Interstate injustice – the human and economic toll

Result of Bugs Bunny fighting a highway – Source:

The following raw data tries to put some perspective into the vast extent of destruction that took place in American urban centers during the highway building boom of the late 1940s through the 1980s.  Overall, the number of dwellings lost to highway construction equaled 475,000, of which 330,000 (or 70%) were in urban settings. As large as these numbers are, they hide the fact that many individual cities, towns, and neighborhoods were torn apart through Interstate injustice.  Even those who were left behind suffered, as they were forced to deal with the increased noise, air, and visual pollution.


In addition to the human toll arising from lost homes, relocation, and separation from family, friends, and neighbors; the economic toll was also enormous as businesses were forced to relocate and employees had to alter their commutes. Furthermore, the lost tax revenues generated by property taxes, business taxes, and employment-related taxes directed impacted tight city budgets.

Old Embarcadero Freeway in San Francisco – Source:

Along with the raw numbers are some comparisons to other human-made and natural disasters to help provide relevance devastation caused.

  • Boston, Massachusetts – The Central Artery (I-93), which has since been placed underground displaced 20,000 residents when it was originally built.
    • By comparison, these 20,000 displaced residents would more than fill the TD Arena in Boston and equates to 2,9% of the entire city’s population in 1960.


  • Chicago, Illinois – 13,000 residents and 400 businesses were displaced by one highway project – the Eisenhower Expressway (I-290) on the west side of the city.

Route of the Eisenhower Expressway (I-290) – Source:

  •  Chicago, Illinois – 3,200 properties were demolished to make way for the Dan Ryan Expressway (I-90/94) on the south side of the city.

A sea of pavement – the Dan Ryan Expressway (I-90/94) – Source:

  • Cincinnati, Ohio – 25,000 residents were displaced by highway construction.
    • The number of residents of the city that were displaced by highway construction equates to 5.0% of Cincinnati’s 1960 population.

Westside of Cincinnati – Source:

  • Des Moines, Iowa – 1,300 families and businesses were displaced by I-235.


  • Grand Rapids,Michigan – 4,000 residents were displaced by highway projects.


  • Indianapolis, Indiana – 17,000 residents were displaced and more than 8,000 buildings were destroyed for highway construction in the city, most of which was directed through poor and/or minority neighborhoods that had been “redlined.
    • Compare the number of buildings destroyed for highway construction in Indianapolis (8,000) to the 10,455 that were destroyed in Warsaw, Poland during World War II.

Interstates in Indianapolis directed through redlined areas (pink color) – Source:

  • Kansas City, Missouri – 12,000 residents were displaced by new highways.

Highway in Kansas City – Source:

  • Miami, Florida – one interchange for I-95 in the primarily African-American neighborhood of Overtown displaced more than 10,000 residents living there.
    • By comparison, these 10,000 folks would fill half of the American Airlines Arena in Miami. 
  • Milwaukee, Wisconsin – 17,000 residents and 1,000 businesses were displaced.
    • The number of residents displaced by highways exceeds the total enrollment of Marquette University in the city by 6,000!

Clearing for I-43 in Milwaukee – Source:

  • Minneapolis, Minnesota – 25,000 residents were displaced and 7,000 homes demolished for I-35W alone.
    • Compare the 7,000 homes demolished in Minneapolis for highways to the 2,000 homes destroyed by the Australian bushfires of the 2019-2020 fire season and 10,400 structures lost during the 2020 California wildfires.
    • The 25,000 residents who were displaced by this one highway project equates to 5.2% of the city’s 1960 population.

I-35W construction – Source:

  • Nashville, Tennessee – 1,400 residents were displaced by construction of I-40 and I-265 (now I-65) in predominantly African-American North Nashville (a.k.a. the 37208  zip code).


  • New Haven, Connecticut – 3,000 residents were displaced and 350 businesses demolished by the construction of the Oak Street Connector (Route 34).
    • The number of residents displaced by this single highway equates to 2.0% of New Haven’s 1960 population.


  • Oakland, California – 7,000 residents were displaced by highways, of which 5,100 of them (70%) were from primarily African-American West Oakland.


  • Phoenix, Arizona – 16,000 residents displaced by highway projects.
    • By comparison, these 16,000 residents would nearly fill the Phoenix Suns Arena.
  • Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania – 8,000 residents, primarily African-Americans were displaced by construction of I-579 (Crosstown Freeway) through the Lower Hill District.

I-579 (Crosstown Expressway) – Source:

  • Seattle, Washington – 4,500 properties were cleared for construction of I-5 through the city.

“X” marks the spot where I-5 construction cuts through downtown Seattle – Source:


This entry was posted in Advocacy, Cars, cities, civics, Civil Rights, civility, commerce, demographics, diversity, downtown, economic development, environment, gentrification, geography, government, health, Highway displacement, history, Housing, human rights, humanity, inclusiveness, infrastructure, injustice, land use, Maps, pictures, planning, politics, pollution, racism, social equity, spatial design, sprawl, Statistics, topography, Trade, traffic, transportation, Travel, urban planning, visual pollution and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Interstate injustice – the human and economic toll

  1. After reading at length about the planning of the Interstates through Chicago, I concluded that these highways should never have been built through any cities; this really wasn’t part of the original intent. There is a section of Palatine Road in the northern suburbs which is like a skinny expressway with frontage roads on both sides. It provides high-speed travel without having wrecked the adjacent neighborhoods. I decided that a correctly-spaced grid of roads like this should have been built in cities/suburbs, with the Interstates being kept well away.


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