DC’s story

History quantified: Examining the damage in Washington, DC

The devastation, disconnection, and displacement of highways plowed through cities and neighborhoods is easy to see, but rarely do we quantify the costs in terms of lost wealth, land, residents, and businesses. The damage also could have been much worse, with many planned highways never built or completed. We examine current and historical data on the impact of one built and one unbuilt highway in Washington, DC (and in Atlanta here) to quantify both the damage and what could have been.1

I-395/695 (built) and I-95/66/70 extensions (unbuilt)

Note: Click either tab below to toggle between I-395/695 and I-95/66/70 data, and animations


  • Length analyzed: Approximately 5 miles
  • Eight lanes with an estimated minimum 308-foot-wide impact zone

Interstates 395 and 695, known locally as the Southwest and Southeast Freeways, together represent a major portion of the completed interstate lane miles within the District.2 395 carries traffic across a set of massive bridges from Virginia into the District and then (on 695) across the Anacostia River to Interstate 295 (and DC Highway 295). A short segment of 395 splits off and continues north under the National Mall, terminating at New York Avenue/4th Street NW. As originally conceived, it would have connected to both the North Central Freeway and the Northern Leg freeway—both analyzed here.

 What was lost in DC? How did these interstates devastate and transform the city, and the people within it? This animation visualizing before and after construction of I-395/695 using historic satellite imagery was produced in partnership with @Segregation_By_Design.

What was lost with the construction of I-395/695 (within the city limits):

I-395/695 consumes at least 311 acres and $3.3 billion in taxable land, according to 2021 DC land assessments.3

Without the homes that previously existed within the I-395/695 corridor, the city lost the ability to tax approximately $1.4 billion in home value, costing the city at least $7.6 million in property taxes per year4

During the urban renewal process, 99 percent of buildings in the Southwest quadrant, including 1,500 commercial buildings, were destroyed.

29% white residents displaced, 63% Black residents displaced, 8% other

I-395/695 displaced at least 4,700 people in 1960.

At least 1,400 occupied housing units were destroyed, wiping out $483,000 in average home equity, if those homes existed today.5

Also, roads are liabilities, not assets, and maintaining or rehabilitating them require significant costs. Highways are the most expensive kind of road to maintain due to their width, material (often concrete), and traffic volumes. Figures vary, but according to a Strong Towns analysis of 2014 FHWA numbers, it can cost upwards of $7.7 million per mile to reconstruct an existing lane of a freeway like this one.

Note: Scroll up and click either tab above the map to toggle between I-395/695 and I-95/66/70 data, and animations


  •  Length analyzed: Approximately 10 miles
  • 4-6 lanes with an estimated minimum 260-284-foot-wide impact zone

If completed as envisioned, what is Interstate 395 today would have actually carried Interstate 95 directly north through the heart of the city. Instead, I-95 is today signed to follow the existing path of the I-495 Beltway east around the city. Original plans for I-95 would have continued a wide swath of destruction northward from today’s current terminus at New York Avenue before connecting to both the Northern Leg (I-66) running east-west through the city, and the North Central Freeway (I-95/I-70) running north, most likely adjacent to today’s CSX rail right-of-way, though scores of other routes were proposed from 1955-1966. This combined freeway would have split in two further north, with I-70 running northwest through Takoma Park to the Beltway (I-495), and I-95 (the Northeast Freeway) eastward to today’s terminus of I-95 at the Beltway.

If these highways had been built through Washington, DC as originally planned, what could not exist today? This video shows where a portion of these highways would be today, using a conservatively estimated 260-foot impact zone for four planned lanes.

What would have been lost with the construction of the I-95 extension?

The District of Columbia would have lost at least $6.8 billion in taxable land value.6

At least 18,000 residents would have been displaced, 60 percent of whom were Black.

Of the people the extension would have displaced, 60% were Black residents, 35% were White residents (5% other).

At least 6,300 homes would have been destroyed, wiping out at least $601,000 in average home equity for homeowners.

Without the homes in this corridor, the city would have lost the ability to tax at least $6.6 billion in home value, costing the city about $35 million in property taxes each year.7

In 2020, within the 360-foot-wide impact zone of the proposed route, there were over 17,500 residents and over 9,300 homes.

According to CoStar data, within this entire unbuilt corridor in 2023 there were 244 active businesses, 37 multifamily buildings, and 42 office buildings.

Note: Scroll up and click either tab above the map to toggle between I-395/695 and I-95/66/70 data, and animations

Washington, DC’s story

The highway plans in the 1950s and 60s for the national capital region—and the planners responsible for them—both predicted and facilitated suburban sprawl and white flight into existing and new suburbs in Maryland and Virginia, failing to serve the needs of the District of Columbia’s 750,000-plus residents. Documents produced at the time treated the city merely as a destination for far-flung commuters and interstate travelers to pass through via new interstates to provide “connection to principal arteries serving the Central Business District for convenient collection and delivery of traffic to and from exterior points.”8

Though there were scores of highway plans for the region, various iterations would have resulted in plowing new interstates through dozens of historic neighborhoods, including the iconic U Street corridor, Capitol Hill, Brookland, Georgetown, Shaw, Takoma Park, and others.

The caption on this historic photo shows how planners at the time thought of the 1,500 businesses they displaced and the 23,000 people they removed from their homes in the Southwest quadrant of the city: “A good example of coordination of freeway and urban renewal planning is seen in the Southwest Freeway…” Credit: District of Columbia, Department of Highways and Traffic and District Department of Transportation, “Southeast/Southwest Freeway,” DDOT Historic Collections, accessed June 13, 2023.

While the coalitions that emerged in DC were more successful than other cities in preventing the comprehensive destruction of the city for the full suite of planned highways, predominantly Black and blue-collar neighborhoods across the city were still devastated. In the Southwest quadrant more than 400 acres were cleared and 23,500 people removed from their homes for the construction of I-395/695 analyzed below and the accompanying broader “urban renewal” effort.

Though many historic Black and white neighborhoods were spared that are responsible for billions of dollars of annual tax revenue and economic growth for the city today, the displacement, destruction, and resulting barriers entrenched many disparities and inequalities seen in the city today.

The stump of I-395/695, in the midst of construction, rises out of the lower lefthand side of the frame, facing a cleared path in an otherwise dense city. Black and white photograph
In an aerial photo looking to the east, land has already been cleared for the next few blocks of the Southeast/Southwest Freeway (I-395/695). Credit: District of Columbia, Department of Highways and Traffic and District Department of Transportation. “Southeast/Southwest Freeway.” DDOT Historic Collections, accessed June 13, 2023.

It’s important to note that the District was not self-governed by its residents during the heyday of the interstate-building period and was still several years away from the limited “home rule” that came into effect in December 1973. Until 1967, the District’s Department of Highways and Traffic reported not to an elected mayor or a council, but to three DC commissioners who were appointed by the President and confirmed by Congress and the committees with oversight of DC. This cleared the way for powerful members of Congress and their appointed transportation representatives to realize their plans.

As an activist from the time said, “in the eyes of these congressmen, the city was expendable.” Congressional appropriators even threatened to withhold funding for the new Metrorail transit system in an attempt to force the opponents of highway expansion to relent.

One factor shaping highway opposition in DC was that wealthier and politically influential white neighborhoods were also targeted in addition to the lower-income or Black neighborhoods typically targeted, which led to a diverse coalition of those opposed to the highway. An interracial and interclass group of organizers, calling themselves the Emergency Committee on the Transportation Crisis (ECTC), led by Sammie Abbott, who was white, and Reginald H. Booker, who was Black, organized against the destruction through direct, nonviolent action at every turn. ECTC popularized the slogan “White Men’s Road through Black Men’s Homes.”

A group of Black men are flanked by two white men, all animatedly participating in a discussion
Historic photograph of an ECTC meeting. Credit: Washington Post. DC Public Library Star Collection.

When the first Brookland homes were condemned for the construction of the (never built) North Central Freeway, Abbott and Booker cleaned up and repaired the homes and moved families into them (and were arrested as a result).

When Rep. William Natcher (D-KY), the chief appropriator in Congress, focused on advancing a new bridge (the Three Sisters Bridge) over the Potomac to carry today’s Interstate 66 from Virginia east directly through core DC neighborhoods, ECTC organized nearby (and primarily white) Georgetown University students to occupy construction equipment and the islets in the middle of the river. The bridge was ultimately never built and I-66 today ends at the Potomac River.

Read the rest of Divided by Design

Explore the report’s full content using the sidebar menu at right (or below if on a mobile device), or jump to one of the three parts with the graphics below.

report cover graphic showing a stylized highway cutting through a city.graphic showing a stylized scene of construction of a highway through a city neighborhoodgraphic showing a stylized scene a few blocks away from a highway running through a city neighborhoodgraphic showing a stylized scene of what a neighborhood could look like after tearing a highway down

Don’t miss supplemental maps, videos, and animations in the DC and Atlanta case studies which are not in the hard copy. Download a PDF version of the report.