Freeway removals: is your city next?
I remember a fun meeting several years ago, where civic officials, engineers and activists were talking about the future of the downtown freeway loop in Kansas City, MO. The state DOT had in mind a couple of options for rebuilding this very tight loop, at costs approaching $1 billion. I couldn't resist, and suggested we tear the whole thing out and reconnect the street grid since the loop has a stranglehold on downtown and its success.
After quickly scoffing at my idea and moving on to other comments, a friend and colleague Daniel Serda chimed in. Daniel is a city planner and educator. He noted that while I had prefaced my comments as "radical," that the truly radical thing was building the freeways in the first place. He added that the act of tearing down entire neighborhoods in order to move traffic quickly was an act of incredible hubris, and by comparison removing them and restoring neighborhoods is a much more conservative notion.
Daniel said it better than I did.
Many have written about the history of freeway-building in the US, including this excellent piece by Eric Jaffe.
So, for those not aware, here's a quick summary of urban freeways: a) we built them where they weren't supposed to go, with almost all federal money; b) most are now worn out and need replacement, not repair; c) they were a primary reason that downtowns & urban neighborhoods declined; d) some are being removed and not replaced due to expense and a bad idea to begin with; e) highway interests, engineers & some in the public are freaking out.
In recent years, a series of urban freeways have been removed. For some examples, check this page from the Congress for the New Urbanism. Here in Savannah, we will also be removing a spur of I-16 on the edge of the historic district and reconnecting the street grid.
Last week, Linton Weeks of NPR ran a story on 3 freeways that face a grim future, and should be replaced. If you want to get an idea of the hysteria that surrounds this issue, just read the comments on the piece.
The fiscal realities are unavoidable: we simply won't be able to afford rebuilding all of these freeways and interchanges. And, the development realities are just as real: urban freeways destroy cities, remove hundreds and hundreds of acres of valuable land from the tax rolls and destroy the quality of life that urban residents seek. A side note just for those fixated on traffic: urban freeways actually make traffic *worse* as they impose a limited-access system on top of a grid that's meant to distribute traffic.
But I digress.
The reality is, we will be seeing a lot more of this in the coming years, especially as we change our priorities for transportation spending. Will your city be next?