An interesting Salon.com article looks at a growing US trend: the removal of urban freeways.
Right now, several U.S. cities are scheming to shut down major freeways — permanently. In the push to take back cities from cars, this is what you’d call throwing down the gauntlet.
The drive to tear down the huge freeways that many blame for the inner-city blight of the ’60s and ’70s is one of the most dramatic signs of the new urban order. Proponents of such efforts have data to show that freeway removal is not at all bizarre, that we can return to human-size streets without causing a gridlock apocalypse. And that may be true. But pulling down these shrines to the automobile also feels like a bold rewriting of America’s 20th-century urban script: Revenge of the Pedestrian. This time it’s personal.
Quite a few freeways have been removed from American cities: typically through a process by which the original one was so badly maintained (or of relatively poor design) that it fell down (or was pushed by an earthquake or other natural disaster), and the best thing agreed upon to do was to simply not rebuild it. The Embarcadero Freeway in San Francisco is a classic example of this:
Few urban design initiatives can instantly transform a large swath of a city like building (or unbuilding) a freeway. San Francisco saw this in 1991, when, ahead of the tear-down trend, the city demolished the bay-adjacent double-decker Embarcadero Freeway after it was damaged in an earthquake. Today, the area where the Embarcadero once stood has evolved from a forbidding dead zone to a bustling waterfront and tourist magnet. Standing there now, you’d never guess it was once the site of 16 lanes of through-traffic.
However, it seems that increasingly the option of removing freeways is being given closer examination – even when they haven’t been damaged by natural disasters or fallen down for one reason or another.
Now, other cities want their own Embarcadero miracle. Tony Ortiz lives in Crotona Park East, the Bronx neighborhood made famous when President Carter visited its burned-out ruins in the ’70s. Ortiz, an 84-year-old, white-haired bantam rooster of a man, moved here from Puerto Rico in 1946, and remembers life before the Sheridan Expressway. The sidewalks were “busier with people,” he says, standing in front of his six-story building a block from the expressway. He and his friends boxed in the streets, where he once proudly knocked one of them out cold. But after the Sheridan was built, Ortiz mainly remembers a neighborhood in decline and the stench of arson.
Today, the area, while still poor, has bounced back considerably. And now, New York is studying plans to tear down the Sheridan, which runs along the Bronx River right past Ortiz’s window, and replace it with a stretch of waterfront parkland. It could include swimming pools, soccer fields, a 30,000-square-foot recreation center and housing similar to that which was bulldozed to make way for the freeway back in 1958.
“But what about the congestion?” – I hear you all cry. Well that wasn’t a problem for the Embarcadero because it was a half-finished and not fully connected structure anyway. But it seems that many US cities have found they completely overbuilt roads in the mid 20th century, many of which aren’t used particularly much at all these days, even in huge cities like New York.
Where do these grand plans leave the lowly car commuter? In pretty good shape, as it turns out. In case you haven’t been on an urban freeway lately, allow me to blow your mind: They don’t work like they’re supposed to. They’re quick to deteriorate, clogged at all the wrong times and offer little versatility when problems arise — one collision can make 10,000 people late for work. In fact, the dirty secret of freeways is that they don’t reduce traffic, they create it. Ask any urban planner: Give people more roads, and more of them will drive. Studies show that, in most cases, removing a freeway adds only a few extra minutes to commute times. At the same time, most of the freeways currently on the chopping block are underused anyway. (The day I drove to the Bronx to meet Tony Ortiz, the Sheridan was empty enough to walk across.) The drivers-versus-transit-riders stereotype doesn’t hold, either: A study by Renne’s students found that in New Orleans, the vast majority of locals want the Claiborne Expressway gone — including 50 percent of the drivers who use it regularly. “No one’s advocating for putting [the freeway] back” in Milwaukee now that it’s gone, says Norquist, and getting rid of it “killed forever the idea of putting a freeway around the downtown.”
This is a classic case of induced demand, and I do with that any urban planner would be able to understand this concept. From my experience both planners and (most particularly) traffic engineers struggle to understand the concept of induced demand. Traffic modelling systems don’t seem to be able to comprehend its existence and the cost-benefit analysis process presumably ignores it because it’s too difficult.
There doesn’t seem to be too many prime candidates for demolishing motorways in Auckland, somewhat unfortunately. However, the proposals to remove the Lower Hobson Street viaduct would have many similarities – although on a much smaller scale. Step by step, hopefully we can follow what enlightened US cities are doing and start to claw back a bit more of our city from the car.