,” said Theodore Shaw, director of the center for civil rights at the University of North Carolina. “The courts have not done much about it.”
Holding signs riffing off familiar tropes in this conservative state, such as a picture of a bicycle under the words “Come and take it”, several dozen protesters rallied outside the Texas department’s headquarters in the shadow of Texas’ pink-hued capitol in Austin.
“It’s just plain Jane boring lanes, more and more lanes,” said Fabian Ramirez, a structural engineer whose property in Houston’s Northside district is set to be flattened as part of a controversial $9bn project to widen and realign the city’s highways. “There’s no train, there’s no bus, there’s no anything that supports mass transportation. It doesn’t exist. They [Texas DoT] love concrete. I mean, geez. I love building stuff, but I also have a moral compass.”
Ramirez said repeated expansions of highways in Houston have invariably destroyed homes in Black and Latino neighborhoods like his. “All of these Black and brown neighborhoods are being attacked by this expansion,” he said. “I should be able to enjoy being Mexican in Houston in 2022 without somebody trying to push me out of my neighborhood.”
City leaders in Texas, meanwhile, have also started to question the car-centric status quo. San Antonio planned to narrow a two-mile stretch of Broadway Avenue, a key thoroughfare, and add protected bike lanes, only for Texas DoT to overrule the city in January to halt it, citing fears over worsened traffic congestion. Ron Nirenberg, San Antonio’s mayor, accused the state of “1950s thinking” and a “religious fascination” with highway expansions.
“Five years ago the idea that there would be any elected officials publicly opposing a freeway widening would seem farfetched,” said Jay Crossley, executive director of Farm and City, a non-profit that works on Texas urban living issues. “A lot is changing in Texas.”
But the federal government is still funneling $350bn to the states for highways via the infrastructure bill, a situation that experts warn could wreck the US’ climate targets by spurring more car driving and planet-heating emissions. While some states, such as California, have started to recognize studies that show if you sow more asphalt you simply reap more traffic, Texas is pushing ahead with an unprecedented blitz of new road space for cars.
“This is a make-or-break moment. How the states use those highway funds will basically determine whether we meet our transportation emissions goals,” said Ben Holland, an urban design and land use expert at RMI, a clean energy non-profit.
Beyond the highway expansion in Houston, Texas is upsizing major roadways that carve through Austin and El Paso, as well as eliminating the planned bike lanes and pedestrian crossings in San Antonio. The frenzy of road building is championed by Greg Abbott, the Texas governor, as a response to the state’s ballooning population, which grows by about 1,100 people a day, and driver frustration over gridlock.
“Highways are essentially fossil fuel infrastructure but we haven’t really heard about them in climate discussions until now,” Holland said. “It’s just been universally accepted that it’s too hard to get people out of their vehicles and provide alternatives. There is certainly a car culture here, but in large part that’s because it’s been mandated.”
In Texas, the mandate for the supremacy of roads comes via the state constitution, which requires that highways are funded to the exclusion of almost anything else that moves people around. About 97% of the $30bn a year the state gives its transportation department is spent on highways, leaving very little for buses, trains or bicycles. This focus is etched into the stone of the department’s headquarters, which is named the State Highway Building, a title carved above a triptych of native Americans on a horse, a pioneer wagon and a car.
Last week, the monthly public meeting of Texas’ four transport commissioners was thronged with protesters who took turns to denounce the highway expansions. A teacher spoke of students who missed school because no one with a car was able to take them, while a young man recounted how he has to walk alongside a busy highway each day to get to work. Several demanded that San Antonio, and other cities, be allowed to give room to cyclists and pedestrians.
“The constant never ending buzzing of cars, the honking, revving of engines at all hours and exhaust from vehicles idling in traffic causing a stream of pollution, make it hard to sleep and enjoy being outside in my own neighborhood,” said Tiffany Valle, a Houston resident. “The sounds of song birds are drowned out by the cacophony of cars from the unnatural river of concrete.”
Several protesters also decried the death toll on roads which has, across the US, increased since the start of the Covid pandemic. “I am done accepting that people have to continue to die in cars,” said Kelsey Hughes, an Austin resident who said she lost four members of her church group in a car crash. “We’re here to say we’ve had enough. We want to live in a world where we walk to school, into grocery stores, where we bike to work and where we take high-speed trains to visit our family members.”
Despite a high-profile road safety campaign by Texas DoT, more than 4,480 people were killed on the state’s roads last year, a situation critics say is exacerbated by the creation of ubiquitous, wide highways that encourage fast driving, coupled with a lack of safe pedestrian crossing points or bike paths, which are included along just 0.5% of the 80,000 miles of road overseen by Texas DoT. Houston is the deadliest major metropolis in the nation for drivers, their passengers and those who are mown down by cars, according to the Houston Chronicle.
Across the US, more than 90% of the top pedestrian fatality hotspots are on roads with three or more lanes, according to a federal government analysis released in January that also found that fatalities among pedestrians and cyclists are rising faster than those within vehicles. “People walking and biking suffer disproportionately from serious injuries and fatalities when a crash occurs compared to people in vehicles,” the report adds.
America’s zeal for large, wide roadways can be traced back to the federal highway act of 1956, which spawned what was the largest public construction program in US history. A new network of 41,000 miles of highway would crisscross the country, connecting cities, improving travel times and helping upgrade roads that were in a dangerous condition. Dwight Eisenhower, then US president, called the project “essential to the national interest”.
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s the highways were, however, pushed through the core of America’s cities, mostly through communities of color that didn’t have the political clout to avoid being uprooted. An estimated 1 million people were forced from their homes as hulking highways cleaved neighborhoods in half, transforming dense, walkable communities into dislocated, often forlorn places that were left with a stew of toxic air pollution from the rumble of passing cars and trucks.
As the highways filled up with traffic, a series of road expansions and widenings occurred, causing more displacement and in many places failing to alleviate the congestion. This is because of what economists call “induced demand”, a theory that was put forward as early as the 1960s to argue that building more roads only leads to more cars.
This concept has been bolstered by subsequent research that has shown that the amount of added road capacity in US cities has caused a lockstep increase in the number of miles driven. Essentially, wider highways may provide some temporary respite to congestion, but this just encourages more people to drive in the “improved” conditions, leading to more traffic and eliminating any initial benefit.
Trains and buses can share the load, especially for people unable to afford the punishing expense of a car, but experts say the root of the issue is that most roads are free to use and subsidized by government. “Anytime you make something cheaper and more convenient to use, then people will use more of it,” said Holland.
A prime example of this self-enforcing loop is found in Texas, where the Katy Freeway purportedly became the widest freeway in the world when it was broadened in 2008 at a cost of $2.7bn. Covering 26 lanes, including its feeder roads, the freeway spears into into the west flank of Houston and was touted as the ashen jewel in the city’s crown, a sea of grey that would conquer congestion.
Instead, commute times for most drivers worsened. “The Katy Freeway is the classic example of hope over experience, that this will be the 12ft of pavement that will make congestion go away,” said Michael Manville, an expert in urban planning at the University of California. “If gasoline was free and we simply built more gas stations when we had a shortage that would be an insane scenario, but we suspend that understanding with roads. We just build more lanes.”
If wide roads did solve congestion, Houston would be a freewheeling race track. Hefty, capacious highways encircle and burrow into the city like a tangle of concrete serpents, taking visitors on an often bewildering journey where nothing but highways can be seen, as if the roads themselves constituted the fabric of the city, rather than people or homes or parks.
Houston has 6,200 miles of roads – enough to stretch to Moscow – but less than half of those miles have sidewalks and fewer still adjoin any sort of shared public park or plaza, an epitome of US city design that is all corridors and no living room. “We are habituated to driving everywhere,” said Asha Weinstein Agrawal, an urban planning expert at San Jose State University. “But it’s not innate to the American genome. If you show people there are alternatives that are cheaper and better, they are intrigued.”
The latest highway expansion and re-routing, called the North Houston Highway Improvement Project, will in certain sections bring a 24-lane highway to Houstonians, more than doubling the width of the roadway in locations near downtown to 570ft. More than a thousand residencies are to be torn down as part of this vision, along with five churches, two schools, the city’s Mexican consulate and hundreds of businesses ranging from dentists to Vietnamese restaurants.
A Texas DoT spokesman said is a “false assertion” that the paused project will worsen congestion, adding that the strong population growth around Houston would have left the city and surrounding county in “far worse shape” if the Katy Freeway hadn’t been expanded.
“[Texas DoT] has implemented an unprecedented effort to listen, be responsive and inclusive to delivering transportation solutions for this corridor that would prove to be least invasive, unifying and contemplative of building a project that will improve safety, operations, enhance quality of life, be a catalyst of economic development and promote livable and enjoyable places and spaces for all,” the spokesman said.
The pattern of such enlargements can be measured in family histories. Tanya Debose’s grandfather once owned a home next to where the I-45 runs now, only for the dwelling to be torn down when it widened. Her grandmother lost a home to the expansion of the I-10 in Houston’s Fifth Ward.
Debose is now a community liaison and organizer for Independence Heights, an historic black neighborhood that is set to lose dozens of homes as well as its Greater Mount Olive Baptist church, a century-old structure that is perched next to the relentless automotive white noise of the I-45.
Debose is disheartened by the cycle of displacement but is hoping to draw funding commitments from Texas DoT to help reinvigorate Independence Heights, bringing back the sort of walkable place she grew up in where Black-owned grocery stores, hairdressers and other businesses clustered in a tight-knit community.
The threat of flooding – a number of houses around the church are still boarded up or have tarpaulin roofs from when Hurricane Harvey dumped a trillion gallons of rain on Houston five years ago – will also need to be addressed before another storm sloshes down the extra miles of impervious, flood-prone concrete.
“The civil rights investigation is only a drop in the bucket, they need a civil rights investigation into housing, health, everything,” she said. “They need to rethink this highway so it doesn’t just benefit one neighborhood and trash another neighborhood. It’s always communities of color that are displaced. We don’t know which way to turn, we are kind of stuck in limbo.”
Others will struggle to ameliorate the impact of the latest highway outgrowth. Bruce elementary school, located within sight of Houston’s downtown skyscrapers, already sits next to a coil of different roads at the I-69 at I-10 interchange, all at different heights and angles, giving the impression of a constant moving wall of metal and noise. The project will bring the highway to the school’s gate line, within 40 meters of its students.
Texas DoT claims the project will result in better air quality because of improving vehicle emissions technology and the addition of “express lanes”that will carry buses, car pools and future autonomous vehicles but Bruce elementary already has an asthma rate double that of the city average and Air Alliance Houston, an environmental group, estimates emissions of benzene, a carcinogen, will increase here by 175% once the highway is closer.
About eight crossing guards are deployed to help protect the children who have to traverse the highways to get to and from Bruce but the fence of the school still has to be repaired several times a year due to cars crashing into it.
“When I think about the commute and air quality and things like that, that’s when we do become concerned,” said Shawn Nickerson, Bruce’s principal. Nickerson said the school is looking to install air pollution monitors and keep children indoors during recess on smoggy days.
“The highway is coming closer and closer and you think, ‘Where are the kids going to play?’ Around here you see some people walk out of necessity, but just walking around to enjoy your neighborhood? That’s not something you really see here.”