Atlantic Cities

On Transportation's 'History of Dividing Us'

On Transportation's 'History of Dividing Us'
Flickr/Secret Pilgrim

Newly minted U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx has an interesting blog post up today recognizing the role of transportation in civil rights, both good and bad, in connecting Americans throughout history as well as dividing them. His brief history of transportation, as seen through the lens of today's 50th anniversary of the March on Washington:

When escaped slaves sought their freedom, they traveled on the Underground Railroad.

In the mid-1950s, a young woman who sat down and refused to get up—she did it on a transit bus. And the boycott of the Montgomery, Alabama, bus system resulted in changes that spread across the South.

The Civil Rights Movement was about all Americans having access to the same opportunities. And our transportation system connects people to those opportunities.

But unfortunately, transportation also has a history of dividing us. In many places, railroads have served to identify people who were living on “the wrong side of the tracks.” And rarely in the last century did an urban interstate highway plow through a neighborhood that wasn’t characterized as poor.

In many communities, the legacy of urban highway construction has proven much harder to undo than invisible racial barriers like red-lining. Foxx does not go quite so far as to acknowledge this, but highway construction has also played a major role over the last half-century in enabling white flight from American cities into the suburbs, dividing families (and financial resources) on a much larger geographic scale as well.

Still, it's noteworthy for the top transportation official in the federal government to give voice to the role of transportation in creating, maintaining, and correcting inequalities. That conversation is much more complicated, and harder to have, than one about traffic congestion, highway capacity or commute times.

Foxx mentions ongoing efforts to reclaim communities divided by highways in Columbus, Ohio, and New Haven, Connecticut, two projects that signal a different kind of transportation policy than existed 50 (or even 15) years ago.

“Sometimes,” Foxx writes, “the way we build bridges is by actually building bridges…and roads and transit.”


Diagram of where Rosa Parks sat on the Cleveland Avenue bus in Montgomery in 1955, from the Records of the District Court of the United States National Archives and Records Administration-Southeast Region, East Point, GA.

Top image: Flickr user Secret Pilgrim.

Emily Badger is a former staff writer at The Atlantic Cities based in Washington, D.C. She now writes for The Washington Post. All posts »

Join the Discussion