Why Crumbling Urban Freeways Should be Torn Down And No New Ones Should be Built

By: Taz Loomans

Everyone makes mistakes, right? But what happens when the mistake is on the scale of building a highway that cuts through a city, decimating it in the process? A lot of American cities made this mistake after World War II, when there was a suburban housing boom and the thinking was that urban freeways would get people to their suburban homes and out of the city more efficiently. The effect this “traffic solution” has had has been to actually increase traffic due to induced demand while creating blight. Urban freeways have made it harder for people living in the city to move around, have disconnected neighborhoods, pushed basic amenities further out and contributed to urban heat island effect and bad air quality.

What happens when a city tears down a freeway?

Thankfully, the urban freeway is one mistake that can be rectified, and has been in cities like San Francisco, New York, Portland, Milwaukee, and Seoul. These cities and others have torn down urban freeways with great success. Not only have they reclaimed the space that a freeway takes up, but they have reclaimed the urban life that the freeway destroyed in service of getting people back to their suburban homes.

Let’s look at what happened in three places that dismantled a highway.

1. Seoul Tears Down the Cheonggyecheon Freeway

When the mayor of Seoul, Lee Myung-bak, made the bold move of tearing down the Cheonggyecheon Freeway, which was built over the Cheonggyecheon River that cuts through Seoul, a lot of good things happened. Kamala Rao tells us about the major benefits in her article for Grist. Due to the removal of the highway, a central business district revitalization is now underway. Another freeway in Seoul was removed and replaced with a surface street soon after Cheonggyecheon Freeway was dismantled. A 16-lane road in Seoul was reduced by half and a massive public plaza was built with the additional space. A major street interchange in front of Seoul’s City Hall was replaced with a public plaza. An urban streams renaissance spread across the country, with residents everywhere wanting to restore their local rivers and streams. Property values adjacent to the corridor shot up by 300%. Species of fish, birds and insects have increased in and around the river. The urban heat island effect was diminished in Seoul, with temperatures in the vicinity of the river on average 5.6 degrees lower than surrounding areas.

2. San Francisco Tears Down the Embarcadero Freeway

The Embarcadero Freeway used to carry 100,000 cars a day, but was damaged due to the Loma Prieta Earthquake in 1989. Instead of repairing the behemoth highway, the city decided to tear it down instead. When 1.2 miles of the highway were removed, traffic dropped by half. A new trolley line in the same area now carries about 20,000 passengers a day. Again, the property values in the area shot up by 300%. The vicinity saw a 51% increase in housing, compared to 34% in the rest of the city. It also experienced a whopping 23% increase in jobs, compared to 5.5% citywide. Plus, San Francisco is now considering tearing out the I-280. [Source: Chris Jagers, Medium]

3. Milwaukee Tears Down the Past East Freeway

The cost of repairing Milwaukee’s aged Past East Freeway would have been upwards of $100 million. The cost of removing a mile of it was a quarter of that. The freeway used to carry 54,000 cars a day, now the boulevard that’s replaced it carries 18,600 cars a day. The area has added 3,400 residents in 5 years, thanks to the removal of the freeway. The city-owned land around the torn-down freeway has benefited from $700 million of investment to date. [Source: Chris Jagers, Medium]

Where does all the traffic go?

The first thing that pops into people’s mind when considering tearing down a freeway is – where does all the traffic go? It turns out urban freeways aren’t that great when it comes to moving cars after all. Chris Jagers tells us in his article for Medium that traffic from torn down highways is taken care of in three ways. One is through regional dispersion. Much of the traffic that clogs urban freeways disappears immediately when people take loop freeways that go around a city instead of going through a city. “When the West Side Highway in New York City came down, 53% of traffic just disappeared because it was cars in New Jersey enjoying a short-cut but destroying New York City in the meantime,” Jagers explains. Local dispersion is another way traffic from a torn-down highway gets absorbed. When a highway is torn down, it makes room for more human-scaled and therefore more frequent intersections. “When a smaller grid of boulevards are intact and fully utilized, they can carry much more capacity than a highways…the grid can handle twice the capacity of any highway,” says Jagers. And the third way to dissipate traffic from a torn-down highway is through new proximities. Instead of a huge highway cutting through your neighborhood, you could have shops, restaurants, clinics, and other amenities within walking or biking distance instead, not having to use a highway. According to Jagers, “a developed street and block structure can meet most needs and result in a variety of other benefits like saved car expenses, increased safety, a better tax-base and more jobs.”

Why Investing in Urban Highways Makes No Sen$e

So if urban highways don’t really move traffic more efficiently and just create problems for residents, why are some cities still building more of them or investing in repairing their aged freeways instead of tearing them down?

Peter Simek summarizes the problem in his compelling argument for tearing down the IH-435 in Dallas:

“The fundamental problem with Dallas’ approach to road building over the course of the past 70 years (and really, American cities in general), is that road construction increases capacity in order to make moving through and out of a city more efficient, thus enabling the economic development of the suburbs and diluting the connectivity (and therefore vibrancy) of the center core. City officials still believe that enabling traffic to move through and out of Dallas is good for Dallas’ growth and development. Do projects like parking lots and highways create some economic development in Dallas? Yes, but they spur on relatively small and isolated investments, while discouraging density and enabling an overall transportation ecology that makes it more economically efficient to live outside of an urban area and yet utilize that area’s cultural and recreational amenities.”

Elly Blue, author of Bikenomics, reminds us that the money saved from not building more freeways could be used instead for building bicycle infrastructure. Bicycle infrastructure, unlike freeways, has proven to be an economic, social, and public health boon for cities. Blue breaks it down for us: “Bike lanes cost anywhere from $5,000 to $60,000 per mile to add to an existing road. That includes everything from engineering and design to paint and concrete to traffic signals. Does that seem like a lot? Well, let’s compare. Freeway construction in Michigan’s countryside clocks in at $8 million per mile. In the state’s cities, with their need for overpasses, underpasses, exits and entrances, and mitigation of construction impacts on health and commerce, the cost jumps to an average of $39 million per mile.”

So a city could either invest $39 million per mile into infrastructure that does more harm than good OR put that money towards adding 650 miles of bicycle infrastructure instead, which has been shown to do nothing but add value to a city.

Besides replacing highway dollars with bicycle dollars, replacing highways with linear parks, public plazas and human-scaled boulevards has had so many benefits that tearing down urban highways is clearly an option worth considering. The crumbling highways of the post-WWII era are not only crumbling physically, but also symbolically. They just don’t make sense anymore. The cities that are trying hard to hold on to these relics or even thinking about building new ones are simply in denial about the new tide of reclaiming cities for the people who live in them.

Taz Loomans is the Managing Editor of the Firefly Living Blog. She also publishes a blog about sustainability, urbanism and architecture at BloomingRock.com.

Photo Credit: Photo by User:Ben Schumin (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-2.5], via Wikimedia Commons


11 Responses

  1. Hart Noecker says:

    Great article, Taz! We should sit by the river and talk about tearing down freeways more often. Here’s a piece I wrote on the topic about a year ago you may enjoy.


    “The defeat of the Mt Hood Freeway wasn’t only the blocking of a single unwanted, community-dividing mega-highway, it was an act of neighborhood insurrection that completely shocked Portland’s freeway future – the highway drawing board was virtually wiped clean. No longer was the idea for a SE 20th avenue expressway anything more that an embarrassing joke. Never again could somebody promote with any seriousness the plan to turn NE Prescott & Going Street into the Prescott Freeway/Going Expressway – highways that were all a “done deal” according to the city/state-approved plans designed by freeway fetishist Robert Moses.”

  2. Doug M. says:

    We’re fighting this battle in Syracuse, NY right now. I-81 and a spur of I-90 sit on raised viaducts through the city, ‘crucifying’ it, as I like to say. Currently the ball is in the state DOT’s court, here’s hoping it comes down!

    • Heather H says:

      The I-81 situation is going to be tricky. One plan was to turn the part that bisects Syracuse into a surface boulevard – but this isn’t just a highway offshoot that runs through the city, it’s a major interstate that runs the entire eastern seaboard. In this one case, that might actually have a bad impact on transnational trucking and transport. It’s probably not good to have that kind of traffic bottlenecking on a surface street, as there really isn’t a good alternative route. I think a plan that includes tearing it down would be great, but I realize it’s not going to be pretty no matter what.

      They really, really shot themselves in the foot when they ran that thing right through the middle of the city. I’m very interested to see how they work this out and I do hope the decision they make ends up improving things here.

  3. I was drawn to this blog because the stretch of highway looks so much like I-64 in St Louis near the old Union (train) Station. My daughter lives in the Dallas northern suburbs; and so, having spent some time there as well, I totally agree with your perspective. St Louis’ highway system has similar perspectives it would seem . . . every time they expand capacity, it doesn’t seem to matter to the volume or gridlock.

  4. […] Why Crumbling Urban Freeways Should be Torn Down And No New Ones Should be Built – Firefly Living […]

  5. […] I just wanted to put this here so I can find it later. Thanks for posting it CaptDave. Originally Posted by CaptDave Why Crumbling Urban Freeways Should be Torn Down And No New Ones Should be Built – Firefly Living […]

  6. Sharon says:

    Taz, I am always delighted and inspired by the topics you chose to bring to this blog. This one is no exception. The difference between a city cut through by a buzzing, beeping, roaring, polluting swath, and a peaceful clean community where people connect with ease is a beautiful difference. Thank you again for another great blog.

  7. […] essay in the Firefly Living blog argues that cities should not build new highways to replace crumbling ones that had to be torn […]

  8. […] wrecks air quality and degrades social interactions and property values alike, it’s no wonder there is a movement building to begin tearing them down entirely. Concern over where all the cars will go has been alleviated by […]

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