Once So Chic and Swooshy, Freeways Are Falling Out of Favor


One of the groups leading the new charge is Congress for the New Urbanism. Since 2008, it has published a biennial list called “Freeways Without Futures,” which names highways whose elimination would, according to its website, “remove a blight” from their cities. The 2017 edition includes Route 710 in Pasadena, Calif., Interstate 70 in Denver, Interstate 375 in Detroit and, paved enemy No. 1, the Scajaquada Expressway.

Lynn Richards, the president and chief executive officer of C.N.U., said that removing a highway is “a somewhat radical idea.” “There’s a lot of analysis that needs to go into it about where the traffic is going to go,” she said.

But already, several cities have removed or decommissioned existing highways, including Paris; Seoul, South Korea; Boston; and Portland, Ore. Last year, Rochester buried a portion of a downtown expressway known as the Inner Loop, a stretch of sunken highway the city’s mayor likened to a “moat.” It is being replaced with a boulevard on the same grade as the rest of the streetscape.

And because of a confluence of factors, including the embrace of ride-hailing services like Uber and the rebirth of cities as places to live, work, raise families and retire to, advocates like Ms. Richards see an “incredible opportunity” to remove even more pavement. “When we put out a call last summer for freeways without a future, we got almost 75 recommendations,” she said. “This can kick-start a conversation about the best way to spend infrastructure dollars.”

Many in-city highways were built during the post-World War II boom years with easy money from the 1956 Federal-Aid Highway Act. They hail from an age when the automobile was ascendant and were built to quickly move commuters in and out of urban centers; many of these highways were used by white suburbanites and built in low-income minority neighborhoods (“white men’s roads through black men’s homes,” went a saying in Washington).

Perhaps the greatest argument that removal advocates have is that so much of this infrastructure is nearing the end of its life span. In this era of tight budgets and political gridlock, it may be cheaper for local and state governments to remove a freeway rather than repair or build a new one.


San Francisco’s double-decker Embarcadero Freeway, right, in 1957 and, left, in 2008 after it was demolished instead of rebuilt after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.

From left: Lisa Baertlein/Reuters, Associated Press.

If it sounds counterintuitive, if not crazy, to tear down a highway that still carries thousands of cars and trucks each day, there are a number of case studies to point to. One of the earliest and, to advocates, most successful, was San Francisco’s double-decker Embarcadero Freeway. It skirted the city’s waterfront and was demolished instead of rebuilt after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.


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“The Embarcadero came out of the waterfront, and now the waterfront real estate is seeing tremendous value,” said Peter Park, a city planner in favor of removing highways in cities where neighborhoods have been “significantly disconnected.”

Not only in San Francisco but also in every case where a highway has been removed, Mr. Park argues, “the city has improved.”

Mr. Park was the planning director for Milwaukee when the city decommissioned the Park East Freeway spur in 2002. Less than a mile long, the highway hosted traffic snarls each day, but it had its supporters, especially among suburban commuters and truck drivers, and there was concern about what would happen if it was removed.

“The basic argument for it was, people will never get to the city without it,” said John Norquist, Milwaukee’s mayor at the time, who spearheaded the removal campaign. “Well, how do they get to Paris? The arguments were left over from this glorious age of motoring after World War II.”

The bill to demolish the Park East and restore the street grid was around $30 million, significantly less than the $80 to $100 million estimated cost to rebuild the 40-year-old freeway, Mr. Norquist said. He pointed to the rising land values and the slow-but-steady development along the 26-acre corridor in the years since — and the lack of a traffic apocalypse — as signs of success.

Mr. Norquist, who went on to run Congress for the New Urbanism for a decade and is now a semiretired consultant, said removing a highway is not just about addressing local residents’ concerns. “We had to make the big argument, the Jane Jacobs argument, that the freeway was harmful to the whole city,” he said.

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