Sunday, May 18, 2008

Replacing urban freeways

If this looks like something I've written about before, it's because I have. Rather extensively, in fact:

Oklahoma City is doing what many cities dream about: saying goodbye to a highway.

More than a dozen cities have proposals to remove highways from downtowns. Cleveland wants to remove a freeway that blocks its waterfront. Syracuse, N.Y., wants to rid itself of an interstate that cuts the city in half.

Removing or relocating old and unsightly urban freeways is not a new phenomenon. The Westside Highway in New York City and Harbor Drive in Portland were both demolished way back in 1974. But in recent years the idea of removing or replacing urban freeways has gained considerable traction, and more cities are looking into the possibility. This is because many urban freeways built in the 1950s and 1960s have come to the end of their design lives. As the topic of urban freeway replacement arises, so too does the discussion as to how to best go about doing so.

Should the new freeway be built in the same place or in the same manner? For example, can an existing above-grade freeway be rebuilt as a trench that can be "capped" by a park or other amenity? The article focuses on the relocation and reconstruction of Interstate 40 through Oklahoma City - currently an elevated structure - into a new trench a few blocks to the south of the existing structure. The corridor which the existing freeway occupies will be turned into a linear park, and the hope is that the surrounding neighborhoods will redevelop.

Other cities are taking the question a step further, asking if the freeway should even be rebuilt at all. In some cases, the answer is"no." That especially seems to be true for freeways that run along waterfronts:

Many unpopular highways run along rivers or lakes. The path made sense when they were built because the route was flat, in existing rights-of-way and connected highways and busy ports. Now, especially in old, industrial cities, waterfronts are often vacant, leaving the prettiest scenery blighted by highways carrying traffic passing through.

Cleveland wants to convert its West Shoreway, next to Lake Erie, from a 50-mph freeway into a tree-lined boulevard. "There was less appreciation for the scenic value of waterfront when the shoreway was built," says Cleveland Planning Commission director Robert Brown. "We need to connect the city to its parks and
lakefront again."

Not a lot of people know that early highway plans for New Orleans included a freeway that would run along the east bank of the Mississippi River. Fortunately, that never happened; could you imagine what that city would be like if there was a huge freeway between Jackson Square and the Mississippi?

Perhaps the best example of the benefits that can be realized by removing a waterfront freeway occurred in San Francisco, when the Embarcadero freeway was pulled down following the Loma Preita earthquake in October 1989. But physically removing a waterfront freeway is not the only option available; hiding the freeway underneath a park, as was done to I-35 in Duluth, Minnesota, is another possibility. It will be interesting to see what cities like Cleveland and Seattle, which is currently debating the future of the aging Alaskan Way Viaduct, actually end up doing to their waterfront freeways.

Some people are of the opinion that virtually all urban freeways should be torn down:

"Highways don't belong in cities. Period," says John Norquist, who was mayor of Milwaukee when it closed a highway. "Europe didn't do it. America did. And our cities have paid the price."
I'm not sure I completely agree here. While it is true that the construction of freeways through our nation's urban areas has destroyed and divided historic inner-city neighborhoods (especially low-income and minority communities, since that's where right-of-way acquisition was cheapest), the fact is that, in the fifty or sixty years since they first started to be constructed, these structures have become a key part of the city's transportation network. Aside from the fact that it's not politically feasible to tear down every urban freeway in any case, ridding our nation's cities of all of their freeways would make them less accessible, more congested (simply due to the loss of vehicle capacity that highways provide) and more difficult to navigate. Removing a spur is one thing; removing a major trunk freeway (I-10 through Houston, for example) is something entirely different.

There's nothing, however, that prevents cities from diminishing the negative impacts of urban freeways through other means, as places like Phoenix (Margaret Hance park over I-10), Seattle (Freeway Park over I-5) and Duluth have done and as Oklahoma City is planning to do. As folks in the highway business point out, the dilemma of the urban freeway has to be addressed on a case-by-case basis:

Doug Currey, regional director of the New York State Department of Transportation, says taking down urban highways is sometimes the right thing to
do — and sometimes not.

"No two situations are exactly alike," says Currey, who oversees highways in the New York City area.

As urban freeways reach the end of their useful lifespans and require rehabilitiation, opportunities to make urban highways that are less disruptive to the urban fabric arise. Oklahoma City is just one of many urban areas that is currently seizing this opportunity and, in the process, attempting to right a wrong imposed on our nation's cities half a century ago when these highways were first built. As somebody who has researched this topic extensively, it is gratifying for me to see.

This highway-removal-advocacy website is interesting to read, even though I'm not sure I agree with everything in it. Kuff's take on the article is here.

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