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Visualizing the Footprint of Highways in American Cities

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The Impact of Highways

Footprint of Highways in American Cities

Visualizing the Footprint of Highways in American Cities

Driving on the open road is a defining feature of the American experience, made possible by coast-to-coast highways. It defined a generation of life and ingrained the automobile into the urban fabric of American cities, for better and worse.

Today’s animations show how highways reshaped the downtown cores of six American cities and created new patterns of urban life. But first, some background information on the creation of the interstate system.

The Interstate Highway System

The U.S. Interstate System was created on June 29, 1956, when Dwight Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act. It would eventually run 46,876 miles, cost $521 billion and take 36 years to complete.

Map of the US Interstate System

From San Diego to Bangor, the interstate highway system connected Americans and opened up the country to commerce and geographic mobility like never before, but for all its benefits, this new transportation network ripped through established patterns of urban and town life, creating a new era of urban development.

The Legacy of Highways: The Suburbs and Inner Cities

The vast geography of continental America helped to entrench personal mobility and freedom into American society. Highways and automobiles accelerated this lifestyle and even changed the shape of entire cities.

According to Prof. Nathaniel Baum-Snow of the University of Toronto, between 1950 and 1990, the population of central cities in the U.S. declined by 17% despite a population growth of 72% in larger metropolitan areas during the same period. Baum-Snow posits that, had the interstate highway system not been built, central cities’ populations would have increased 8%.

Firms followed the workers to the suburbs, but the highways system also created additional benefits for these firms. Cross-country road access freed manufacturing from ports and downtown rail hubs, while allowing economies to operate across larger distances, altering the dynamics of typical urban economies.

Faced with this new reality, inner cities struggled in years to come.

Inner Cities

The introduction of highways created an increase in the supply of land for development through faster commutes to outlying areas. In 1950, half of all jobs were located in central cities. By 1990, less than one-third of urban jobs were located in the core of American cities.

“Not TV or illegal drugs but the automobile has been the chief destroyer of American communities.” Jane Jacobs, Author The Death and Life of Great American Cities

Benefits of new development accrued to the outer areas while the construction of the highways in inner cities displaced largely low-income communities, segregated neighborhoods, increased the amount of air and noise pollution, devalued surrounding properties, and removed access to jobs for those without a car, further concentrating poverty.

Before and After: Six American Cities

A bird’s eye view of six American cities reveals what was and what is now. By overlaying existing highways over the neighborhoods they replaced, it becomes clear how much interstate construction drastically altered America’s urban landscape.

Oakland
Public opposition to the construction of I-980 was so strong that developers abandoned the project in 1971, only to complete it over a decade later.

Miami Highway
The I-95 carved through Miami’s largely black Overtown neighborhood. The construction of a single highway cloverleaf resulted in 20 square blocks being demolished, displacing over 10,000 people in that community.

Providence Highway
The I-95 comprised unconnected segments between 1957 and 1965 through the densest urban areas in a deliberate effort to prevent premature suburbanization and to revitalize the downtown core.

Cincinnati Highway
The I-71 cuts downtown Cincinnati off from its waterfront and a massive freeway interchange forced the destruction of dozens of blocks west of downtown.

Detroit highway construction
Freeway construction transformed Detroit between 1951 and 2010. Previously, its downtown had been surrounded by a high-density street grid. Today, it’s totally encircled by freeways.

Rochester Highway
Rochester is one of many cities opting to undertake freeway removal projects.

As the dotted line above shows, the “moat” surrounding downtown is slowly being removed. The city used reclaimed land from the Inner Loop freeway to construct three mixed-use developments that include below-market-rate units.

The Future of Urban Living: Do Highways Matter?

A new era of living is reconsidering the impacts of these highways on urban centers. As property values rise and existing housing stock is pressured, there are growing concerns over the environmental impacts of suburban life. As a result, urban planners and residents are looking to revitalize city cores and re-purpose land occupied by burdensome slabs of highway concrete.

Since 1987, there have been more than 20 urban highway segments removed from downtown cores, neighborhoods and waterfronts, mostly in North America. The pace of removals has picked up significantly and an additional 10 highways are now planned for removal in the United States.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, American cities have seen their traffic plummet. Rush-hour trips into cities are taking nearly half the time while some are not even commuting at all.

While this situation is likely temporary, it is offering a moment for reflection of how cities operate and whether the car should be at the center of urban planning.

*Hat tip to Shane Hampton, whose 60 Years of Urban Change compilation served as inspiration for this article. Visit that page for many more examples of highway impact on cities.

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Misc

Chart: A Global Look at How People Spend Their Time

We all have the same 24 hours in the day. How do people spend them around the world, and how does this breakdown change by gender?

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A Global Look at How People Spend Their Time

We all have the same 24 hours in a day, but we don’t spend them the same way. Some prioritize family time or household chores, while others cherish a good night’s sleep or seeing friends.

This chart from Our World in Data compares the average time allocated across various day-to-day activities, from paid work to leisurely activities.

The data for the 33 countries profiled come from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)’s Time Use database, for ages 15 through 64 years old.

Countries with the Highest Time Spent Per Activity

As the chart shows, basic patterns—work, rest, and play—emerge across the board.

When it comes to paid work, Japan emerges the highest on this list with approximately 5.5 hours per day. However, this country also has some of the highest overtime in a workweek. In contrast, European countries such as France and Spain report nearly half the same hours (less than 3 hours) of paid work per day on average.

Certain trends, however, transcend cultural boundaries. Those in Mexico find themselves spending significant portions of the day (3 hours or more) on housework, as do those in Portugal.

Activity categoryCountry with highest time spentTime spent in minutes
Paid work🇯🇵 Japan326 (Approx. 5.5 hrs)
Education🇰🇷 South Korea57 
Care for household members🇮🇪 Ireland61
Housework🇲🇽 Mexico187 (Approx. 3 hrs)
Shopping🇩🇪 Germany32
Other unpaid work & volunteering🇯🇵 Japan98 (Approx. 1.5 hrs)
Sleep🇿🇦 South Africa553 (Approx. 9 hrs)
Eating 🇫🇷 France133 (Approx. 2 hours)
Personal care🇫🇷 France107 (Approx. 1 hr 45 min)
Sports🇪🇸 Spain42
Attending events🇮🇪 Ireland42
Seeing friends🇿🇦 South Africa82
TV and radio🇺🇸 U.S.148 (Approx. 2.5 hrs)
Other leisure
(Religious/ civic duties, or unspecified)
🇳🇴 Norway154 (Approx. 2.5 hrs)

As the saying goes, all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. In the realm of leisure activities, those in the U.S. spend approximately 2.5 hours consuming media in a day, a number that has risen even higher during the pandemic.

Meanwhile, another interesting cultural pattern is that people in France spend the most time eating, approximately 2 hours per day. These durations are similar to those in other Mediterranean countries such as Greece, Italy, and Spain—perhaps because meals are viewed as a social activity in these cultures.

Gender Disparities in Time Spent

Digging deeper, another way to look at how people spend their time globally is through the lens of gender.

Women spend nearly three times more in unpaid care work compared to men—a whopping total of 1.1 trillion hours each year—which means a lot less leisure time. This inequality is clearly defined by country in the following scatterplot:

In Norway, both men and women have equally high levels of leisure time—though it’s a rare example of such a case.

Meanwhile, in countries like India or China, significant gender gaps prevent women from moving up the socioeconomic ladder, potentially costing trillions of dollars to the global economy.

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Personal Finance

Charting The Growing Generational Wealth Gap

How large is the wealth gap between Millennials, Gen X, and Baby Boomers? We visualize the growing wealth disparity by generation and age.

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Generational Wealth Shareable

The Growing Generational Wealth Gap

As young generations usher into adulthood, they inevitably begin to accumulate and inherit wealth, a trend that has broadly remained consistent.

But what has changed recently is the rate of accumulation.

In the U.S., household wealth has traditionally seen a relatively even distribution across different age groups. However, over the last 30 years, the U.S. Federal Reserve shows that older generations have been amassing wealth at a far greater rate than their younger cohorts.

As the visual above shows, the older have been getting richer, and the younger have been starting further back than ever before.

By Generation: Baby Boomers Benefit & Millennials Lag

To examine the proportion of wealth each generation holds, it’s important to clearly define each age group. Though personal definitions might differ, the U.S. Federal Reserve uses a clear metric:

GenerationBirth YearsAge (2020)
Silent Generation & Earlier1945 and earlier75+
Baby Boomers1946–196456–74
Generation X1965–198040–55
Millennials1981–199624–39

Relative to younger generations growing up, the Silent Generation and Greatest Generation before them have seen a decreasing share of household wealth over the last 30 years.

However, the numerical levels have been relatively stable. For these combined generations, total wealth has gone from $16 trillion in 1989 to $19 trillion in 2019, with a peak of $27 trillion in 2007. Considering this cohort has understandably shrunk over time—from an estimated 47 million to 23 million in 2019—their individual shares of wealth have actually increased.

Immediately following are the Baby Boomers, who held more than half of U.S. household wealth towards the end of 2020. At $59 trillion, the generation holds more than ten times the amount held by a comparative number of Millennials.

GenerationWealth (2019)Population (2019)Wealth/Person
Silent Generation & Older$18.8 Trillion23.0 Million$817,391
Baby Boomers$59.4 Trillion71.2 Million$834,270
Generation X$28.6 Trillion65.0 Million$440,000
Millennials$5.0 Trillion72.6 Million$68,871

With $29 trillion held in 2019, Generation X has also been gaining in wealth over the last 30 years. It’s good enough for five times the wealth of Millennials, though at just $440k/person, they’ve fallen far behind Baby Boomers in rate of growth.

Finally, trying to catch up to their older cohorts are Millennials, who held the least amount of household wealth ($5 trillion) for the greatest population (73 million) in 2019, an average of just under $69k/person.

For a direct comparison, it took Generation X nine years to climb from their start of 0.4% of household wealth in 1989 to above 5%, while Millennials still haven’t crossed that threshold. But it’s not all doom and gloom for Millennials. Their rate of growth is starting to rise, with the generation’s level of wealth climbing from $3 trillion in 2016 to $5 trillion in 2019.

By Age: A Growing Share for 55+

Though the generational picture is stark, the difference in U.S. household wealth by age makes the picture of shifting wealth even clearer.

Until 2001, the shares of household wealth held by different age groups were relatively stable. People aged 40-54 and 55-69 held around 35% each of household wealth, retirees aged 70+ hovered around 20%, and younger people aged under 40 held around 10%.

Since that time, however, the shift in wealth to older generations is clear. The 70+ age group has seen their share of wealth increase to 26%, while the share held by ages 55-69 has grown from 35% to almost half.

But not all ages are seeing an increasing slice of wealth. The 40-54 age group saw its share drop sharply from 36% to 22% between 2001 and 2016 before starting to recover towards the end of the decade, while the youngest cohort now hover around just 5%.

Breaking down that wealth by components is even more eye-opening. The 39 and under age group holds 37.9% of their assets in real estate, the largest share amongst any age group (and concentrated in the hands of fewer people) while older age groups have their wealth spread out across real estate, equities, and pensions.

Assets Held by Age (Percent of Total, 2020)70+55–6940–54≤39
Real estate21.6%20.5%27.6%37.9%
Consumer durables3.8%3.6%5.2%9.4%
Corporate equities and mutual fund shares24.6%23.1%18.6%8.1%
Pension entitlements16.3%25.0%21.9%21.0%
Private businesses7.9%9.7%12.1%8.1%
Other assets25.8%18.1%14.7%15.5%

But the difference is as much in assets as it is in opportunity. In 1989, Baby Boomers and Generation X under 40 accounted for 13% of household wealth, compared to just 5.9% for Millennials and Generation Z under 40 in 2020.

Will the Tide Turn for Generation Z?

As new and accumulated wealth has been built up in older generations, it’s a matter of time before the pendulum starts to swing the other way.

The Millennials age group are expected to inherit $68 trillion by 2030 from Baby Boomer parents. Of course, that payout isn’t going to be even across the board, with wealthier families retaining the bulk of wealth and the majority of Millennials laden with debt.

And with Generation Z (born 1997-2012) starting to come of age, the uneven playing field is making it hard to begin accumulating wealth in the first place.

Since it is in the best interest of societies to have wealthy generations that can drive economic growth, potential solutions are being examined all over the political sphere. They include different taxation schemes, changing estate laws, and potentially cancelling student debt.

Whatever ends up happening, it’s important to track how the distribution of wealth changes over the coming decade, and begin accumulating your personal wealth as best as you can.

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