How Policymakers Are Grappling With the Racist Legacy of Urban Freeways

In Michigan, the state's Department of Transportation is looking for ways to mitigate the damage caused by decades of urban renewal policies and reconnect neighborhoods cut off from amenities and opportunities by highway projects.

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February 7, 2022, 7:00 AM PST

By Diana Ionescu @aworkoffiction


Detroit Freeway

Linda Parton / Shutterstock

In response to criticism of the Biden administration's commitment to addressing the racism and discrimination built into U.S. roads, Nancy Derringer explains how roads and infrastructure can have disproportionately negative impacts on Black and brown communities, quoting Paul Ajegba, director of the Michigan Department of Transportation, who participated in a recent virtual panel on the issue. As Derringer writes,

Southeast Michigan is dotted with examples of roads and infrastructure that had the effect of dividing or demolishing neighborhoods populated by people of color. I-375, the spur that carries motorists from I-75 into downtown, is only the most obvious example. Built from 1959-65, it sliced through the footprint of the Black Bottom neighborhood, which had already been razed in the name of urban renewal. The generational wealth that was lost is incalculable, Ajegba said.

"Rather than top-down planning and development, today’s infrastructure design is more likely to be a collaborative effort that looks at nearby neighborhoods holistically, said Jon Kramer, another panelist and president of OHM Advisors, consultants who aid in such planning."

Planners are also recognizing the importance of multimodal transportation options and the need to replace car-centric infrastructure with safe, convenient facilities that benefit pedestrians, cyclists, and transit riders as well. Ajegba states that policymakers in Michigan have "a renewed emphasis on equity, inclusion and social justice."

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