An essay published yesterday in Salon asks: Are freeways doomed?
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.
Noting that many of these highways are at the end of their 40-50 year lifecycles, the author argues:
For some cities, this means a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reclaim a vast amount of downtown land and turn it into the public space of their dreams.
Lest you decide that it is ridiculously impractical to remove an urban highway, the author recalls San Francisco's Embarcadero:
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.
Portland OR also demolished an urban highway after using Federal highway money to build a light rail transit line instead in the early 1970s.
While most urban freeways did not single-handedly create the blight and decline that inevitably befell their adjacent neighbourhoods, removing them is a necessary step in creating the conditions for revitalization.
Of course, Hamilton is so far out of step with the decline and revitalization of our continent's other major cities that we've only just celebrated building a brand-new municipal expressway, a piece of infrastructure that will be with us for decades and will ultimately cost hundreds of millions of dollars in direct lifecycle costs alone.
Unfortunately, as the author of the Salon piece notes, highways do not perform as advertised:
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.
As planners and engineers know well, highways actually induce more traffic:
[T]he 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.
Boston is experiencing this induced demand in action with the Big Dig expressway, which has had the not-at-all-surprising effect of making traffic worse, not better.
Unfortunately, these highways tend to foster a kind of Stockholm syndrome among even people who live close to them. The reflexive defence of lane capacity - and fierce opposition to any attempt to rebalance our transportation system - can seem impervious to any amount of contrary evidence.
(h/t to MyStoneyCreek for sending the Salon article along)
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