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Photo by John Carrington and Savannah Morning News of the I-16 flyover in Savannah, GA

Photo by John Carrington and Savannah Morning News of the I-16 flyover in Savannah, GA

Freeway removal, a phrase that sounded completely bizarre to most a couple of decades ago, is becoming a serious and frequent topic in economic development. With cities such as San Francisco, Milwaukee and Portland leading the way, it's now a proven fact that it's possible to not only create more successful development by tearing down urban freeways, but also that the traffic fears put forth by many never materialize.

One good reason for the new thinking? Freeways in urban locations actually worsen traffic by disrupting the street grid beneath and around it. So, their removal and reconnection of the grid actually improves traffic in addition to creating opportunities to make neighborhoods better. Alex Marshall wrote about this phenomenon here.

In Savannah, our own freeway removal project is proceeding apace - the removal of the I-16 flyover into downtown. There's a lot of background on the project here. A new website has gone live recently here. Bill Dawers in Savannah Unplugged has his usual great assessment of the proposals here and here. Here's an aerial of the photo today:

What's not as obvious from the photo is how the flyover essentially ruined Montgomery Street by making it a fast, wide one-way street, and that this combined with the Civic Center destroyed two of the squares from the historic district. So, the removal project not only can dramatically improve MLK Jr. Blvd and everything to the west, but also heal some gaping wounds east of MLK.

Here's an aerial drawing from the original design effort showing how some of the property could be redeveloped. You can see the flyover location ghosted in behind the new development.

Designs by Sottile & Sottile Urban Design and Wilbur Smith Associates

Designs by Sottile & Sottile Urban Design and Wilbur Smith Associates

I think the plan is by and large excellent. I especially like the new square on MLK and all of the additional street connections. Combined with a potential streetcar (which I realize is a bit of a local controversy) along MLK, it's easy to see how this entire side of downtown will be transformed. The only suggestion I'd offer is that the interchange at Gwinnett would be well-served by a pair of roundabouts. Doing so will facilitate ingress/egress from the freeway and the city grid, and there's ample room to build them.

Certainly not all of our urban freeways will be removed in the coming years. But the cold, hard reality is that many of them need to be. In our zeal for the interstate era and the car culture, we simply made a lot of mistakes that were devastating to cities. A primary mistake was in running limited-access, fast roadways through urban neighborhoods and downtowns. City leaders were complicit in this, since many truly believed it would help the fortunes of their downtowns. Instead, it merely facilitated the exodus.

The rare cities such as Vancouver that never built urban freeways have prospered, with huge gains in population and commerce. Many other cities that were reamed out by freeways saw huge declines and are marked now by big roads and big parking lots. Would any sane person look at what was done and say it was successful? By any measure? And yet, many in the planning, economic development and engineering fields still view these with suspicion. They live by the old rules that free-flowing traffic is the harbinger of all things good and true.

I'm ecstatic to see the removal project in Savannah move forward. There's no doubt in my mind at all that it will do wonders for the MLK corridor and the west side of downtown. Traffic may get worse in a couple of spots, but I expect it to be very isolated. Reconnecting the streets that were cut off will help spread it out. And, more importantly, the walking and biking nature of downtown will be extended to an even bigger area, which means more successful development for the city.

If I have one frustration, it's simply that this all takes so long. It takes decades to tear down infrastructure that took a far shorter time to design and build. Perhaps one day we can devise a faster method for building infrastructure that clearly will be of benefit to cities. Until then, we wait, ever so patiently.

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