A new book encourages Texans to rethink urban highways

Author Megan Kimble argues that expanding highways only makes traffic congestion worse, while tearing communities apart.

By Shelly BrisbinApril 17, 2024 1:24 pm, ,

In urban Texas, highways have been central to the way we move from place to place. Giant roadways bisect or loop around a city, commuters whizzing down ribbons of concrete and steel at top speed.

But some Texans are beginning to challenge long-held assumptions about highways, asking whether the destruction of neighborhoods required to build them and the segregation these projects intensify are worth the promised quicker commute. 

These activists even question a basic assumption about highways – that bigger roads reduce traffic congestion.

In her book, “City Limits: Infrastructure, Inequality, and the Future of America’s Highways,” journalist Megan Kimble examines the effort to rethink urban highways in Texas. She also traces the history of racism and inequality that carved up communities in three of the state’s’ largest cities.

She told the Standard why she wanted to focus on highways in Houston, Dallas and Austin. Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: Much of your book focuses on highways in three Texas cities. What’s especially interesting about these highway projects in Houston, Austin, and Dallas?

Megan Kimble: I live in Austin. I live about a mile from I-35, which runs right through the heart of the city. So I started reporting the book in early 2020, when I heard about the Texas Transportation Commission voting to allocate more than $4 billion to expand this highway. 

And as I started reporting on highway expansions across the state, I learned about the North Houston Highway Improvement Project, which locals called the I-45 project, which I think is known as notable simply because of its scale and scope. It is a massive highway expansion. It’s grown to be a nearly $10 billion project that will displace 1,200 people, 300 businesses and take about 450 acres of land. So it has an enormous impact on the city. And accordingly, there is a pretty robust opposition to that project. 

And then I went to Dallas to look into a campaign that’s about a decade old to remove a stretch of highway called I-345 that bounds the eastern edge of downtown. And that was really compelling to me, because that is ultimately the argument of the book – that we actually don’t need a lot of these urban highways, and that land could be put to much better use. 

» THE DRILL DOWN: Understanding what’s going on with I-35’s expansion in Austin

Texas Standard: I want to delve into a lot of those issues, but first, history is a big part of the story. You tell how urban highways came to be in Texas and around the country, and you also trace the ways this affected neighborhoods. Can you sketch out a bit of the around I-45 in Houston, and what happened to the neighborhoods around it when it was built? 

Yeah, a lot of these highways were initially built through Black and Hispanic communities. This happened in the 1950s and ’60s. The Voting Rights Act had not yet passed, and city planners very intentionally routed highways through redlined neighborhoods. Which means neighborhoods that were denied access to credit from the federal government a decade or two earlier simply because they had populations of Black and Hispanic people in them. 

So in Houston, I chronicle the construction of I-10, which goes straight through the middle of the Fifth Ward, a historically Black neighborhood. And that highway took out three full city blocks. So it demolished about 1,200 structures just in this one neighborhood.

I talked to a woman – her name’s Onari Guidry – who lived in one of those homes, and her family was displaced to another neighborhood. And she was determined to graduate from Phillis Wheatley High School. So she walked three miles back to school.

So these highways had an enormous disruptive impact on these communities. In addition to displacing people, they cut the neighborhoods in half. They really severed and segregated cities across Texas and the country. 

And in recent years, the plan to expand I-45 and uproot hundreds of homes and businesses got unexpected pushback from Houston residents. What are the plans to expand the highway now and how did the residents affect that? 

So this group called Stop TxDOT I-45 started knocking on doors across the city to say, “hey, do you know about this highway expansion that’s either going to displace you or your neighbors?” And a lot of people were appalled to hear about it. They didn’t know it was coming. People who lived in the footprint of the expansion had no idea that it would impact them.

And so some of those people filed a civil rights complaint with the federal government, alleging that the project violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act because it disproportionately impacted Black and Hispanic people. And as a result, FHWA, the Federal Highway Administration, paused that project for more than two years while it investigated these serious concerns. 

Meanwhile, Harris County actually sued TxDOT for sort of similar reasons, alleging that it had not listened to community concerns. And as a result of those two actions, TxDOT came to the table and negotiated. It’s currently under what’s called a voluntary resolution agreement. So the expansion is moving forward, but under pretty strict surveillance by the community and by FHWA.

According to this voluntary resolution agreement, they have to do much more community outreach. There’s more flood mitigation measures. They’re building caps over the highway.

So I would say on the whole, the community got really important concessions from TxDOT because of this fight that wouldn’t exist without this grassroots opposition. 

Julius Shieh / KUT News

Austin's I-35 is one of several highways in Texas that TxDOT is looking to expand. The initiative has drawn opposition from groups who say the move would displace residents and do little to ease congestion.

You mentioned Dallas, and in Dallas, there’s an elevated section of I-345 that both divides South Dallas – whose residents are predominantly Black – from the rest of the city, but it also gives them access to the northern part of the city where the jobs are. Does I-345 get at the heart of the conflict between those who see highways as a barrier to communities and a necessary option for commuting to jobs? 

Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I think the fight over that highway is so complicated and interesting.

You know, like, that highway consumes a lot of land – more than 200 acres of land for a 1.4 mile stretch of highway is either impacted by that highway or directly under it – and that land could be put to better use. It could build affordable housing, get on the property tax rolls for the city of Dallas. But indeed, because we have built our cities around highways, a lot of people rely on it to get where they need to go.

Highways have segregated cities. And, as a result, a lot of people from South Dallas need to go to North Dallas to go to work. I think the argument of the book, though, is like the state of Texas is on track to spend $65 billion to widen highways across the state through their program called Texas Clear Lanes.

What if we spent that money differently? What if we invested in buses and trains and transit to get people where they’re going by other means? And like all the research shows, that’s actually much better for low income households. 

So in Dallas, the solution was to tear down that old elevated highway and dig a replacement underground?

Well, that’s the solution TxDOT came up with. That was not the original kind of campaign and vision for that highway.

An urban planner there named Patrick Kennedy proposed almost a decade ago to completely tear it out and replace the highway with a boulevard, which other cities have done – San Francisco, Portland, Rochester, New York. All of those cities have replaced elevated highways or elevated or sunken highways with city streets. And the vision was to remove that highway and, again, use that land for something else and spend that money on other forms of travel.

But it’s been a decade-long fight. TxDOT studied removing that highway. Their traffic models showed kind of catastrophic congestion if it was removed, which we can talk about – I think they’re kind of erroneous. I think they’re a little bit misleading. But as a result, they’re now moving forward with what they call a hybrid option, which is essentially a trench. It’s just a highway. They just are calling it “hybrid.”

» RELATED: TxDOT wants to explore ‘smart highways’ as the future of freight and commerce in the state

Let’s get to the heart of all this – the traffic congestion on older highways. TxDOT and a lot of people who drive on crowded highways have said more lanes means smoother traffic flow, but not everyone sees it that way. Can you explain why? 

Yeah, the reason why more lanes does not actually fix congestion is because of a phenomenon known as induced demand, which basically says when you add capacity to a highway, cars will fill up that capacity.

It’s basic supply and demand. You make it cheaper and easier for people to access, more people will access it. And this phenomenon has been well understood since the 1960s. It was first documented by an economist in 1962, basically saying, as we’ve been adding car capacity, cars are filling up that capacity. 

The most famous example of induced demand is the Katy Freeway in Houston, which TxDOT expanded to one of the widest highways in the world at 26 lanes. And rush hour traffic is actually worse today than it was before that highway was expanded.

And the basic reason is that people drive more. They either move farther from their jobs and schools, they move out to the far flung suburbs predicated on speedy access on that highway, or they take more discretionary trips. They go to the grocery store four times instead of twice. And as a result, traffic measurably increases, even controlling for population.

That has been documented decade after decade after decade and city after city. And yet our transportation department is still kind of promising to fix congestion by widening highways.  

So how do we move people from place to place, and are there projects elsewhere around the country that Texas could learn from? 

Yeah, the basic argument of the book is the better way to move people from place to place is through transit. It’s much more efficient in an urban area.

I’m not talking about getting between Austin and Houston, for example. I’m talking about moving around within Austin or within Houston. And all the evidence shows it’s much more efficient to move people in buses or trains. And again, that has also been well understood since the ’60s and ’70s.

I spent a lot of time in congressional records and politicians from both parties were saying, “hey, if we’re really going to fix urban congestion, we need to invest in transit.” And for various reasons, which I get at in the book, that simply didn’t happen.

We spend about four times as much money on highways as we do on transit. And the remedy is we should really, for many reasons – and climate change among them – we need to start spending some of our transportation money on transit. And there are great examples across the country.

For example, Colorado, I just actually was there reporting a story for the New York Times. Their state, DOT has decided to move a lot of its funding from highway widening to transit, recognizing that if they want to meet their statewide greenhouse gas emission reduction goals, they need to get people out of their cars. And so the state is investing in bus rapid transit in Denver to move people around.

We certainly could do that here in Texas. I think it’s a good model for like, you know, a kind of car-centric city. How do you start to move away from that? It’s like you build better transit systems. 

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