HIGHWAYS TO BOULEVARDS BLOG: The Language of Urban Freeways

This post is a part of CNU’s Highways to Boulevards Blog series, which features interview summaries and insights from some of the best minds at the frontline of our Highways to Boulevards Initiative.

This following post explores the language of urban freeways, and all its connotations, with insight from some of the brightest minds in transportation planning, including Ian Lockwood, Aaron Naparstek, and Anthony Garcia. Read our previous blog post on lessons from Louisville's grassroots effort to scale down the The Ohio River Bridges Project.

All the way back in 1958, architectural critic Lewis Mumford praised modern highways as "not merely masterpieces of engineering, but consummate works of art." But he also condemned any efforts to build them in cities. In his essay The Highway and the City, Mumford made an analogy to help explain his position:

Our major highway systems are conceived, in the interests of speed, as linear organizations, that is to say as arteries. [...] Highway planners have yet to realize that these arteries must not be thrust into the delicate tissue of our cities; the blood they circulate must rather enter through an elaborate network of minor blood vessels and capillaries.

Highways are indeed impressive feats of human ingenuity. And from the right vantage point—usually aerial—they look like artistic masterpieces on a grand scale. And Mumford was right— they don’t belong in cities.

Detroit. Photo credit: Peter Andrew

Photographer Peter Andrew captures the hypnotizing geometry of American highways. peterandrew.ca/index/

CNU has been engaged for a number of years in an initiative called Highways to Boulevards. The goal is to help cities reclaim neighborhoods damaged by these interventions—what have since been deemed “urban freeways” or “urban highways”—into the city’s “delicate tissue” because, despite Mumford’s critique, highways still found themselves there. To me, this breech of the city limits raises an important question: In entering the jurisdiction of cities, did the highways themselves somehow change, evolving to fit the urban context?

No, according to Ian Lockwood, Livable Transportation Engineer at AECOM, and former Harvard University Loeb Fellow. As he explains: “‘Urban’ implies connected, walkable, and accessible. Freeways are the opposite; they are purposefully disconnected, unwalkable, and have limited access even for motorists. The fact that some freeways were located in cities does not make them urban.”

Therefore, it is possible that by labeling these interventions as “urban freeways” or “urban highways” many have been led to believe that these roads are somehow inherently different than their suburban and rural counterparts. If there is indeed a misconception, perhaps the term “urban freeway/highway/expressway” is a misnomer that needs to be changed. But it’s not the only one.

The transportation field is riddled with highly technical language that mostly frustrates and confounds the layperson (sometimes purposefully). Chuck Marohn of Strong Towns illuminates the absurd barrier imposed by highly technical language in the animated video, Conversation with an Engineer:

So if we are to tackle the problems created by the phrase “urban freeways/highways/expressways”, we should first understand how modern transportation language came to be.

A Brief History of Transportation Language

Ian Lockwood argues that there are two basic paradigms in the transportation world. First is the “traditional” paradigm, essentially fundamentals “around since people began living together in hamlets, villages, towns, and cities.” The second paradigm is rooted in Modernism and dates back only to the early decades of the 20th century. This second paradigm, which “added new dimensions and new possibilities to people and society,” changed transportation planning as well as the words used to describe it. The locus of design changed, too. The person—for millennia, the common denominator of how cities developed—gave way to the automobile.

Alas, we’re today saddled with this second paradigm. And according to Lockwood, the technical terminology of this second paradigm supports a bias toward to the automobile that can have ill effects on planning decisions. This bias, or misuse of language, is what I find curious. Here are a few examples offered by Lockwood:

  1. Traditional  – Traditional refers to value sets that predate automobiles such as the ideas of proximity, access, exchange, identity, network, convenience, connectedness, scale, and walkability. Conventional or modern transportation ideas should not be described as traditional.
  2. Improvement Improvement implies making the situation better, but is commonly used biasedly to refer only to motor vehicle conditions (e.g. adding through lanes, turn lanes, channelization, or other means of increasing motor vehicle capacity). Depending on the context, the words project, change, or modification should be used instead. More specific terms such as widening, narrowing, and roundabout are preferred.
  3. Traffic – Conventionalists assume that it means motor vehicle traffic. However, without the mode of transportation being specified, traffic means all traffic (i.e., pedestrian, bicycle, bus, truck, motor vehicle, etc.) and vehicular means bicycles, busses, trucks, motor vehicles, etc.
  4. Congestion – Congestion is commonly used to vilify situations when streets are busy and levels of service are low for motorists. Solving motor vehicle congestion has been the mantra of many transportation agencies that work in cities for years. The assumption is that motor vehicle congestion is actually a problem that needs solving.  Most cities have a vision to be vibrant and environmentally responsible, especially in their downtowns and centers. That would imply that the streets are highly utilized (i.e. busy) places. Again, the bias is about allowing motor vehicles to drive faster and less encumbered even if it means violating the place and the city’s vision.

To the last point, the discussion of congestion is nothing new. CNU President John Norquist has long suggested that congestion is merely “a symptom of success,” at least in urban places.

Norquist, like Mumford, clarifies his position with an analogy: 

Congestion is a bit like cholesterol – if you don’t have any, you die. Like cholesterol, traffic exists as a “good kind” and a “bad kind.” Congestion measurements should be divided between through-traffic and traffic that includes local origins or destinations, the latter being the “good kind.”

Analogies aside, it’s important for those of us in professional fields to use words that reflect our intentions. For transportation professionals and technical experts, in particular, this means choosing language carefully and speaking clearly. But if we’re going to promote neutral, unbiased language in urbanism, we need to turn the conversation in on ourselves.

Aren’t “Urban Freeways” Just Freeways? 

CNU has been advocating for redefining urban freeways by getting rid of them. Highways to Boulevards is a very active initiative that has seen considerable traction lately. This year alone, CNU has been a part of four campaigns rethinking the urban landscape and freeways in the urban context. These include: the Sheridan Expressway in New York, the Casey Overpass and McGrath Highways in Boston, and the Robert Moses Parkway in New York.

But is “removal of urban freeways” really what we mean? Lockwood doesn’t think so. At CNU 21, as a part of breakout session “Urban Freeway Removal: How Do We Win This Fight in More Places?” he exclaimed: “There is no such thing as an urban freeway. Let’s not use that term anymore.” In fact, he claims that the term “urban freeway” was used by several cities as a way to differentiate the structures from their identical brethren located outside of cities.

Remember earlier, Lockwood stated that freeways are the opposite of “urban” in that they are disconnected, unwalkable, and have limited accessibility. So he’s proposed an alternative:

“Urban” needs to connote design attributes, not just be a synonym for “in a city.” Otherwise the word will be misused and misinterpreted. For example, “urban freeway” provides an implication of compatibility with the city in the same way as terms such as “urban block pattern, urban infill, urban design guidelines, etc.” The correct term is freeways in cities.  The term provides the location/context of the freeway while remaining neutral with respect to compatibility.

That’s a hefty critique, and one that I agree with. There is nothing inherently different between a freeway in a city and one outside of a city. Nothing. And attaching the word “urban” implies a compatibility with the city that simply doesn’t exist.

Therefore, if by using the term “urban freeway” we are either legitimizing the freeway as something that belongs in an urban context (somehow positively connoting it is connected and accessible) or suggesting it is a distinctive “thing” that exists and we need to accept it, then the term needs to change. Remember, freeways don’t belong in cities.

To put it another way, Lockwood’s argument can be interpreted this way: “urban freeway” is not a neutral distinction. It’s filled with false The Overtown Expressway going through Miami's Overtown Neighborhood.implication. It may even be a bit subversive in use. 

What’s more, “urban freeways” generally have the un-ironic effect of making cities less urban. Most were built by clearing acres of urbanized land, housing, and businesses. And these businesses, customers, and residents never, or scarcely, returned. In fact, these “urban freeways” served as conduits for suburban development. Perhaps our replacement for “urban freeway” needs to acknowledge this “suburban” and de-urbanization effect?

What I like about Lockwood’s suggestion is that he removes the troublesome word “urban” from the phrasing altogether. While “urban” has fairly clear meaning to New Urbanists, it has a less clear and wholly malleable meaning to others. To some it represents high-rise financial districts or gentrified yuppie neighborhoods. To others it conjures images of slums, crime and gang violence. If we are to move forward with a new interpretation of the “urban freeway” then we most certainly need to clarify what “urban” means. Or remove the term altogether, as Lockwood dictates.

Not Far Enough

Others agree, but raise even more concerns. Aaron Naparstek, founder and former editor-in-chief of Streetsblog, finds issue with the term “freeway.” He told CNU: 

“‘Urban freeway’ is, indeed, an oxymoron. But the second word, ‘freeway,’ is a whole lot more problematic than the first word, ‘urban.’” Because like the oft-repeated phrase “Freedom isn’t free,” the corollary, according to Naparstek, is: Freeways aren't free either. He continues: 

The build-out of America's vast highway infrastructure was the great public works project of the 20th century. Maintaining our continent full of suburban sprawl and highway spaghetti continues to suck up billions of dollars annually. None of this includes the huge unaccounted externalities that our monomaniacally automobile-centered transportation imposes in environmental, military and social costs. Well over 35,000 people are killed each year on America's roads and highways. How do you even begin to measure the cost of that? The freeway? I don't think so. 

For most of the 20th century Americans brainwashed themselves to believe that the automobile and the highway led to freedom. Is freedom the feeling that Atlanta car commuters are experiencing on I-285 at rush hour? Nope. Not even close. A transportation and urban planning regime that costs billions, locks you in to a car to perform even the most mundane daily tasks and refuses to give you any other choices is the furthest thing from free. It's the opposite of freedom.

How does Naparstek propose circumventing this verbal inaccuracy? He says this: “It's time to start thinking more clearly about the costs of our car-based American lifestyle. A good first step is banishing the word ‘freeway.’ Call them ‘highways through cities’ instead.”

To Aaron’s point, freeway doesn’t solely connote unimpeded traffic, either. For some, freeway means free in the monetary sense, in so much that a “tolled freeway” is another oxymoron, says Chris McCahill, a Project Manager on CNU’s Transportation Initiatives. Just as “freeways” are a loaded term, so too are the alternatives. “Highway” appears rather innocuous, but for some, “urban highway” suggests an elevated character, which is decidedly expensive to build, almost always ugly and, generally, a highly divisive proposal these days. Then again, if that’s what you mean, go for it. The same goes for “expressway.” They may have been meant to be express, but if you’re stuck in traffic, there is nothing “express” about it. 

Is Leaving It Alone The Best Solution?

Caitlin Ghoshal, Program and Development Director at CNU and leader of CNU’s Highways to Boulevards initiative, understands the importance of clarifying the issue, but doesn’t necessary agree on the wording. “‘Freeways in cities’ is a better term to describe the context of the infrastructure,” she says, “however, I think the oxymoron helps make highway removal/retrofit a more plausible alternative because it strikes a discordant tone in the minds of the public.” This is true. Think of how New Urbanists have taken up the decidedly non-neutral term “suburban sprawl” to contradict the more positive and enchanted “suburb”, clearly expressing New Urbanism’s stance. 

Ghoshal’s argument appears to be that the oxymoronic “urban freeway” has advantages that New Urbanists and anti-urban freeway advocates can leverage: it’s pithy, for one. It’s perhaps more marketable, too, like “suburban sprawl” and shows clearly which side we stand on. But a question remains: Does “urban freeway” strike a discordant tone in the minds of the public, as Caitlin suggests? 

It’s entirely possible that the majority of the public—especially those who do not live near, or rarely drive on, these freeways—have no negative feelings toward “urban freeways” and therefore do not sense the discordance. Is this a messaging issue? Or a public outreach issue? Or can we simply fix the problem by changing a term?

The Takeaway

The lesson of this exercise is first and foremost: Choose your words carefully. We in the professional fields of urbanism need to be aware that the words we choose affect public perception, and the subversive use of words doesn’t do the public or decision-makers any favors...and they are generally who we’re designing for.

Lastly, keep in mind that language is not limited to words. For instance, the language of transportation engineering, architecture, and construction includes drawings, renderings, and presentations, which, like language, are meant to convey an idea. These visual tools, like our words, can be malapportioned or subversive.

The New York Times wrote about this issue recently in the article “Idealized or Caricature, Architectural Renderings Are Weapons in Real Estate.” Artist renderings have a storied history of making things look good, really good. But therein lies the conundrum. According to NYTime’s author Elizabeth Harris: “..the real purpose of these drawings is not to predict the future. Their real goal is to control it.”

A most controversial example of this comes from the Florida Department of Transportation’s 2004 report “Alternative Review and Development: from I-95 to Intracoastal Waterway,” which presented a number of alternative plans and renderings for a redesigned I-395, or Overtown Expressway (read our blog the Overtown Expressway here), in Miami. The images chosen for the alternatives spoke widely of what the FDOT thought of each, helping sway public opinion in favor the DOT’s preferred option. This “open-cut” proposal, of which the majority of the public (prior to the meeting) supported, was accompanied by these renderings, complete with barbed-wire fencing and gratuitous graffiti – one vision of the urban environment for many.

The words we choose reflect our own perspectives on an issue. They convey power and can influence public opinion and outcomes. With that in mind, I have to conclude that the term “urban freeways” is not neutral and should not be used by transportation professionals. I’d recommend “highways through cities,” proposed by Aaron Naparstek, as the most value-neutral description. Of course personally I hope that this new energy focused on taking down highways in cities means that we get to a point where we never have to use the term at all.

*Thanks to Andrew Garcia of StreetPlans for supplying his insight and accompanying images.

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