The Freeway Revolts

Michael Rawson, Ph.D.
Humanities Fellow, Department of History
Stanford University
Stanford, California
Trustee, Public Works Historical Society

The Interstates constructed under the Federal Highway Act of 1956 were at their most controversial when they reached America's cities. Crowded urban environments had little room for multi-lane expressways, but master plans often called for ambitious networks of elevated routes. Many urbanites were surprised by proposals to run highways through parks, scenic areas, historic districts, and existing neighborhoods. They also were taken aback by the social cost of urban expressways; in the late 1960s, the U.S. House Committee on Public Works reported that construction of the Interstate system was destroying about 62,000 housing units and displacing as many as 200,000 people each year. In response, a series of grassroots "freeway revolts" emerged in the 1960s and early 1970s that halted highway construction in dozens of cities across America.

Using rallies, demonstrations, and legal action to fight specific projects, protesters attracted significant media attention and achieved limited success. Bostonians derailed plans for an inner beltway through the densely built communities of Roxbury and Cambridge; residents of New Orleans defeated a proposal for an elevated highway on the edge of the French Quarter; and New Yorkers stopped Robert Moses' plan for a Lower Manhattan Expressway that would have run directly through Greenwich Village. But many protesters failed to save their neighborhoods. African-Americans found it particularly difficult to escape the wrecking ball. Across America, in cities as geographically diverse as Pasadena, Camden, and Montgomery, highway construction paved over vibrant black communities.

With the appointment of Alan S. Boyd as the first secretary of the Department of Transportation in 1966, the federal government began looking more closely at the relationship between highways and cities. Boyd advocated giving urbanites a stronger voice in planning decisions and pointedly called the freeway revolts "a good thing." The protests helped to produce a greater sensitivity to local issues and encouraged the reform of political processes to allow for more public input into highway design. There is still no easy way to fit a highway into a city, but the freeway revolts forced government officials and highway planners to focus not only on infrastructure but on people as well.

Michael Rawson received his Ph.D. in History from the University of Wisconsin, Madison in May 2005. His article "The Nature of Water," published in Environmental History (2004), won the Public Works Historical Society's 2005 Michael Robinson Award, which recognizes the single best article published in the field of public works history. He can be reached at (650) 723-2993 or mrawson@stanford.edu.