Consequences of Roads and Sprawl: a Look into Segregation and Economic Immobility

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Roads have become an essential aspect of America, especially since the late 50s. The development of the interstate highway has connected far-reaching cities to one another, intending to share opportunities and increase accessibility. It has also facilitated the movement outwards and has reshaped the urban environment. These low-density areas on the outskirts of cities characterize urban sprawl, from which there are numerous consequences including the magnification of racial segregation and economic immobility. In class, we discussed how the Beat generation was a more privileged group of individuals who found freedom on the road. Meanwhile, there are people who are not only less privileged to roam America, but are limited in ways in which they remain in economically stagnant position because of road development and sprawl. First taking a look at the economic and racial implications of sprawl throughout history, we will then delve into the consequences of these lasting issues and note several possible solutions within Atlanta, one of the most sprawling cities in America.

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The Space and Place Movement’s keyword Region describes the nostalgic casting of certain regions as preserves of a racially and culturally homogeneous national heritage. Some roads themselves were developed with race in mind, resulting in racially homogenous and segregated neighborhoods. According to the book Sprawl City: Race, Politics, and Planning in Atlanta, it supports the idea that sprawl exacerbates racial polarization and division. When developing roads, many local governments would reshape the racial landscape by building highways in ways to deliberately isolate predominantly black communities from resources. Hiding their intentions under the promise of getting rid of blight, the local governments would destroy tight-knit neighborhoods by building freeways that directly cut through them, leaving these communities on their own stranded from services. These divisions weren’t always made with overt racial intentions, but the local governments had to decide where to plan their highways and in most cases than not, it was no accident that it was within black communities.

Further causing racial and economic divide was the movement towards suburbs. Wealthy, mostly white residents left the metro area with the accessibility of the highway and relocated to the sprawling areas outside of the city in a process known as white flight. In doing so, they also took their away their tax dollars that were used to fund the cities’ education and maintenance among other resources. Many businesses also left with them. Unable to freely move, the lower-income residents were left behind in an underfunded and decaying city core. Even if the white residents weren’t necessarily moving with racial motivations, the Federal Housing Administration subsidized and promoted home ownership in primarily white and economically similar communities. One can see how this process would create a large economic disparity and racial divide.

At the turn of the century, white flight was no longer a common occurrence as the issue flipped to gentrification. As businesses returned to the city, it has caused rising living costs which has displaced many minorities. It would seem as though the large number of black residents along with white residents now living in the suburbs would mean progress, considering what is known about white-flight. However, these changes don’t mean that they are now living in the same communities. As such, these suburban communities remain segregated and the outcome of gentrification is potentially worse than white flight as people need to travel back and forth over long distances to reach job opportunities now within the cities. Despite the changing patterns from white-flight to gentrification, the issues are the same: residential segregation and economic immobility remain a continuing problem as long as there are lingering racial ideologies and institutional divisions.

Turning our attention to one city that has been greatly affected by sprawl, we will take a look at Atlanta. Currently, Atlanta is one of the most diverse cities in the south and is self-described as the city too busy to hate (Urban Sprawl: Causes, Consequences, and Public Responses). It is also one of the states with the highest number of middle and upper class African-Americans. However, this doesn’t mean that Atlanta is free of racial issues, as it has also been guilty of white flight and gentrification. Although it no longer implements legal segregation, institutional segregation continues. As a result of these rooted racial policies of the past, economic pressures, and natural migration, black communities are concentrated in the southern and western counties of south Fulton, Dekalb, and Clayton, where some are isolated from the economic opportunities that continuously shift northward. According to the census made in 2000, in block groups that were 81-90% black, 22% of the population was below the poverty line while in block groups that were 81-90% white, only 1.40% of the population was below the poverty line. These places segregated by race and income with long transportation times correlate with a lower economic mobility. Meanwhile, because northern Atlanta is disproportionate with jobs, it is frequently congested with traffic which further makes it difficult to access for those in southern Atlanta.

The question remains on how to bypass sprawl, encourage economic mobility, and reduce the impact of racial residential segregation. It will take not only one, but many solutions in order to reduce these effects.

As highways magnify these effects, what would happen if Atlanta decided to tear them down? Could these issues be resolved, if not reduced? Atlanta hasn’t made any efforts to do so, and it’s highly unlikely that any city would tear down all of its highways due to expenses and opposition from people who are dependent on their cars. However, in other cities such as San Francisco and Portland that have removed some of their freeways, many have seen a new-found revitalization as they have more space to develop neighborhoods and businesses that are within the means of a walkable distance. Thus, there is more potential for neighborhoods to be reconnected with the cities’ core and could reduce the impact of sprawl. Ironically, it is those cities that removed freeways that have seen more connectivity. Cities could be much freer without roads dividing up the land. Atlanta is one city that has no natural boundaries of mountains or large bodies of water that obstruct connection and it’s unfortunate that freeways as man-made barriers can diminish connectivity that doesn’t have to be the case.

Also, what’s surprising is that the creation of more roads doesn’t necessarily improve congestion and might actually be a cause. Increased road capacity encourages people to drive more because more people take advantage of an available resource when there is no direct fee that public transportation has. There is also evidence that removing roads in Atlanta may be beneficial: when Atlanta’s I-85 highway was shut down after being damaged by a fire last year, the percentage of riders on the MARTA went up by 20% according to MARTA officials. This report indicates that if these highways are shut down, people are always going to find alternative transportation. Thus, the removal of old obstructive freeways should be a considered as a possible solution in Atlanta.

The current alternative public transportation services such as the MARTA rail and bus system are often limited in the counties they reach and are underfunded. In fact, the MARTA doesn’t reach Cobb, Clayton, or Gwinnett county where employment is concentrated and isn’t funded by the state at all. A large proportion of state funds are invested in roads, mostly those in northern suburbs. The $16.6 million spent fixing the I-85 highway could have instead be used to fund developments of public transportations. Often times, the removal of highways is cheaper than reparations or replacements.

A solution that Atlanta is actively trying to pursue is adopting additional efficient public transportation system and improving the current alternatives to highways. Although Atlanta has made efforts to create a modern transportation system, those who benefited from it were disproportionate from those who were burdened with the costs (Moving Beyond Sprawl). These current attempts mirror the planning of the interstate highway, where a well-intentioned goal has been followed by the plethora of problems. Though it may seem counterintuitive to continue to create a new transportation system as a result, it is now inevitable and necessary to improve transportation in order to rectify these issues. If the transportation system remains as highway-dependent as it currently is, it will not be able to support the rapidly growing population. Congestion and traffic will steadily grow, thus maintaining the inability for people to reach various services and job opportunities.

When public transportation improves, the city will immediately reduce road congestion in the metro area and provide transportation for lower income residents to reach economic opportunities. All in all, it is not the responsibility of one county to decide, but the collective responsibility of local governments who must reach a consensus and collaborate with one another in order to reach an efficient plan. One of the issues in the development of the interstate highway was the fact that although it was federally funded, most of the responsibility was handed to local governments who looked at the small picture and didn’t seek what was best for many people and surrounding areas. Thus, in the process of making alternative, effective transportation, they must communicate among themselves and their constituents.

Removing obstructive roads and improving public transportation will alleviate some economic and racial consequences of sprawl, though it will not immediately solve current racial segregation. This is because it’s not only maintained by roads and sprawl, but also deeply rooted in discriminatory housing practices and perpetuating prejudiced beliefs. However, these possible solutions are starting points that can improve economic mobility at least and can later be improved upon to________.

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Consequences of Roads and Sprawl: A Look into Segregation and Economic Immobility. (2019, Nov 26). Retrieved December 8, 2022 , from

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