Do Freeways Belong Inside Cities?

I am coming to the conclusion that, within large cities, freeways -- which have never really been free, by the way -- have proven to be a perhaps well-intended but often decidedly bad idea. They have generally been terrible for the neighborhoods around them.
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Have you driven on a freeway lately in a big city? Was it a good experience for you? More and more often, it's not such a good experience for me.

To offer a case in point, about a week and a half ago I was in Dallas for a conference. My first freeway experience there was in a taxi, stuck in traffic for over an hour on some highway in between DFW Airport and downtown where the conference hotel was. My second was in a rental car, trying to get out of town for a few hours to visit a friend in Waco. That took almost an extra hour, too. There's no telling what the reason was. It just did. I fervently wanted to get off the elevated highway and drive on surface streets, but I was at the mercy of GPS-based navigation instructions and, in unfamiliar environs, had little choice but to follow them.

I am coming to the conclusion that, within large cities, freeways -- which have never really been free, by the way -- have proven to be a perhaps well-intended but often decidedly bad idea. They don't convey traffic consistently well and, worse, have generally been terrible for the neighborhoods around them.

(Note: today's article adapts and builds upon one I wrote three years ago for Switchboard, the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, where I used to work.)

Freeways as traffic movers

In the DC area where I live, I'm lucky enough to get to most everywhere I want to go through a combination of walking, transit, and driving on surface streets that generally flow pretty well. The major exception is when my wife and I visit her parents in the suburb of Fairfax, Virginia, about 20 miles from our house in Washington. The "fast" route is to pick up the Capital Beltway about five miles or so from our house and exit onto I-66 heading west out to Fairfax. But I-66 is prone to notorious congestion, and the trip can easily take an hour or more. There's an alternate route on surface roads that is more predictable -- it's almost always about 40 minutes -- but we get seduced into thinking that the faster route will indeed be faster, which it can be if everything goes perfectly.

Note my use of the word "perfectly." As many a harried soccer mom, delivery driver, commuter or contractor can attest, perfection can be elusive: getting to one's destination within a reasonable amount of time has become largely a matter of luck when traveling metro freeways. This is true even in the suburbs but, especially where freeways have been built in the hearts of big cities, they have become roads to avoid, unless you happen to be driving at a very off-peak hour, like when most people are asleep.

Now, I may be grumpy about this, but I'm not a total hater when it comes to freeways. I am of the opinion, which is by no means universally held, that the Interstate Highway System, whose construction was begun in the 1950s and 1960s, was good for America, or at least a net plus when it comes to travel between cities. I am old enough to remember when the early parts of I-40 were built in western North Carolina, allowing my family to reduce a two-hours-plus trip to visit my grandmother down to 90 minutes. This meant we could visit her on a weeknight after my parents got off work and still get back to our house at a not-too-unreasonable hour. I'm sure that the system also generated all sorts of economic benefits.

But that's regarding travel between cities and metro areas. Within metro areas has been another matter altogether, as freeways have led to sprawl, which has led to congestion, which has led to more and bigger freeways, which has led to more sprawl, and so on in a never-ending cycle. I will readily admit that traffic can be bad on surface streets, too; but, if freeways don't significantly improve things in cities, what's the point?

Freeways and neighborhoods

In fact, as horrendous as the traffic can be, that's not the worst part. Inside cities, where freeways were built through once-intact neighborhoods, they have done damage to our social fabric that has proven impossible to rectify, most frequently in low-income and minority neighborhoods. Many of those neighborhoods were struggling even before the freeways drove concrete stakes through their hearts.

My friend and former co-author Don Chen summarized the damage in our 1999 book, Once There Were Greenfields:

"During the first decade of Interstate highway construction, 335,000 homes were razed, forcing families to look elsewhere for housing . . .

"In many cases, the 'urban blight' targeted by the new road construction simply meant African-American communities -- often thriving ones. A great body of work shows that urban freeways destroyed the hearts of African-American communities in the South Bronx, Nashville, Austin, Los Angeles, Durham, and nearly every medium to large American city . . .

"In Tennessee, plans for the construction of Interstate 40 were in fact redrawn to route the highway through the flourishing Jefferson Street corridor, home to roughly 80 percent of Nashville's African-American-owned businesses. Not only did the construction of I-40 destroy this commercial district; it also demolished 650 homes and 27 apartment buildings while erecting physical barriers separating the city's largest African-American universities: Fisk University, Tennessee A & I University, and Meharry Medical College."

In a previous article, I recounted the bleak story of how the Claiborne Expressway in New Orleans bifurcated that city's culturally rich Tremé district. Among the casualties were a popular Mardi Gras parade route lined with majestic oak trees and a thriving corridor of African-American businesses some called "the black people's Canal Street."

Versions of this story can be told all across the country. But the damage doesn't stop there. Trampling on neighborhood fabric, it turns out, was a sort of social insult added to very real economic injury. Writing in 2012 on his blog Original Green, my friend Steve Mouzon examined property values along an eleven-block stretch of a street that runs perpendicular to and underneath I-65/70 in Indianapolis. Property values per acre drop off precipitously as one gets closer to the freeway, and then rise again on the other side (though not to the same level).

Steve reasonably suggested that, although the neighborhood on the east side does not match that on the far west for per-acre value, the increments of change as one moves from west to east likely would have been more gradual, rather than dramatic, without the freeway. While Steve's analysis is based at best on a small sample size and an informal calculation by a non-economist, it sure seems intuitive and directionally correct to me. My guess is that freeways have probably created value in the suburbs but frequently diminished value in city centers. I'm sure there are more sophisticated studies on the subject, but I haven't had time to research them.

Moreover, on his Street/Smart blog published on the site of D Magazine, Patrick Kennedy constructed a fascinating series of maps correlating the geography of roads designed for high speeds in Dallas (and, in a couple of cases, Philadelphia) with a number of other variables, including crime, Walk Score walkability distribution, outdoor café seating, traffic fatalities, and vacant land. Basically, freeway corridors are associated with higher crime, reduced walkability, the absence of outdoor seating, high traffic fatalities, and increased vacant property acreage.

Never meant to be

There may be cases where urban freeways have been a net plus for residents of the cities where they were built (apart from what they may have meant for non-residents passing through), but my guess is that they are few and far between. And perhaps the sorriest aspect of this sorry story is that it wasn't supposed to be this way.

In particular, President Dwight D Eisenhower is generally credited with bringing the Interstate Highway System to America. As a brilliant wartime general, he had seen the necessity of being able to move troops and equipment quickly from one location to another, and he had seen the first German autobahns. While others had entertained the idea of freeway construction, and prototypes like the Pennsylvania Turnpike had already been built, it was Eisenhower who pushed the idea as a national system and priority and made it happen. The system now bears his name.

But Eisenhower never intended that the Interstates be built through densely populated cities. A memorandum of a 1960 meeting in the Oval Office, available in the archives of Eisenhower's presidency, makes this crystal-clear:

"[The President] went on to say that the matter of running Interstate routes through the congested parts of the cities was entirely against his original concept and wishes; that he never anticipated that the program would turn out this way . . . and that he was certainly not aware of any concept of using the program to build up an extensive intra-city route network as part of the program he sponsored. He added that those who had not advised him that such was being done, and those who steered the program in such a direction, had not followed his wishes."

The Secretary of Commerce and head of the Federal Highway Administration were in the room.

Other approaches

Many of the world's most-loved cities have simply kept freeways out of their central districts. Paris has the Périphérique, its analog to DC's Capital Beltway, running around the city, but no major freeway inside. Rome also has no major freeways inside the city. In North America, Vancouver is famous for being largely without freeways in its interior.

Other cities have elected not to rebuild freeways when they reach the age where costly repairs are required. The best known of these in America is in San Francisco, where a 1989 earthquake famously knocked down the Embarcadero Freeway. It has now been replaced with "a tree-lined boulevard that blends alternative modes of transportation, including a perfect pedestrian promenade, a bicycle corridor and a popular streetcar line."

The change has increased property values, attracted investment, and restored scenic views previously blocked by freeway infrastructure, all without harmful effects on traffic.

In a different kind of example, as I wrote last year, the city of Seoul has replaced an aging freeway not with a boulevard but with a spectacular linear park and urban river. With the re-routing of traffic and addition of public transit options, traffic congestion has actually decreased in the Korean capital. Still other cities have "capped" freeways with parks in an attempt to restore or create urban fabric above the roads without tearing them down. Boston's famous "Big Dig" that buried that city's Central Artery is one example. Seattle also has a park above a freeway, and there are a number of proposals currently working their way through design and construction, including a breathtaking concept for Hamburg, in Germany.

Back in Dallas, Kennedy estimates that removing a segment of I-345 in the city and diverting traffic to surface streets that are currently under capacity could conservatively attract $750 million worth of new investment and increase tax revenues from adjacent properties six-fold. (In a comment on my earlier article, Kennedy clarified that a more aggressive model finds that the switch could, over time, attract as much as $6 billion in new investment and raise property tax revenue from $3.5 million to nearly $100 million per year; he also elaborates on the case for dismantling I-345 in this article from earlier this year.)

All this is not to say that we should go around tearing down every freeway in every city. I'm certainly not suggesting that we tear them down in the suburbs, even though they don't seem to be working as well as intended even there. But I do think there is merit in taking a close look, as opportunities arise on a case-by-case basis in densely populated central cities, at whether the best interests of certain cities and neighborhoods might be served by alternative approaches.


For readers who may be interested, the Congress for the New Urbanism maintains an excellent introduction to the issue of freeway closures, along with a repository of resources on its web site. (John Norquist, the former mayor of Milwaukee and past president of CNU, made the cause of dismantling aging freeways one of his signature public policy issues while at the organization.) In addition, the Institute for Transportation & Development Policy, in partnership with EMBARQ (a center at the World Resources Institute), has published a report, The Life and Death of Urban Highways, examining "the place of major highways in urban areas and whether they merit further investment or should be removed." The city of Seattle has also compiled a set of case studies on freeway removal, available as a PDF here.

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Kaid Benfield writes about community, development, and the environment on Huffington Post and in other national media. Kaid's latest book is People Habitat: 25 Ways to Think About Greener, Healthier Cities.

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