When my seventh-grader walks to school from our home in the Bronx, he must cross the Henry Hudson Parkway (N.Y. 9A) over an ugly pedestrian bridge. To access the green space of Van Cortlandt Park a few blocks to the northeast, he must navigate an intimidating six lanes of traffic. I trust my kid to look both ways, but I don’t trust the drivers to notice him. I worry over the city’s roadways, the health consequences of their foul breath, their nonstop noise and the devastation they lay – by cruel intent – upon majority Black and brown neighborhoods like ours.
“Crossings,” by the environmental journalist Ben Goldfarb, is a fascinating and compassionate look at the repercussions of roads, inviting us to rethink their design through the relatively new science of road ecology. Roads, Goldfarb writes, are “not merely a symptom of civilization, but a distinct disease.” He describes road ecology, the study of the impact of roads on plants and animals, as “empathy manifested as science.”
The main prognosis of the discipline is that roads are “agents of chaos” that deform the earth at all scales. About 40 million miles of roadway wrap the earth, from the illegal logging routes that spider-web the Amazon to the Pan-American Highway that crosses the continent. The United States hosts six and a half million of those miles, the world’s longest road network. “Our midcentury automotive revolution spawned not only highways but also parking lots, driveways, suburbs, pipelines, gas stations, carwashes, drive-throughs, tire shops and strip malls,” Goldfarb writes, “a totalizing ecosystem engineered for its dominant organism, the car.”
In the 1960s, just 3% of land-dwelling mammals died on North American roads. By 2017, that toll had gone up fourfold. About a hundred people and one million wild animals are killed by cars every day in the United States alone. Many species reduced to roadkill face extinction.
Goldfarb also notes that roads impede animal migration by land and water, contribute to habitat loss, “taint” rivers, pollute soils, “besmog” skies, promote the spread of invasive species and “shatter biotic integrity wherever they intrude.” They even “tweak genes.” Cliff swallows have adapted shorter wings to nimbly avoid getting hit by cars.
U.S. 93, built during the Eisenhower era, cuts through the wetlands and meadows of Montana as well as the million-acre Flathead Indian Reservation, home to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. In the 1990s, government agencies proposed an expansion of the interstate from two lanes to four. The tribes “flexed their legal and moral muscles,” Goldfarb writes, and the plan for U.S. 93 eventually re-emerged with some 40 wildlife crossings, including a million-dollar overpass for grizzly bears that “vaulted over the highway with Middle Earthish grace.”
By some estimates, we will have 2 billion vehicles on the road by 2030 and 15 million additional miles of highway by 2050. “The global future of transportation,” Goldfarb explains, “will almost certainly feature more cars, not fewer.” Roads have become a big topic for hundreds of scientists around the world. In “Crossings,” Goldfarb profiles several of them and catalogs their many remedies for roadkill, including “flimsy-looking rope courses” strung between forest canopies so that apes in Taiwan and monkeys in Brazil can swing across the freeway.
The pandemic, Goldfarb writes, exposed the perversity of municipalities that “devote more acreage to parking than to parks.” On social media, images of animals prowling the empty roads went viral. City streets were redesigned for strolling and biking, sidewalks were widened and parking spaces eliminated for outdoor dining. “If the world was stricken with misery, it also seemed pregnant with potential,” Goldfarb elegantly observes. “It was as though we were seeing roads for the first time.”
He also does an admirable job of detailing the ways that highways and freeways divide our cities along racial lines. Air pollution disproportionately affects Black and brown bodies in large part because Black, Asian American and Latino people are much more likely to live near a highway than white people. In the Bronx, a borough crisscrossed by three expressways, asthma kills three times more people than the national average.
It’s rare for a work so focused on wildlife conservation to also treat race. “While highways shattered natural ecosystems inadvertently,” Goldfarb writes, in U.S. cities they “were deliberately weaponized” to fragment Black communities and to separate them from white ones. In 1956, the Federal-Aid Highway Act enabled urban “renewers” to use freeways to purge predominantly Black districts. The Alabama state highway director Sam Engelhardt, an avowed white supremacist, set I-85’s path through Montgomery’s Oak Park apparently to punish the Black civil rights leaders who lived there. Black Panthers, Haight-Ashbury hippies and fancy garden-club types participated in a protest movement dubbed the Freeway Revolts – and lost.
Today, some freeways are getting ripped out, as a kind of reparations for the harm they’ve done. The state of New York has recently embarked on a $2.25 billion project to replace an instrument of segregation, the I-81 viaduct, in Syracuse. This is not uncomplicated. Advocates are concerned about the “green gentrification” that may result when pollution drops and property values skyrocket, precipitating more displacement. Rather than auctioning the land beneath the viaduct to the highest bidder, the New York Civil Liberties Union has proposed that the city give it to a land trust with the goal of building more affordable housing.
The idea of compensating Black people for the abuse of freeways causes predictable resistance. Last summer, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg rolled out a billion-dollar effort to reconnect communities broken up by the interstate highway system. When Buttigieg observed that racism was physically baked into some of our highways, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida responded, “To me, a road’s a road.” But Goldfarb reminds us that infrastructure is a force of social engineering that helps some communities flourish and others founder.
In the 1960s, I-94 rammed through St. Paul and robbed the Black community in Rondo of $157 million in home equity. That’s enough money, Goldfarb notes, to put every Black child in the area through college. Advocates in the Twin Cities have proposed the construction of an enormous land bridge over I-94. The bridge would be a green space, dotted with Black-owned businesses and homes. Now stop and ask yourself why that’s harder to envision than the overpasses for grizzly bears in Alberta, already in existence.
Emily Raboteau is a professor at the City College of New York. Her books include the American Book Award winner “Searching for Zion” and “Lessons for Survival,” which comes out next spring.