The Life and Death of Urban Highways

If the twentieth century was known for building highways, the twenty-first century may be known for tearing them down. A new report jointly produced by the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP) and EMBARQ, "The Life and Death of Urban Highways," re-appraises the specific conditions under which it makes sense to build urban highway and when it makes sense to tear them down.

After decades of building and maintaining urban highways, many cities are choosing to tear them down rather than repair or maintain them. Five such cities are showcased in this report: Portland, Oregon; San Francisco, California; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Seoul, South Korea; and Bogotá, Colombia. These cities demonstrate the social, economic, and environmental benefits that accrued when urban highways were removed and reconsidered.

In 2013, EMBARQ Brasil and ITDP Brasil officially released the Portuguese lanugauge version of The Life and Death of Urban Highways, "Vida e Morte das Rodovias Urbanas". The report was released during the III SIBRT Congress: Best Practices in BRT in Latin America.



Cities exist for people; freeways exist for moving vehicles. Cities are centers of culture and commerce that rely on attracting private investment. Massive public spending on freeways in the last century reduced the capacity of cities to connect people and support culture and commerce. While the following report is about urban highways, more importantly, it is about cities and people. It is about community vision and the leadership required in the twenty-first century to overcome the demolition, dislocation, and disconnection of neighborhoods caused by freeways in cities.

This report chronicles the stories of five very different cities that became stronger after freeways were removed or reconsidered. They demonstrate that fixing cities harmed by freeways, and improving public transport, involves a range of context-specific and context-sensitive solutions. This perspective contrasts with the one-size-fits-all approach that was used in the 1950s and 1960s to push freeways through urban neighborhoods. The belief then was that freeways would reduce congestion and improve safety in cities. Remarkably, these two reasons are still commonly used to rationalize spending large sums of public money on expanding existing or building new freeways.

Freeways are simply the wrong design solution for cities. By definition, they rely on limited access to minimize interruptions and maximize flow. But cities are comprised of robust and connected street networks. When limited-access freeways are force-fit into urban environments, they create barriers that erode vitality—the very essence of cities. Residents, businesses, property owners, and neighborhoods along the freeway suffer but so does operation of the broader city network. During traffic peaks, freeways actually worsen congestion as drivers hurry to wait in the queues forming at limited points of access. The fundamental purpose of a city’s transportation system is to connect people and places. But freeways that cut through urban neighborhoods prioritize moving vehicles through and away from the city. In 1922, Henry Ford said, “we shall solve the problem of the city by leaving the city.” While freeways certainly facilitated this, by no means did leaving the city solve the problem of city. In fact, the form and functional priorities of freeways in cities introduced even more problems that still exist today.

The freeway in the city was an untested idea when is it was deployed around the world. Decades of failing to deliver congestion relief and improve safety combined with the hard evidence of damaged neighborhoods have proven that the urban highway is a failed experiment. But failures, especially big ones, can also provide many lessons.

The case studies in this report demonstrate a variety of ways that cities can improve after freeways are removed or just not built. They offer effective design and investment strategies for addressing today’s challenges of aging public infrastructure and constrained public funding. They also prove that sacrificing neighborhoods in cities to accommodate traffic “demand” is not only costly but often unnecessary. For example, while removing stub-ends of aborted freeways is often perceived to be more acceptable than removing those that provide “necessary through access,” the success of stub-end freeway removals simply provide further proof that the planned freeways that were stopped were actually unnecessary in the first place. Jane Jacobs was right. More significantly, the people who fought freeways to protect their neighborhoods and their cities were right.

The removal of freeways in cities today is less a matter of technical limitations and more a matter of pragmatic response, community aspiration, and political will. This report has much to offer to those who aspire to strengthen cities, regions, and nations.

— Peter J. Park; former City Planning Director, Milkwaukee, Wisconsin.

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