The Vine Street Expressway in Philadelphia

How to fix the damage from in-city highways

Every time an in-city highway has been replaced by more human-scale infrastructure, the city and region has benefitted, according to transportation experts who led workshops for USDOT.

Transportation and planning experts Peter Park and Ian Lockwood each helped lead recent workshops for US Department of Transportation (USDOT) and the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) called the Ladders of Opportunity Every Place Counts Design Challenge.

The events were the first of their kind: USDOT sought to alleviate the negative impacts of in-city Interstates built in the 20th Century that divided neighborhoods and often displaced hundreds or thousands of people. Lockwood served as a leader of two-day workshops in Spokane and Nashville and Park steered workshops in Philadelphia and the Twin Cities of Minneapolis/St. Paul. The events occurred in mid-July.

Public Square editor Robert Steuteville interviewed Park and Lockwood about freeway caps, highway teardowns, complete streets, and what they learned from USDOT’s “Every Place Counts.”

Can you describe the Every Place Counts workshops, what your role was, and tell me whether you think the events were useful?

Peter: DOT did a great job of convening the community and the relevant departments from federal, state and local government. We went through a couple of days of tours and hearing from the community, and cycled through various conversations over drawings, diagrams, photographs, and presentations, about what could be done to address, as DOT Secretary Anthony Foxx described, these past mistakes. Hearing from the community was the right new kind of step, which was what the whole effort was focused on.

Ian: The workshops were about addressing the pattern of damage caused by in-city highways—primarily pushed through minority communities where the land was cheaper and the folks had less voice. One purpose was to highlight this history. There was a lot of discussion in the four cities about what to do about it—and these discussions were long overdue. Equally importantly is starting the conversation in the profession, so that we actually recognize in-city highways as a problem and figure out how to deal with them deliberately and change them over time. Many people find the idea of mitigation appealing—capping, for example— where they think they can have it both ways, to keep the highways and still have a city. Both Peter and I think that’s unsustainable, expensive, and it probably won’t work.

You, Peter, said that Anthony Foxx talked about past mistakes. To what extent is DOT saying these highways were a mistake?

Peter: There is process and product. These workshops are a great example of changing how the process takes place. I’m not sure to what extent Secretary Foxx was referring to how the communities were left out of the conversation, or whether the product, the highways, were a mistake. I took it to mean that he meant both.

Does anybody know how many miles of urban freeways were built, what kind of damage they did to cities economically, and how many people were displaced all across America?

Ian: I think the total would be astronomical. When you look at the disinvestment all along these highway corridors, and the ensuing sprawl and car-dependency, energy consumption, deaths, injuries, air pollution, asthma—the effects of this monumental error in planning are enormous. The parking issues, the space allocation, the tearing down of so many fabric buildings to make room for parking lots—it would be really, really hard to calculate the true cost of that mistake.

Both of you, and CNU, have advocated for substantial changes in our transportation system to recognize values of cities and towns and placemaking. USDOT is changing, but they still represent the status quo to a degree. So what were your expectations going into these workshops, and were those expectations met?

Peter: I think our expectations were that this was a really great opportunity to be part of a nationally led initiative by the Secretary to change the conversation about the impact of this kind of infrastructure. It’s the first time we have ever heard the federal government acknowledging or recognizing the incredible damage that highways in cities did. Ian and I were both very excited about being part of these events. We certainly hoped to talk about how replacement of these elevated or lowered, or at-grade limited access highways in cities could be great solutions to fixing neighborhoods. It is hard for folks to imagine where the cars would go. How could you possibly remove a highway? But it takes a lot more time to explain and understand that it is not just removing a highway, it is replacing it with a better, higher performing piece of infrastructure that not only provides mobility for cars but it also provides connectivity for other modes as well as makes real estate and the land productive again.

We got to talk about all of these things, but ultimately in the course of just a couple of days most of the solutions were in the category of mitigating the impacts— because the participants could get their arms around mitigation. My hope is that, in the Vine Street (Expressway) example, in Chinatown, Philadelphia, the neighborhood is in the midst of updating its plan. And I think we had some very good conversations about the longer view that could plant some seeds. In Twin Cities, in the Rondo Neighborhood, folks have a lot of deep frustration and hurt about what occurred. The real value, what the Secretary wanted to do, was raise awareness and engage people in the planning process, thinking about how long-term solutions could be part of that process.

Ian: I didn’t know what to expect going in, but I think the USDOT did what they could. Understandably, USDOT didn’t want to parachute in and rock the boat too much, so the conversations naturally leaned toward short-term ideas like the capping of the freeways and the wide bridges. Unfortunately, the country is having a hard time paying for bridge upkeep, so building more and more bridges to go over these highways is likely unsustainable—we haven’t been able to keep up with the costs to date and I doubt we will have enough money to maintain the big backlog and all of these new bridges.

These were two-day workshops, is that long enough to explore the problem of urban highways going through a city?

Ian: First of all, highways aren’t urban. They are "in-city" highways. They may be located in cities, but they are certainly not urban. It’s one of those oxymorons like jumbo shrimp. I think we should call them in-city highways rather than urban highways. We have no issue with highways going between cities. That is part of the Interstate system that probably added value to the country. People credit the Interstate system with creating a lot of wealth. But I think the in-city highways created a lot of the opposite. People lost their homes, businesses, and land value.

Two days is not enough time to get into the nuances of the discussions. Urban situations are inherently complicated. There are relations between land-use, culture, and identity, and all sorts of things come into play. Modernist, highway thinking is very simplistic and so the modernists and highway thinkers can use sound-bite logic. For example, people have to get from A to B. Congestion is bad. These one-liners seem to make sense on the surface. When you apply them to cities the conversation gets complicated and nuanced. It is difficult to get to that level of understanding in two days. You have to be around the discussion for a while. Anybody can understand it, but it just takes time.

How much did the subject of highway teardowns and highways-to-boulevards come up in these events—were these good workshops to discuss these issues? If the subject did come up, how did the discussion go?

Peter: Yeah, it did. In one-on-one discussions with a lot of folks, we heard them wishing that a more significant improvement could happen and the freeway could come out—at the same time it is almost like asking for too much. These neighborhoods have been living with the highways for decades now. It is hard for residents to imagine that the highway wouldn’t be there. I don’t believe a highway will be removed from a city following the typical process of study and evaluation that we have today. Every example that we have of freeways being removed came from local community support and extraordinary local leadership and political will that imagined a different future that is based on an urban vision. It’s not an anti-car vision, but it is one that is not dominated by prioritizing travel of vehicles. It’s also a process driven by long-term community investment priorities, versus how to spend local and federal allocations within a given time frame. The typical process does not seriously give room for discussing removing or replacing the highway with a boulevard.

In Spokane, there is a highway that has been planned for a long time but a five-mile segment has not been built. So you could talk about the boulevard option. How did that go?

Ian: The I-90 corridor in Spokane has more than a hundred thousand cars on it, but just outside of town the volume drops down to a few tens of thousands or less. So the inescapable conclusion is that this Interstate highway is predominately used for local trips. There is far more sustainable and better infrastructure for those local trips than a giant highway. The North Spokane Corridor (US 395) is proposed to lead from I-90 to the north, and the idea is that truck drivers would trade goods up and down this corridor. But when you look at the volumes where the proposed highway is going, it’s around 8,000 vehicles a day. So there is really no transportation justification for turning the North Spokane Corridor into a freeway. This is a great opportunity for a city not to build a giant barrier in the community. And they don’t have to build the highway—it is a choice. If they do build it, they will create another very expensive piece of infrastructure that will probably be used primarily for local transportation. It would get the trucks off of a surface street that the city wants to be more of a main street. But a boulevard could accommodate the trucks and not have the problems that come with an in-city highway.

If you look at almost any US city you find corridors where the highways were proposed but not built, those corridors are far nicer today and far more valuable than they would be if the highway had been built. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see the pattern here. Is this North Spokane Corridor the only exception in the United States where the highway will be built though a city and it is not going to damage anything? Of course it is going to damage things. I really hope that Spokane looks at the pattern and doesn’t buy into the highway system thinking. The system is set up to reward long trips, fast trips, car trips. But I hope they just look at what happens in real cities and do what’s best for Spokane itself.

A lot of the discussion had to do with solutions that seemingly had less to do with highways, and had to do more with complete streets, one-way to two-way conversions, trails, roundabouts, etcetera. How do these other ideas fit into the mitigation of in-city highways?

Peter: That’s what they are, they are mitigating the impacts of what the limited access highway in the city creates, and most of the solutions that we looked at were also about changing the priority from vehicular movement to pedestrian and bicycling priorities. But again, in each case they are mitigations to the impact of the primary infrastructure.

Ian: One of the next big discussions that we will have is the role of arterials in cities. This is where the market wants people to go for social and economic exchange. Arterials are where the grocery stores, services, jobs, and transit are accessed. So the next key issue is going to be changing arterial streets into complete streets where folks can safely and comfortably walk, bike, and use transit to get to all of these services and jobs. The modernists and conventionalists try to deny access on arterials and speed them up as if they were mini-highways. What we really need to be doing is reinforcing their historic and current role as places of activity and exchange, so that people who live near these arterials can find their daily and weekly needs in short proximity and then take a transit ride to the downtown.

After these Every Place Counts workshops, do you have a better sense of where we are as a nation relative to in-city highways? How far is our nation willing to go to correct the mistakes that it has made?

Ian: The cities that start to understand and talk about the traditional transportation values—where short trips, proximity, and mixed uses are rewarded—they will be the more competitive cities, with better jobs, more creative populations, and more money for social programs. The cities that perpetuate conventional values—favoring fast-moving motor vehicles—those are the cities that are going to devalue, spend more tax money on roads, and be less interesting. I see conversations around this topic happening all across the country and also in the DOTs. I find it very encouraging.

Peter: I think this initiative was strategically the right way to help guide the conversation. It starts with and prioritizes engaging the community meaningfully. A deliberate and sincere effort to engage communities leads to a broader, more effective set of solutions. We have a limited amount of money available for our national infrastructure. As it ages, it becomes more costly. So, the reality is that a lot of these mitigation solutions might seem to provide some relief and opportunity in the short term, they end of being the most expensive in the long run to maintain and rebuild.

The fundamental American pragmatism is centered on understanding how to invest our public dollars in a way that returns the most value. If you think about it, every single time a freeway came out of a city, everything got better. There is not an example from around the world of when a freeway was removed and the neighborhood or the region worsened. In San Francisco, New York City, Milwaukee, Seoul, Korea—all of the examples that CNU has promoted—when the freeway came out the city got better. There has not been a single case where the neighborhood did not got better when a freeway was cut through it.

But our past processes and decisions about these highways has simply not engaged communities. The conversation started with the imperative of how to accommodate a future quantity of vehicles. Ian and I are very proud to have been part of this initiative. But it is a starting point, strategically the right starting point, to think about how to make decisions about our public infrastructure.

Ian: I have to congratulate USDOT for getting involved in this paradigm-shifting issue, and they are showing leadership at the national level. The Congress for the New Urbanism, state DOTs, and cities have been doing the heavy lifting on highway removal for years. Though it took USDOT until 2016 to get to the highway-removal table, they are now at the table, which is great for American cities, the State DOTs, the transportation profession, and the planet.

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