Can Demolishing Urban Freeways Help Revive Cities?

18 Mar, 2012

by Matt Bevilacqua, via Grist.org

The Westside Highway, New York. Photo by m.joedickeOne of John Norquist’s best-known achievements as mayor of Milwaukee—an office he held from 1988 to 2004—was demolishing the Park East Freeway, a 1960s-era expressway that restricted access to the city’s downtown. Today, he is CEO of the Congress for the New Urbanism, an organization that promotes urban highway removal and walkable, mixed-use urban development.

Norquist, who is also author of The Wealth of Cities, an argument for using the free market to achieve urbanist goals, will be one of the featured speakers at the Congress’ 20th annual gathering in West Palm Beach, Fla., this May. Here, he discusses urban highway removal—where it’s been done, where it will happen next, and why we as a nation must overcome our obsession with reducing congestion.

Q. As local leaders around the country are now seriously considering highway removal in some form or another, how do you suggest convincing concerned residents that such a move is right for them and their city?

A. Well, you have to change the discussion from pure traffic count comparison to traffic distribution. A robust street grid, with lots of connections, will distribute traffic much better than a few large freeways.

For example, when the Embarcadero Freeway, a double-deck freeway [in San Francisco], was torn down, a majority of the trips—according to a study by the city of San Francisco—got shorter and faster because of the increased connectivity. With the freeway, there were a lot of trips where you overshot your destination and had to come back. It also attracted trips that didn’t add any value to the neighborhood: People going from Oakland to Marin County were cutting through San Francisco. When the freeway was torn down and replaced by a boulevard, it suddenly didn’t look so attractive to go that way, and [drivers] found a different way to get to Marin Country or, in some cases, didn’t make the trip.

Q. What is the best way to fund urban highway removal?

A. A lot of freeways are headed beyond their design life, so they have to be rebuilt. You can’t just resurface them again. It’s cheaper to just tear it down and replace it with a surface street, so you win the cost argument by comparing it with rebuilding the freeway.

As far as other funds that are available, you can try for some of the TIGER grants … But I think the biggest single way to finance these things is to compare them with rebuilding the existing structure. In the case of Milwaukee, it cost about a third as much to tear it down as it would’ve been to rebuild it.

Q. What are some of the highway removal projects around the country that you consider particularly admirable?

A. New York’s West Side Highway was closed in 1975. It fell down once in ’73, and they repaired it, and it fell down again in ’75. At the end of its 40-year design life, it fell down right on schedule. And it was just really expensive, and politically unpopular, to rebuild it … The result of the West Side Highway coming down was [that] it really helped the rebirth of the real estate market in Chelsea, Tribeca, Battery Park City.

In Portland, the riverfront section of the expressway was removed and there was a huge property value increase. People could see the [Willamette] River, and without the freeway in the way, that made a huge difference.

And then in Seoul, South Korea, is the most spectacular one of all: They took out a freeway with over 150,000 cars a day and replaced it with two moving lanes on each side of a river, which they restored. And it works just fine because they have a really rich street grid in Seoul.

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