Imagine there was a proposal to put a widget factory in the center of your town. The factory pumps out smelly gasses, dangerous particulates, and constant noise day and night. Working at the factory is be so dangerous it causes nearly half of emergency room visits. Being near the factory is so unpleasant that property values collapse and the area around it becomes a frightening no-man’s-land. The factory produces useful goods but because they cost tens of thousands of dollars, they only benefit people that are well-off. Hopefully that proposal would be shot down the day it was proposed. After all, don’t local governments have a responsibility to ensure the health and safety of their citizens, or at least their property values?
The factory is, obviously, an analogy for highways situated near communities.The difference is that the highways were built right through neighborhoods and people live next to them today. Living within about 500 feet of a highway raises risks for dementia, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and multiple sclerosis. The most plausible hypothesis is that the sleep disturbance and chronic stress associated with highway noise add up over a lifetime to produce more disease. There’s a more obvious causal link between living near a highway and respiratory illness. Cars emit dangerous PM2.5 particles that wind up in the air and groundwater. Electric or hydrogen-powered cars won’t save us because most of the particles come from normal tire and brake wear. Young children living near highways are more susceptible to asthma. Adults near busy roads also suffer reduced lung function. The observation that living near busy roads leads to worse health is not really news to anyone, though. There’s a reason property values near busy roads are so low. In fact, location near a busy road decreases a home’s value by 10% or more.
Despite its rich heritage of heavy rail, streetcars and buses, about a third of Atlanta’s population currently uses cars to get around. But now, between its busy surface streets and famously congested federal highways, 48% of Fulton County, GA residents are subjected to stress-inducing noise from roads during the day. Over 32,000 Atlanta students go to schools near busy roads, disproportionately low-income children. This disparity is not an accident. The problem of routing highways right through residential areas is not confined to Atlanta, either: 79% of Georgians live in its cities, close enough to busy roads to cause negative health effects.
The fix here is obvious but difficult: just get rid of the highways and replace them with better modes of transit. This trend has been accelerating lately in the US. At the very least, pleasant, leafy, useful public spaces can be built over existing highways to reduce noise and pollution inflicted on the surrounding population, and reconnect spaces severed by dangerous roads. These freeway remediation projects have been a resounding success throughout the United States. In fact, the ball is already rolling in Atlanta, with federal funding applied for. Georgians deserve to live in cities filled with health assets, not just health hazards.