Are cities for cars or people? This question has underpinned most of a century of urban planning in the United States, and since the 1950s automobiles have largely won. Ribbons of asphalt and concrete carve their way through DC, prioritizing commuters and their cars and making residents second-class citizens in their own communities. At a moment when the need to create a greener, more economical, and more racially just world is as evident as ever, let’s flip the script and put people first.
Urban planning is essentially about making room for the various 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, all too often we’ve “paved paradise, built a parking lot.” But which paradise do we choose to pave? Whose homes, businesses, and communities are being swept away for parking lots, freeways, and interchanges?
While this politically tense process varied from state to state and city to city between about 1950 and 1970, the basics of highway construction are the same. New freeways built with federal funds under the administration of former President Dwight Eisenhower connected downtown to new, racially segregated suburbs outside the city. Urban freeways cut through minority and non-white neighborhoods, destroying residents’ homes and forcing them to move elsewhere in the city or out of the city altogether. But townspeople didn’t just watch as traffic officials paved paradise — they formed unlikely alliances to save their communities, organizing protests and lobbying public officials.
So what happened to DC when the grids of Pierre Charles L’Enfant, who designed the layout of the nation’s capital in 1791, merged with the highways? In 1955, the US Bureau of Public Roads published its “Yellow Book,” a literal roadmap to connect the nation with freeways. Among other designs for the Capital Beltway and the Anacostia and Southwest-Southeast Freeways, the Yellow Book in the 1960s envisioned a downtown loop that would run through the heart of DC, both the “inner loop” and the branches that would connect them into the “outer loop” angered grassroots activists whose neighborhoods and livelihoods were at stake from Georgetown to Brookland. Without the work of the Emergency Committee on the Transportation Crisis — a coalition of white and black residents — and Georgetown students and neighborhood groups, the plan would have leveled a historic Quaker meeting house on Dupont Circle, leveled U Street, and destroyed scores homes and businesses and forever changed the DC we know today.
Autobahns may seem politically neutral – after all, they’re just a way to get from A to B. But it was car-obsessed southern conservatives in Congress who were pushing for freeways in then-majority black and still politically underrepresented DC. It’s also no coincidence that the city’s wealthier residents west of Rock Creek Park have escaped the worst of freeway construction, save for the Whitehurst Freeway, which casts a shadow over the Georgetown waterfront. But the short section of the Whitehurst Freeway pales in comparison to the Anacostia Freeway across the city, which cuts off residents of Districts 7 and 8 from miles of riverside recreation areas.
Freeways don’t just take up valuable public space or destroy neighborhoods — decades after officials built these freeways, car-related air pollution on freeways and busy roads in Districts 5, 7, and 8 is prematurely and disproportionately killing poorer residents, the educated or those of color. The same three counties account for more than half of this year’s 24 fatalities.
But looking back some 70 years, there are still plans to add express toll lanes to I-270 in Maryland to relieve traffic — not to mention the fact that more lanes, express or otherwise, isn’t a solution are for traffic jams. And in Houston, where the 26-lane Katy Freeway is located, plans to widen I-69 would displace more than 1,000 black and Hispanic people from the area.
Luckily, not everyone is convinced that the future is four wheels – the battle to reclaim the space of cars is happening across DC right now. The National Park Service closed Upper Beach Drive, a two-lane tree-lined avenue that cuts through Rock Creek Park, to vehicular traffic early in the pandemic. Commuters gave way to cyclists, joggers, and picnickers, who have safely navigated and relaxed in the park for the past two years. But NPS has plans — pending a final decision — to reopen Rock Creek Park seasonally, turning the quiet public space back into the morning drive outside of the summer months.
Upper Beach Drive demonstrates the power federal officials still have over DC city planning, but there is much the city itself does and can do. When completed, the designed but yet to be built 11th Street Bridge Park will connect Anacostia residents to Navy Yard and vice versa, with bike paths, footpaths and outdoor recreation spaces. And with ambition and federal funding, city officials could demolish some freeways entirely — Detroit just received around $100 million to replace a sunken freeway with a boulevard at the same level.
We don’t need 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 up miles of the city’s streets to pedestrians and cyclists since 2019, and this weekend’s H Street Festival turned the place for cars into a place for community.
Let’s go back to the starting point – are cities for cars or for people? We can leave urban space in the hands of two tons of steel and rubber, as we have for the last 70 years, or we can claim the city for ourselves. I prefer the latter – we can, we will, and we must make cities work for people.
Ethan Benn, a junior major in journalism and mass communications, is the Opinion Editor.