On Monday, former Secretary of Transportation, Anthony Foxx, delivered the keynote address at the 6th annual Safe Streets Summit held right here in Miami, among the top five cities in pedestrian fatalities and the second-ranked city in America for poverty and income inequality.
The Obama-appointee’s remarks revealed how design is at the center of America’s most marginalized communities and how technology is contributing to the reformulation of personal mobility. Foxx, who is now Lyft’s Public Policy Director, nonetheless stressed that “There’s no algorithm that can push us beyond the unavoidable questions of humanity or the existential questions we face in this country now, probably more than [at] any time in my lifetime about how we all live together”.
He began his presentation talking about Major League Baseball’s Rule 1.04, which suggests the most desirable location of home plate on the field, so that batters always hit with the sun at their back. The same kind of deliberate intent informs the building of our roads, bridges and all other parts of our urban landscape. “There’s no infrastructure,” he stated, “that is randomly placed anywhere.”
Anthony Foxx’s political career began relatively recently, in Charlotte, North Carolina where he grew up. He became a City Council member in 2005 and Mayor just four years later, at one of the most daunting times for the city. As the second-largest financial services center in the country, Charlotte was especially hard-hit by the 2008 financial crisis. Foxx’s success in turning the city’s fortunes around and his innovative approach to the foundering Blue Line Extension project, earned him nationwide attention and, eventually a nomination to become the 17th Secretary of Transportation in 2013.
Streets are a personal issue for him. He understands how the immediate environment affects communities and how the interstate highway system lies at the root of much of our problems today. “The highway system has been a marvelous economic success. It has accomplished what it was intended to do, but let’s be clear,” Foxx said, “…the impact on urban communities was severe.”
The interstate highway system, ushered in by Eisenhower in 1956, was originally designed to link farmers with market centers. The program, however, continues to this day and has cost nearly $130 billion, so far. As Foxx points out, there has also been a great cost levied on urban spaces. The highways literally cut right through the center of most major cities, bisecting neighborhoods and displacing millions of people.
“When I look at the neighborhood that I grew up in,” Foxx recounts, “it was actually constrained by these very freeways I’m taking about… I-77 and I-85 actually meet just about two blocks away from where I grew up.” He continues, “…when I looked out in front of my grandparents’ house I saw a freeway. When I looked to the right I saw a freeway.”
One of the most telling graphics Foxx presented was a side-by-side map of the city of Charlotte before and after construction of the interstate highways. Marked in blue were the areas populated by the lower-income communities and in red the more affluent ones. The pre-1960’s map showed the affluent neighborhoods concentrated in the city’s urban core and the poorer ones surrounding it, on the periphery. The current map shows a complete reversal, with the affluent areas moved out into the suburbs and the low-income neighborhoods clustered in the center, hugging the freeways.
He cites examples of how highways are also used to effect so-called “slum-clearance” strategies to push low-income communities out of areas identified for redevelopment. “There is an area of Baltimore, where the city is literally bisected by a freeway and actually stops cold.” Foxx tells us. “It’s called the ‘freeway to nowhere’. This was done, in part, as a slum-clearance strategy.”
Marginalized by Hue
Cities and neighborhoods all across America have suffered the same fate over the years. Staten Island, St. Paul, New Orleans, Los Angeles, Seattle, Montgomery and our own Overtown were among the few places Foxx mentioned as he laid out the facts of a story told again and again, which he insists is “the product of design… not the product of benign neglect.”
Pointing out that remuneration was non-existent in the 50’s and 60’s, Foxx highlighted the fact that the compensation given to many of the displaced families for their homes was based on severely depreciated values since their properties were about to be razed to the ground. This is a reality, which affected a disproportionate number of African-American communities, like the one in Brooklyn - a neighborhood in Charlotte, NC that, according to Foxx, had “1,200 or so African-American owned businesses”, and was just one of many neighborhoods, that came under assault when “thousands” of urban development agencies wreaked havoc in communities nationwide.
The impact on lower-income areas is hard to overstate, but Foxx perfectly illustrated the effects that displacement can have on marginalized groups with the story about a neighborhood in St. Louis, “that abutted what’s now the international airport. And that community was… low-income, high African-American population. That community was displaced to create room for the airport. That group of people moved to a place called Ferguson.”
A Matter of Life and Death
The day-to-day reality on the ground for pedestrians in Miami and other major cities around this country is the stuff of nightmares. Lack of sidewalks, dangerous crossing areas, heavy vehicle traffic and all manner of disincentives and obstacles for walking or biking make for a very segregated lifestyle. For people in low-income areas, it can be deadly.
“Let’s say you’re a single mom, you have three children,” Foxx suggests, “You just spent two hours at the grocery store, an hour taking a bus to get from the grocery store to home. You get dropped off at the bus stop and the house that you live in is 90 feet across the street. The nearest crossing area is more than half a mile down the road. How many people would walk half a mile to the crossing area?” Foxx asks. “Well,” he continues, “this mom carried her kids across the street. The youngest child who is about 3 years old, loses his mother’s hand and is struck by a car and killed.”
People with cars would be hard-pressed to even imagine such a scenario. But, this is not just a scenario. This is a tragic true story out of Atlanta, Georgia. But, something like this could have just as easily happened - and certainly has happened - anywhere in South Florida.
“These streets don’t really exist for the people who need to use them on foot.” Says Foxx. Indeed, Miami is among the least walkable cities in the world and our public transit system is an abject failure. Meanwhile, County Mayor Gimenez, floats red-herrings like flying taxis and Chinese concept buses as he tries to push through yet another highway project.
I have a feeling the former Secretary of Transportation is familiar with Gimenez’ absurd propositions. At one point during his presentation, he brought up a picture of Saudi royals surrounding a drone-like, multi-propeller flying car. “I’m just showing you this. This is a flying car or whatever, um… good luck with that.”, he quipped.
“If you look at long term trends,” Foxx went on, “in fact, the city we’re sitting in today - you’re going to see so much more growth, that it’s going to be difficult to keep up with the infrastructure, with the needs of a growing population.”
A Fork in the Road
We have to start making better choices and undoing some of the bad ones, that were made in the past. As technology quickens the pace of change in the world, we have to find ways to ground ourselves and not become the victims of convenience.
There is a grand illusion surrounding our new digital age, expressed succinctly by an anecdote Foxx shared with the room about his wife and her online Christmas shopping habits. After completing all of it, she proudly turned to her husband to brag about how many “trips” she had “saved” by making all her purchases over the Internet. “And me, 17th Secretary of Transportation,” said Foxx to the amused crowd, “has to say to her: ‘Honey, you just created 25 trips… god knows how many miles of trips you’ve created!’”
The virtual world is dangerous because it makes us even more blind to how the world really is. And, before we become like Stephen King’s Lawnmower Man and fully fuse with our silicon simulacrum, we have to take a step back and take a good, long look at where we are and what we are doing.
Over the last half-century, our cities have become nothing but massive parking lots. There are hardly any trees anywhere and our quality of life is diminishing by the minute. “People are recognizing that the personal automobile has its limitations.” Said Foxx. “We spend the second-highest amount of our wallet, as a country, on transportation. And yet, the cars that we buy are used about 5 to 6 percent of the time.”
The interstate highway system served its purpose, but we are outgrowing it as a society. We also might recognize that the problems it created may turn out to be more harmful than any of the benefits accrued over the time of its use, and that a car-centric view of the universe is a net-negative for the world, in general. “I frankly think there are urban freeways,” Foxx concludes, “that could be torn down and replaced with open space or affordable housing or other assets that would be more valuable.”