By: Lamar Greene
A historical factor contributing to modern day inequities in transportation includes the expansion of suburban living, which took place in the 1950s. Suburban living was an exclusionary phenomenon that served as an extension of Jim Crow ideology—there were restrictive covenants that barred most Black, Asian, and Hispanic families from living in suburban neighborhoods at all. It was commonly believed that the presence of people of color in subdivisions would lower the value of the properties and banks refused to loan money to people living in the inner city, which were primarily occupied by people of color. Suburban living promoted the use of automobiles for transportation because the sprawled out living meant that more people needed cars to get around. This expansion to suburbs led to the vast expansion of America’s highway system.
Seeing that highway infrastructure has historically been built through black and brown neighborhoods, it is not surprising to see that communities of color are still likely to live near highways. Hispanic people are 38% more likely and Black people are 30% more likely than White people to live within 300 meters of major highways, where rates of respiratory and cardiovascular diseases are increased. The EPA estimates that the heavy concentration of minuscule air particles from highway traffic causes up to 100,000 annual deaths in the U.S., which serves as one mechanism for the number of chronic illnesses that people of color disproportionately experience. These preventable conditions have taken their toll on the healthcare system, specifically in safety net medical centers which are more likely to treat patients of color who are low income. The health costs associated with poor air quality from the U.S. transportation system is roughly $50 to $80 billion dollars, with the presence of communities near major highways and roadways driving the costs.
Black and brown people are stigmatized for our disproportionate rates of chronic and infectious diseases. The social and physical environments forced upon black and brown people, however, often constrain our agency and influences our health behaviors. Living in a highly polluted environment or in a neighborhood without sidewalks has health consequences that goes beyond individual control. There is a lot of work to be done to improve the infrastructure of low-income neighborhoods of color in ways that can enhance rather than disrupt our communities.
- Boehmer, T. K., Foster, S. L., Henry, J. R., Woghiren-Akinnifesi, E. L., Yip, F. Y., National Center for Environmental Health, CDC, & Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. (2013, November 22). Residential Proximity to Major Highways — United States, 2010. In CDC Home. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/su6203a8.htm
- Zimmerman, S., Lieberman, M., Kramer, K., & Sadler, B. (2015). At the Intersection of Active Transportation and Equity (Rep.). Oakland, CA: Safe Routes to School National Partnership. doi: https://www.apha.org//media/files/pdf/topics/environment/srts_activetranspequity_report_2015.ashx?la=en&hash=4B088BB4405E6FA97B6E552CEEED8D7B6958A265