Removing Freeways - Restoring Cities

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Tear It Down!
by John Norquist

Portland, OR:
Harbor Drive

San Francisco, CA:
Embarcadero Freeway

San Francisco, CA:
Central Freeway

Milwaukee, WI:
Park East Freeway

Toronto, Ontario: Gardiner Expressway

New York, NY:
West Side Highway

Niagara Falls, NY:
Robert Moses Parkway

Paris, France:
Pompidou Expressway

Seoul, South Korea
Cheonggye Freeway

Other Freeway Removals

Freeway Removal
Plans and Proposals

From Induced Demand
to Reduced Demand
by Charles Siegel



Tear it Down!
By John O. Norquist

Forty years ago in my city, Milwaukee, highway designers planned to surround the central business district with an expressway that was to include a section along the shore of Lake Michigan. This section, which would have separated downtown from its waterfront, generated enough opposition to stop its construction. But more than half of the loop was built, including a half-mile stretch that crossed the Milwaukee River and separated the north side of downtown from the rest of downtown.

Milwaukee has done something that might seem astounding, perhaps even un-American, and that is to tear down a superhighway. Why? Because rebuilding the 30-year-old structure would have cost $100 million. Tearing it down and replacing it with a street cost about $25 million.

Property values near the structure were depressed. The elevated road blocked what would otherwise have been beautiful views on both sides of the Milwaukee River. Downtown Milwaukee had experienced a housing boom that had developers searching for sites. In 2000, the county, state, and city agreed to remove most of the half-mile long Park East Freeway and develop the land. The estimated property value increase has been over $250 million.

Rethinking Freeways

It may seem strange, tearing down expressways after 50 years of the greatest road building binge in world history, but we've been through this rethinking process before. Remember the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers? As it enters the 21st century, the Corps has already begun the process of undoing the damage many of its 20th century projects caused. In the Florida Everglades watershed, the Corps once drained marshes and forced streams into concrete-lined channels in an attempt to tame waterways and make more land available for agriculture and development. Now the Corps is ripping out concrete and restoring marshes.

Draining wetlands and channelizing streams not only damaged the environment, but increased the likelihood of pollution and flooding downstream. Marshes, meadows, swamps, grasslands, and bogs slow down and filter the water that flows through them. The Corps is learning to respect the natural benefits of wetlands. It is learning that forcing water into concrete-lined channels was foolish and counterproductive.

In a similar way, traffic engineers are learning that urban street grids can distribute urban traffic more efficiently than do superhighways.

"Widening roads to solve traffic congestion is like loosening your belt to cure obesity,"says Walter Kulash, a traffic engineer from Orlando, Fla. Kulash argues for more smaller streets and roads rather than huge limited-access interstate highways. He's for choice. He believes travelers should be offered options. Government should invest in streets, sidewalks, transit, and bike paths instead of devoting almost all of its tax money to huge, highly engineered expressways.

Traffic engineer Rick Chellman's research in Portsmouth, N.H., demonstrates that the urban street grid generates less than half the car trips of suburban development. Chellman measured travel on the sprawled edge of Portsmouth against travel in that city's traditional neighborhoods and found that people traveled less often and for shorter distances in old Portsmouth.

Yet federal highway programs still concentrate tax dollars on building giant grade-separated roads that cut through or around urban grids. Like the now discredited Corps of Engineers channelization projects, the Federal Highway Administration seeks to concentrate traffic on a few large roads. The concentrated traffic congeals into congestion and the system is overwhelmed, just as with the Corps water projects. Federal highway policy, like so many post-World War II federal programs, imposes gigantic and destructive intrusions on complex urban situations.

Traffic engineers and Corps officials haven't learned these lessons in isolation. Across the country and across many disciplines, people are re-evaluating post-World War II federal urban policies that had destructive effects on cities, despite their good intentions. This destructive legacy has five major ingredients:

  • Federal welfare policy, which undermined city labor markets by paying people not to work and penalizing them if they did.
  • Promulgation of model zoning codes that criminalized the mixed-use development patterns that were the norm in traditional American neighborhoods and main streets, replacing them with the now familiar pattern of sprawl: city housing, office, and retail separated into pods and sprawled across the land.
  • The Federal Housing Authority created in 1934 helped popularize the low equity mortgage. FHA subsidized home ownership to millions of Americans - which was great, except that for many years FHA only subsidized newly constructed homes, meaning you couldn't use FHA to buy a house in your old neighborhood. FHA also required race segregation covenants until 1949 and allowed them until 1962.
  • The urban renewal program subsidized wholesale demolition and clearance of urban neighborhoods. In 1945, many European cities were wastelands. Berlin, for example, was 80 percent destroyed at the end of the war. Thirty years later, London, Rotterdam, Berlin, and Hamburg were all rebuilt cities while U.S. cities looked as though World War II had happened in the United States.
  • Welfare, zoning, FHA, and urban renewal all did their damage, but the most destructive program was the federal government's gross over-subsidy of high-speed roads that cut through the fabric of U.S. cities. The federal government paid 90 percent, states 10 percent, and locals 0 percent. This funding mix was so compelling that few cities opposed freeway construction in the early years of the program.

In 1956, the Interstate Highway Act was signed by President Dwight Eisenhower. Its chief Senate sponsor was Albert Gore Sr., but the man most responsible for its passage was Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson, a powerful friend of the road building industry. It was Johnson who pushed hard for the dominant 90 percent federal cost share.

Interstate Highways In The City

Just before World War II, designer Norman Bel Geddes had proposed the idea of interstate highways to President Franklin Roosevelt. Bel Geddes had been impressed with the development of grade-separated limited access roads in Europe, particularly the German autobahn. He recommended the new roads for America with an important caution. In his 1940 book, Magic Motorways, he warned that a high-speed, non-stop thoroughfare would only bungle the job if it got tangled up with the city. Bel Geddes felt that a great motorway had no business cutting a wide swath right through a town or city and destroying the values there; its place was in the country.

Bel Geddes knew what European traffic engineers already knew, that high-speed roads would disrupt the efficient distribution of traffic on city street grids. That is why you won't find expressways inside the outer ring roads of most large European cities. London has a high speed motorway ringing its edge and motorways to other large cities such as Glasgow and Newcastle, but London has no high speed roads inside its beltway. Instead, London has boulevards and avenues across a dense network of streets, lanes, and alleys. Under the road grid is a huge complex of subways and commuter railroads. The edges of the boulevards and streets are lined with sidewalks, businesses, and housing. Transportation choice is a profound reality for those living in London. Walking, bicycling, riding transit, and driving cars are all options. Contrast that with the high-speed expressways of, let us say, metro Detroit, where every freeway ever planned was built and cars travel farther and farther between increasingly insignificant destinations.

My parents honeymooned in Detroit in 1946, guests of a grateful government that provided a week in a hotel to those who were POWs during World War II. My father, a Bataan Death March survivor, could choose between Minneapolis or Detroit. Since they lived in St. Paul, Minn., he chose Detroit.

They stayed at the luxurious Book Cadillac Hotel. With a new Bell and Howell movie camera my father recorded the first days of an enduring marriage and the heyday of downtown Detroit. At that time, Detroit bustled with pedestrians and shoppers in scenes reminiscent of the great cities of Europe. Three department stores - Hudsons, Kerns, and Crowleys - all on Cadillac Square, rivaled Manhattan's Bloomingdale's, Macy's, and Gimbel's. Detroit's prominent skyline was surpassed only by those of Chicago and New York.

Fifty years later, Detroit has changed beyond recognition. The pedestrians are gone. The streetcars, with the exception of a small, antique replica that operates occasionally, are gone. The department stores are gone. Most buildings are gone or boarded up. The 28-story Book Cadillac stands as part of the Detroit acropolis of empty skyscrapers.

If money is the measure, the federal government kept faith with Detroit during its decline. But if results matter, Washington's dollars were fool's gold. Billions flowed from Washington into Detroit in the form of concrete. Billions more built public housing in the city and tax-subsidized middle-class housing in the suburbs. More was spent on urban renewal and parking lots - so many parking lots that there are not many places left to visit.

Some may think Detroit, as an automobile city with a declining industrial base, is a special case. But compare Motor City with the Motowns of Europe: Wolfsburg, Germany; Goteborg, Sweden; Turin, Italy. Each has a healthy, vibrant downtown. Turin, especially, has endured the decision of a giant automaker to move production elsewhere. Yet the city thrives.

Deconstructing Freeways

In California, some expressways were built even before the Interstate Act. The California Highway Department had begun building San Francisco's Embarcadero Freeway in 1953. The department intended it to connect the Bay Bridge with the Golden Gate. The state assemblyman for the north of San Francisco at the time, Caspar Weinberger (later Ronald Reagan's defense secretary), opposed the freeway, saying it would block views of the Bay and lower property values. He lost the fight, but he and others slowed the project enough that 20 years later, Mayor Joseph Alioto was able to stop its completion from Fisherman's Wharf to the Golden Gate. Alioto saw no advantage to a high-speed road through San Francisco. He said the city was so beautiful that people should slow down and enjoy its charm. He noted that most of the great cities of Europe had no expressways cutting through them and that Paris, Vienna, Rome, and London seemed to be doing fine without them.

When the 1989 earthquake damaged the Embarcadero Freeway, it was considered an "act of God"and in one of the rare cases in which San Francisco's political culture embraced a divine message, the city petitioned the state of California to remove the Embarcadero Freeway instead of rebuilding it.

The state agreed and nearby property values promptly shot up by more than 300 percent, reinforcing Caspar Weinberger's argument of 40 years before. Today the Embarcadero is an at-grade boulevard with sidewalks and light rail transit in a median lined with royal palms. The boulevard and transit connect Fisherman's Wharf with the Giants' new baseball stadium. The most important views of San Francisco Bay from the North Coast of San Francisco are no longer obstructed by an elevated concrete expressway.

Neil Goldschmidt, Portland's mayor of a generation ago, led an effort to remove an elevated expressway separating its downtown from the banks of the Willamette River. The mayor and his allies argued that the quality of life and property values would improve if the road were removed and replaced with an avenue and a park. They won the argument, and their prediction came true. Property values are up dramatically, and the park along the river is now one of the most popular gathering spots in Oregon. Similarly, New York City removed the Westside Highway and has enjoyed huge development in the old freeway corridor.

San Francisco, Portland, New York, and Milwaukee all are deconstructing freeways. All four cities are undoing damage done to them, which points out one characteristic of Americans: We make huge mistakes, but we also correct them. We are replacing welfare with work; we're ending or redesigning federal housing programs; we're reversing the destructive programs of the Corps of Engineers; and we're changing our attitudes about highways and transportation. Four cities have replaced expressways with avenues and boulevards. I predict this is just the beginning. With property values skyrocketing near demolished freeways, urban expressway deconstruction could be one of the biggest public works projects of the 21st century.

John Norquist is former mayor of Milwaukee and current president and CEO of the Congress for the New Urbanism

This essay was originally published in a slightly different form in the Democratic Leadership Council's
Blueprint Magazine, September 1, 2000. It is used here courtesy of John Norquist.

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