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June book of the month: City Limits by Megan Kimble

If widening highways doesn’t fix traffic, why are we spending billions of dollars to widen highways?

Why indeed?

Megan Kimble’s long-anticipated book, City Limits: Infrastructure, Inequality, and the Future of America’s Highways, came out at the end of April this year, and I couldn’t wait to read it. Kimble has spent the last several weeks on the podcast/webinar/interview circuit to promote the book, and I’ll tell you right now, it more than lives up to expectations.

Megan Kimble describes her life as “wrapped in highways.” Born in Austin, TX (where she now resides), raised in Los Angeles, and having spent part of her career in Tuscon, AZ, she is more than familiar with the impact of large highways on urban landscapes. In fact, in her book highways take on a kind of spooky persona, carving up cities, swallowing neighborhoods, and looming hungrily over more homes and businesses in major Texas cities.

In City Limits, Kimble tells the story of American highways and the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT), the formidable, multi-billion dollar agency charged with building, maintaining, and often expanding, Texas roads. Three projects are featured throughout the book: I-35 in Austin, I-345 in Dallas, and I-45 in Houston. All come at great cost - to Texas taxpayers, to the environment, and especially to the communities who live alongside them. At the center of her story is the grassroots movement in each of these cities to fight urban highways. 

Kimble is a masterful storyteller. She walks the reader through the history of segregation and highway-building that got us to the point we’re at today, including current funding mechanisms, government processes, and entrenched philosophies that support traffic flow at the cost of just about everything else.

So much of transportation turns into a desire to keep the vehicles moving. It’s as if we’ve forgotten that they are supposed to arrive at some point. - Beth Osborne

While always careful not to center herself and her experiences in the book (she saves that for a brief epilogue), Kimble demonstrates a deep understanding of the history and issues in Texas cities, and her empathy for the communities impacted by TxDOT’s insatiable hunger for highway expansion shines through. As a reader, you’ll experience that empathy, too. In fact, I challenge anyone to read about Escuelita del Alma, a family-owned childcare center and preschool in Austin that serves 200 families, without choking up. The school is a fixture in the neighborhood, and well-loved. It also lies squarely in the footprint of the proposed I-35 expansion, and TxDOT is offering a mere $25,000 to assist with relocation. 

TxDOT is a juggernaut. The David vs. Goliath comparison is an apt metaphor for highway fights in Texas. And while it’s true that everything is bigger in Texas - including their monstrous nearly $33 billion transportation budget  - they aren’t the only state with a highway problem. In fact, every major American city has at least one highway running through it. This is certainly true here, where we at 1000 Friends of Wisconsin have been working for years to oppose the expansion of I-94 in Milwaukee and advocate for replacing I-794 with a boulevard.

A highway is a hard thing to perceive. The physical structure is indisputable - concrete and beams, struts and supports, the persistent rumble…but highways aren’t designed to be experienced or absorbed at human scale. On a highway, we ARE our can’t ever see a whole highway. You can only pause above or below and consider some part of it. And once a highway is built, it is almost impossible to imagine it gone. (p.209-210)

It doesn’t have to be this way, though. While success stories of tearing down highways are few and far between, they are out there, including in Wisconsin. Milwaukee famously tore down the Park East Freeway in the early 2000s, eventually generating billions in economic activity. In Chapter 16, “Repair,” Kimble visits Rochester, NY, to tell the story of the Inner Loop removal. She offers a cautious message of hope that anything is possible, while acknowledging the complexity and permanence of displacement. Generations of disinvestment create distrust that runs deep in communities; for some, regaining trust, or establishing it in the first place, is impossible. 

Of course, harm cannot be undone – it can only be repaired. If you remove a highway, what was once there does not magically spring forth from the earth. A thousand homes do not themselves build. (p211)

Where to find hope? This is a standard question at the end of just about every interview or webinar on the topic of fighting highway expansion. Goliath looms large, after all. I would say that the fact this book was written at all is perhaps a sign of good things to come. Knowing that communities all over the country, not just in Texas and Milwaukee and Rochester, but everywhere, have residents looking critically at the infrastructure surrounding them and demanding better, is a step in the right direction. And after all, as Kimble says to close her book,

Tearing down a highway is just the beginning.

Susan Gaeddert is Community Programs Director at 1000 Friends of Wisconsin, where she runs Active Wisconsin, facilitates the Community Transportation Academy, and coordinates the Wisconsin Climate Table. Have you read any good books lately? Send your recommendation to: 

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