Exit Lane for Urban Freeways

By Ryan McGreal
Published December 01, 2011

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)

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan wrote a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. His articles have also been published in The Walrus, HuffPost and Behind the Numbers. He maintains a personal website, has been known to share passing thoughts on Twitter and Facebook, and posts the occasional cat photo on Instagram.


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By mike_sak (registered) | Posted December 01, 2011 at 11:40:09

It looked like the Red Hill Expressway was going to be flooded over again the other day.

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By exvalley (anonymous) | Posted December 01, 2011 at 17:51:45 in reply to Comment 71776

Larry to the dikes! Plug that hole!

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By lawrence (registered) - website | Posted December 01, 2011 at 18:20:00

Although its not a highway I guess by definition, I have been recently thinking a lot about our Burlington Street over-passes? Has their need dwindled? They look to be at the end of their life-cycle and it seems now, we may be doing some work on them with one lane currently blocked around the Kenilworth exit on the westbound lanes.

People coming into East Hamilton are welcomed by driving over industrial Hamilton, with smoke stacks and scrap metal and hydro lines making up the 'scenery'. Many of the companies along Burlington Street if you drive the lower portions of the two-decker thorougway, are actual not bad or at least wouldn't take a lot to clean up.

Looking at other cities like Boston or Buffalo or Toronto or probably every city that has these long over-passes, a dark, un-inviting, even scary environment is created amongst these spaces. For East Hamilton, this is the way to enter our city. To get to Gage Park or Ivor Wynne or Ottawa Street or The Pearl. Etc., you must enter the city this way. For incoming Niagara traffic, its even the most convenient way to get downtown.

The factories and such are here to stay for awhile but it doesn't mean this has to be a dead span of our city?

Have we looked into whether it would be feasible, functional, and esthetically pleasing to consider removing these over-passes?

Comment edited by lawrence on 2011-12-01 18:27:55

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By SpaceMonkey (registered) | Posted December 01, 2011 at 18:55:16

It seems, to me, like this author is really trying hard to spin things to fit their agenda (whatever that may be).

When the author says...

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.

...I picture a highway with no parkland around it replaced by waterfront parkland and something like a walking shop-village with next to no traffic around it. Am I the only one?

The truth is that the old, double decker highway was replaced with a 4-6 lane (plus turning lanes and on street parking lanes in some sections) single level highway with an additional 2 lanes for public transit. The thing is still 8 lanes wide (in some spots). There are even sections that are.... one way!

I don't want to be perceived as thinking the old highway was better than the new one. I'm all for more parkland and getting rid of highways if they're not needed, but the spin that the author puts on the "facts" doesn't seem genuine to me. To me, it sounds like the author is trying to make it sound like it's no big deal to get rid of major streets.. only good things can come.

It seems to me like Ryan is suggesting that what San Francisco has in the current Embarcadero is something that we should emulate. Well, the current Embarcadero is wider than King, Main, and Cannon. It may even be wider than 2 of the formerly listed roads combined in some sections. There are elements in the Embaracedero that I think would be nice to have such as wide sidewalks with nice trees, surrounding park land, and nice streetscapes, but my point is that San Fransisco has all these things around a major, very busy street. It is repeated, here, so often that all those things are not possible around busy streets. The above example proves that the two do not have to be mutually exclusive.

If anything, this article shows us that we should consider ourselves lucky that we don't have a major highway running through our downtown. We have a few busy streets just like San Fransisco does that we can make better without having to worry about without drastically reducing the number of lanes for cars. We don't have to tear down a major highway and start from scratch. We've got the framework already in place.

I'm not well read on the studies that apparently "show that, in most cases, removing a freeway adds only a few extra minutes to commute times". I could be wrong, because as I said, I'm not familiar with the studies, but a few potential problems come to mind. For example, one possibility is that the highways which were removed/studied were removed because they weren't really needed. As a result, the commute times naturally didn't change much.

Another potential problem is that the studies may be looking at commute times in the surrounding area of the highway which was removed, but ignoring the commute times of those on nearby highways or those who live far away from alternatives. For example, if Montreal was to remove the Trans Canada highway which runs through it, someone who lives close to the airport might not notice much of a change in their commute times. Someone commuting from Kirkland or Beaconsfield on the other hand may notice a major change.

Like I said earlier, I'm all for more parkland and improved public transit, but let's not kid our selves about needing (or not needing) roads to support vehicle traffic.

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted December 01, 2011 at 19:43:26

There's always possibilities for interesting adaptive re-use of these spaces. Look at "The High Line" park in New York - an old elevated rail track which is now a miles-long greenspace in the middle of town.

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By jason (registered) | Posted December 01, 2011 at 19:49:40 in reply to Comment 71783

The truth is that the old, double decker highway was replaced with a 4-6 lane (plus turning lanes and on street parking lanes in some sections) single level highway with an additional 2 lanes for public transit.

If this is true, that would be the first highway ever with street parking and turning lanes. Sounds like they replaced a freeway with a local street with a better balance - parking, transit lanes etc....

Hamilton is so small and has such little traffic compared to San Fran, TO etc.... that we could cut King, Main, Cannon and Wilson in half and add parking ,wide sidewalks and 2 LRT lanes without cause gridlock or 'big city traffic jams'.
The fact that we won't speaks to the vision at city hall for our lower city.

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By jason (registered) | Posted December 01, 2011 at 19:51:13

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By SpaceMonkey (registered) | Posted December 01, 2011 at 20:08:51 in reply to Comment 71786

Considering your statement, will you then stop calling Cannon, King, and Main streets highways? ;)

As far as Hamilton being so small compared to San Francisco that we could, therefore, make changes you suggest, what you seem to have not factored in is that San Francisco has many many more major roads than Hamilton does, as well as Embarcadero. Many of them happen to be one way roads.

Comment edited by SpaceMonkey on 2011-12-01 20:11:56

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By jason (registered) | Posted December 01, 2011 at 20:22:32 in reply to Comment 71788

They are highways. We could have scaled down versions of Embarcadero here...scaled down because we don't need streets that wide. Turn Cannon and Main into streets that are 2 lanes, have street parking bike lanes and wider sidewalks. King can get LRT with 1 or 2 car lanes as well. If they were converted as suggested here I wouldn't call them highways. Right now they are. San Fran is huge compared to Hamilton. In our 2.5km swath from Burlington St to Charlton we have 30 lanes on major roads alone. That's 12 lanes per km. Just crazy. On the Mountain the major roads are spaced roughly 1km apart meaning there are 4-5 lanes per km. Why do we need 3 times the number of lanes per km in the part of the city with less car owners and drivers and more pedestrians, cyclists and transit users compared to a car-dependent suburban part of the city? It should be the opposite.

Comment edited by jason on 2011-12-01 20:24:43

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By mike_sak (registered) | Posted December 02, 2011 at 01:32:15 in reply to Comment 71781

i don't know. i find the burlington street overpasses provide pretty unique views of the city and escarpment ...especially driving at night.

we're pretty lucky we don't have the overpasses cutting through substantial parts of our downtown, or segregating huge swaths of neighborhoods

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By DBC (registered) | Posted December 02, 2011 at 01:42:37

Stop calling them highways? How far would you have to travel from Main and Dundurn to find 5 lanes of traffic travelling in the same direction? Probably the 401 above Pearson. Or, how about how many 400 Series highways enter a city in a live traffic lane a la Main East.

This city is seriously messed up. Stop denying it.

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By lawrence (registered) - website | Posted December 02, 2011 at 08:44:23 in reply to Comment 71791

I don't mind the birds-eye view of industrial Hamilton via the Burlington Street overpass either but what exists underneath it and the view of hydro hell to the south or Wall-E sized piles of scrap metal perhaps negates what otherwise, I would agree is a very unique look at what built us. I'd rather be at street level passing green-scaped frontages with trees and sculptures/art pieces made out of materials those businesses produce. Its a smooth, clean, moveable roadway past US Steel when the overpass ends. It could be like that the entire way. Crossing all those lanes via the Burlington St or Eastport Dr exists to get to the overpass is driver suicide during peak times. Underneath also represents the worst roads in Canada.

Comment edited by lawrence on 2011-12-02 08:46:59

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By lawrence (registered) - website | Posted December 02, 2011 at 09:29:15 in reply to Comment 71793

Nice prose, Greg. My inquiry about Burlington Street is by no means a vision out of anger. I just look at the condition of the overpass in sections and the street below and if we have to start pouring some money into both, is removing it a debate worth getting into?

It's my entrance in and out of this city and although the streets themselves need an overhaul because they are in bad shape, peering onto industrial Hamilton isn't something I think we should hide or look down upon, but the truth is there in passing, that a major entranceway to our community needs some discussion as to how we improve that 'at first we meet' presence that newcomers to this city or those that 'have' to come here for one reason or another, are welcomed with.

Removing those overpasses would likely be timely, disruptive to industry and commuter traffic, and expensive but if not remove them, then how to we clean it up?

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By SpaceMonkey (registered) | Posted December 02, 2011 at 16:10:36 in reply to Comment 71789

I don't understand your "logic". You say that Main, King and Cannon are highways, but then say Embarcadero is the "first highway ever with street parking and turning lanes"? Now do you see the point I was making?

As to your suggestion(s). What about 2 driving lanes with additional lanes on each side for turning and bus stops (right side only). Where there are no turning lanes or bus stops, there could be on street parking. I think that would be realistic and reasonable.

The road would be 4 lanes wide, with the driving focused in the middle 2 lanes. The sidewalks could be wider than they are now in some sections (on street parking areas), and then stay the same width as they are now for the sections with bus stops and turning lane areas.

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By SpaceMonkey (registered) | Posted December 02, 2011 at 16:15:49 in reply to Comment 71792

I'm not the guy who said Highways cant have on street parking or turning lanes.

My comment was towards Jason regarding his contradiction.

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By jason (registered) | Posted December 02, 2011 at 23:16:08 in reply to Comment 71805

on street parking and turning lanes at Dundurn and Main would actually go a long way towards removing some of it's 'highway' feel. To suggest that area doesn't function exactly as a freeway is laughable at best.

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By SpaceMonkey (registered) | Posted December 03, 2011 at 13:55:37 in reply to Comment 71818

Why are you saying that I said something that I never even implied, let alone didn't say?

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By TreyS (registered) | Posted December 05, 2011 at 20:26:29

Roads are important. That's how Rome facilitated trade and became a super power. We will never get rid of roads or trade, they create wealth, jobs and prosperity.

The high line park is a failure. It's an excuse to let weeds grow through the rail tracks. It's a shame it is not a functioning railway anymore.

Why do I get the sense that some people get a chance to spit a bitter taste from their mouth when the Redhill floods? The highway is there, live with it. It costs the entire city (that includes wards 1 and 2) pay for flooded basements and traffic delays. Learn how to receive your inner defeatism in your next drum circle.

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