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The end of freeways?

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.

14 comments to The end of freeways?

  • rtc

    Auckland has plenty of examples of roads that could be removed, the lower Hobson St viaduct is one, but so too is the Victoria Park Viaduct. On a smaller scale downtown Auckland is riddled with excessively large roads, and when you consider that 99% of the users of Fort Street are actually pedestrains, you have to wonder why it is that the downtown is do dominated by cars. A hangover that has gone on for too long.

  • I vote to remove the Basin Flyover in Wellington. True they haven’t built it yet, but I already call blight on it.

    Again in Wellington, the SH1 flyovers and bridges around the ferry terminal and rail yards make for some shockingly ugly and noisy bits between Thorndon and Kaiwharawhara. There are no proposals to get rid of them, only to widen them, because some of those public servants driving to their parking garages are getting stuck in traffic for 10 or 15 minutes in every peak. For 23.5 hours a day the proposed extra lanes would be hardly used. That’s Efficiency Baby!!

  • Nick

    Is induced demand good or bad? I’m not sure.

  • Patrick R

    Cook St off ramp destroys and de-values a huge amount of potentially high value land [inside the motorway severance!]. It’s removal and the undergrounding of the southbound SH1 through Vic Park would mean we could put a lid on this part of the motorway and get a whole lot more reconnected and valuable city land back. It would also help SH1 be a more efficient trans city connector.

  • Geoff Houtman

    “… you’ll climb up through the dripping forest canopy and the air will be so clean you’ll see tiny figures pounding corn and laying strips of venison to dry in the empty car pool lane of an abandoned superhighway stretching eight-lanes-wide and August-hot for a thousand miles.”

    ~Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club

    So motorways aren’t “totally” useless.

  • Luke

    was interesting visiting Sydney for the first time a couple of weeks ago.
    They have several motorways that do cut up the city, such as at Darling Harbour and the Cahill expressway at Circular Quay.
    However interestingly the way the motorways are built means the do not totally cut the city into pieces, and kill all life like the motorways in Auckland do.
    Was easy and not too unpleasant to pass under them. The way the urban environment had been built around them had negated many of their effects. This is most unlike the situation in Auckland and elsewhere in NZ.

    Think there are no options for removing NZ’s motorways, however there is so much we can do to improve how the urban environment interacts with them to increase life and reduce the severance effects.

  • Further to Luke’s comment, we could make better use of some of our situations. I like the sound of closing Cook Street.

    I also think we could build some sort of shopping / strip mall underneath the existing Vic Park flyover.

    • Patrick R

      No Andrew; bury the thing, it is the right thing to do heading north it’s also the right thing to do heading south. We get our park back and a chunk of our city back. It would become the ONLY stretch of the city then reconnected to it’s inner suburbs though a network of streets and buildings instead of connections forced through narrow bridges and underpasses.

      • Nick R

        One interesting outcome of the mega expensive proposal for a motorway tunnel carrying SH1 between the North Shore and Grafton Gully is that it would render huge sections of the CMJ redundant which could (*) be removed and rebuilt, reconnected and rehabilitiated.

        If you consider no more state highway on the Bridge, that means no need for the Victoria viaduct (or any extra tunnels under the park), no need for the lanes through Freemans Bay, no need for the ramps between the Northern and the Southern, Northwestern or Port motorways. In fact there would only be the need for four lanes on two ramps under K Rd (just the links between the Southern and Northwestern and Nelson/Hobson Sts). Compare this to nineteen lanes on nine ramps currently! You could also cut it back to just six lanes on a pair of linkages though Newton Gully under Symonds St and Queen St, instead of twelve lanes on four linkages.

        The end outcome would be a bit of widening in Grafton Gully (but no new links), but the need for far far less motorway structure west of Grafton.

        *I say “could” because the likelyhood of them just keeping a huge sh*tstorm of ramps and links going in every which way is more probable than paying money to remove sections of ‘perfectly good’ motorway (even if it did free up huge amounts of room for productive uses and stop throttling the CBD).

    • Geoff Houtman

      Andrew- that would irrevocably cut the park in two, there wouldn’t even be sight-lines to the park from northern Freemans Bay, Waiatarau Plaza etc…

  • Patrick R

    More on the Sheridan here, though this is a good 18 months old, wonder if ‘unbuilding’ has progressed? : http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/13/nyregion/13sheridan.html

  • SteveC

    as I understand it, the main objection to putting the southbound lanes at Vic Park underground is the gradient needed to get back up to Spaghetti Junction

    steep gradients mean engines (and there are a lot of heavies) working hard to climb the slope, which means some serious emissions that would need to be dealt with by exhaust stacks that would themselves be significant structures

    not an ideal situation to be sure, but to what extent should one liveability issue be advanced by backtracking on another? particularly when the one that suffers is a potentially lethal issue for a segment of the community?

    • Patrick R

      Steve as I understand it that is not a problem, it is certainly no steeper than Grafton. It was rather the lobbying from the daft bridge group and that Joyce could see that he could get an extra lane southbound while spending less money by keeping the viaduct that stopped it.

      What does he care about the impact on Auckland city? Motorways are for moving suburbanites and trucks more quickly and outcomes for the city itself are of no importance.

  • Gian

    grafton gully’s on-offramps are used for real only 4 hours a day.

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