Daily Archives: December 7, 2011

No, not really.

I think this is probably the third article I’ve read in the last month asking: “Are Freeways Doomed?” “Is THIS the post-freeway age?” “Are Urban areas moving on?”

Nope.

All of these pieces work like any “bogus trend” piece – string together a few anecdotes, posit a trend, quote a couple authoritative-sounding people, call it a day. And indeed, more than one freeway has been removed in this country. But there’s no trend toward de-freewayization; quite the opposite in fact. What’s missing, then, is the underlying reasons for the changes.

Fundamentally, there are two reasons for US freeway closures:
(i) The freeway was replaced by a newer and bigger freeway, built to better design standards, at which time the old facility was abandoned.
(ii) The freeway  was part of a link in a grand master plan, that was truncated by the freeway revolts of the 70′s. In other words, it was pre-obsolesced by non-completion of the network.

Some examples:

Tom McCall Waterfront Park, Portland, Oregon
Berkeley’s Preservation Institute says: “When Portland decided to tear down the Harbor Drive freeway, the city made one of key decisions that transformed it into a national model for effective city planning.” Well… maybe. What actually happened was that they had one freeway built to 1942 standards, and in 1964 they opened up another freeway half-a-mile away built to 1964 standards. That was I-5 – the Eastbank Freeway – and it’s still truckin’ almost 50 years later.

Now it’s true that some traffic engineers raised their eyebrows at the idea. Even if Harbor Drive only had 24k ADT (which is well down into arterial territory), it was still predicted the city would grow. And considering how slowly traffic crawls across the Marquam Bridge today, perhaps there was probably a grain of truth in the forecast. But what the engineers didn’t predict was that Portland would soon enact a strict downtown height and FAR ordinance in an effort to ward off further skyscrapers in favor of the existing Glazed Terra Cotta building stock. This substantially slowed office development downtown and pushed the region’s employment base into a more suburban, office-park-dominated form. In fact, low-rise office parks are the very first thing you see when you cross the UGB into Greater Portland, whether you’re coming in on 26 East or I-5 North.

Midcentury traffic engineers thought Downtown office space would keep expanding, like any American city. Instead the downtown office market was almost frozen in time. But what really cinched the deal was when they went and built yet another freeway less than a mile away. Sandwiched by parallel north-south freeways of (then) modern design, serving a downtown whose skyline would forever be anchored by the same two buildings, there would never be a need for the widened and straightened Harbor Drive.

Park East Freeway, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Milwaukee is a case where the infrastructure was obsolesced by the freeway revolts. In the original plan for Milwaukee’s freeway system, there were two north-south trunk highways – one inland, and one along the lake. While the inland route got built as planned (and is now signed as I-94 and I-43), the Lakefront route was only half finished. Thus the Park East Freeway – which, as designed, would’ve been an important connector distributing traffic between Lakefront and Inland routes – was rendered a fairly truncated spur. Not really necessary in its original form. And while Milwaukee gets New Urbanist props for killing the spur, it’s instructive to note what they replaced it with.

A brand-new surface street, striped for four lanes but obviously designed for six, got put right in its place. Now, from my perspective, as an infrastructure guy, I think this is pretty sweet. The original freeway was designed primarily as a connector (with distribution functions secondary), so it didn’t utilize a lot of the Milwaukee grid. A proper downtown highway spur should crap traffic out onto every surface street in sight, like 527 does. Thus the new surface street does a better job at fulfilling its primary raison d’etre, since it was actually designed for that purpose. It’s also more amenable to condos than an elevated highway is, which can be good for property values – and good for the local government, if they don’t blow it all on 20- and 30-year tax abatements like PDX does.

But a green eco-symbol this is not; it’s just the engineers replacing a middling facility with a better one.

Claiborne Expressway, New Orleans, Louisiana
This one is actually still there,  although there’s a good chance it’ll disappear in the next decade. If you’ve read Divided Highways you’ve read the tales of Claiborne’s vibrant business and music scene before the coming of the elevated. The pictures I’ve seen show a mostly auto-oriented strip of gas stations and buy-here-pay-here lots. But these also have their charm, and I’m sympathetic to the argument. Perhaps it shouldn’t have been put there.

What we do know for certain is the Claiborne didn’t last ten years before it had been supplanted with I-610, which cut several miles off the route for through-traffic. At this point the Claiborne became essentially just a spur, albeit one masquerading as a through route.

Even just as a spur, there would be a pretty decent argument for the Claiborne’s continued existence… except that the downtown NOLA office market isn’t exactly booming. In fact the consensus is, during times when a surface-street Claiborne would be slow, all the extra traffic could just be routed up the Ponchartrain, which is a solid eight lanes with full-width shoulders and feeder roads. Even CNU proposes that they add a direct connector for this purpose.

Mas
You can find more examples wherever you look. The Embarcadero Freeway in San Francisco was supposed to have been a vital shortcut between the Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate, providing a downtown through route to complement the east bay’s 580. In fact they only got it about 1/3rd built before they ran into affluent neighborhoods and the rest of it got canceled. The truncated version lasted until an earthquake killed it, at which point it was deemed not worth saving. But what if they’d finished it?

It’s not too hard to figure out what would’ve happened, since basically the same freeway got constructed in Seattle – the Alaskan Way Viaduct. When that freeway got wounded in a quake, they just patched it up with duct tape and JB Weld and set about planning Seattle’s Big Dig as a replacement. If the Viaduct had been cut off halfway – say, if it never went north of the Seneca exit – well, it’d probably have been torn down by now and replaced with a tourist trolley. Conversely, if the Embarcadero had been completed as designed, San Francisco would have almost certainly embarked on its own “Big Dig.”

The West Side Highway in New York doesn’t really count, since New York was broke in the 70′s. The highway collapsed because there wasn’t enough money to do even preventative maintenance. And certainly not enough to rebuild. In fact, they didn’t even tear it down for another 15 years – it just sat up there, closed to traffic. Yet even this gets spun as some sort of “cities transcending the freeway” narrative.

The Freeway Revolts Are Over

Assuming our economy doesn’t completely implode in the next five years, we’ll continue to build newer and better highways that obsolesce old ones. And when that happens, those old ones will make great spots for redevelopment. If I was Houston, I’d seriously be looking at I-10 between Crockett and Jensen – which has, by far, the worst geometry of any of the downtown freeways – and moving it about a half a mile north, opening up more of the north side of the Bayou to development.

What’s not going to happen anymore are the truncated spurs, the freeways rendered obsolete by revolts. It’s not because the concerns over freeways have gone away. It’s just that engineers have become sensitive to them.

The master freeway plans of the 40′s and 50′s were models of rationality and efficiency. But they didn’t really account for anything besides rationality and efficiency. Houston largely followed theirs and it’s one of the reasons the place is so easily navigable today. But the original plans also sliced right through parks, forests, wetlands, rich people neighborhoods. And thus the revolts.

It’s arguable that we’ve lost something. Newer highway alignments are no longer quite the paragons of scientific virtue they were in the drafting easel era. In a smaller, newer city like Tulsa, you can see the difference between 50′s and 60′s alignment studies versus modern ones.

I look at the alignment for SH 130 south of Austin and I’m amazed at the number of squiggles needed to put a highway through flat, relatively undeveloped terrain. But while this design methodology doesn’t necessarily result in better highways, it does result in highways that will be built.

And this is where the post-freeway era ends. There’s a very limited supply of highways that are “overbuilt” as a result of their connections never materializing. New construction isn’t going to provide us with any more because they’ll detour and slosh around anything that might have put up a fight 40 years ago. As time goes on, the pace of freeway removal will *slow*, not increase.

Clickbait article writers, take note.