Removing Urban Freeways

As part of our effort to slow global warming, we should be correcting one of the great errors in the history of American city planning: the post-war binge of urban freeway building.

During the twenty-five years following World War II, American cities changed dramatically as freeways were sliced through them -- and it soon became clear that they had changed for the worse.

Instead of reducing congestion, the freeways encouraged people to move to remote suburbs and drive long distances to work and to shopping, increasing traffic dramatically. One study found that, five years after a major freeway project is completed in California, 95% of the new capacity fills up with traffic that would not have existed if the freeway had not been built1.

The freeways also blighted the older parts of our cities. For example, San Francisco stopped most of its proposed freeways and it remained an attractive and prosperous city, but right across the bay, Oakland had several freeways cut through its center, and nearby neighborhoods decayed and were half-abandoned.

Americans soon realized how destructive urban freeways are, and citizens organized to stop them. The first freeway revolt was in San Francisco, where the Board of Supervisors voted to cancel seven of the city's ten planned freeways in 1959, after neighborhood groups presented them with petitions signed by 30,000 people.

The freeway revolt spread, and by the end of the 1970s, it was impossible to build a new freeway through the center of most American cities. But a great deal of damage had been done before the freeways were stopped.

Undoing the Damage

A few foresighted cities have begun to undo this damage. Several have torn down uncompleted freeway spurs, which are relatively easy to remove because they are not important parts of the regional freeway system. For example:

  • San Francisco's Embarcadero Freeway was planned to connect the Golden Gate Bridge with the Bay Bridge, but only 1.2 miles were built before it was stopped. During the 1990s, the city demolished this freeway spur and replaced it with a waterfront boulevard and new trolley line. The freeway removal made room for thousands of new housing units and millions of square feet of office space. In addition, once the freeway no longer cut them off from the waterfront, the entire new neighborhoods of Rincon Hill and South Beach were developed on what had been underused land.

  • Milwaukee's Park East Freeway was part of a plan to circle downtown with freeways, but only 1 mile of the Park East was built before this plan was stopped in 1972. In 2002-2003, the city demolished this freeway spur and replaced it with a traditional street grid. Hundreds of millions of dollars of new development have already been built, approved, or proposed in the 26 acre redevelopment district that had been occupied by the freeway or blighted because it was next to the freeway.

It is obviously more difficult to remove mainline freeways that are integral parts of the regional freeway network than to remove freeway spurs, but it has been done:

  • Manhattan's West Side Highway, an elevated freeway along the Hudson River, collapsed and was closed in 1973. When it was closed, 53 percent of the traffic that had used this freeway simply disappeared. The political establishment took it for granted that they had to replace it with a bigger and better freeway, but citizen resistance delayed the replacement for two decades, and finally even the politicians saw that the city was getting along quite well without any freeway here. Instead of replacing the freeway, the city simply added new medians, a waterfront park, and a bicycle path to the surface street here.

  • Seoul, South Korea, removed the Cheonggye freeway, the one major freeway that cut through the center of the city, in order to stimulate the economic revival of central Seoul's Dongdaemun district. The river that this freeway covered was restored as a park. Seoul built bus ways to replace the freeway capacity, with the goal of reducing automobile use from 27.5 percent to 12 percent of all trips.

  • Paris, France, has closed the Pompidou Expressway during the summer, covered the roadway with sand, and turned it into Paris Plage (Paris Beach), which has become a very popular attraction. Recently, the city decided to close the Pompidou permanently as part of a larger plan to reduce automobile use by 40%.

 Westside Highway
This postcard of West Side Highway shows how the elevated highway overshadowed the street.

It's important to note that reducing road capacity does not reduce automobile use as dramatically as increasing capacity increases automobile use. Typically, only about 20 percent of the traffic that had used the road capacity disappears.

In the short term, Transportation Demand Management (TDM) policies can be used to mitigate the effect of freeway removal:

  • Parking Cash-Out: Businesses could be required to give employees commute allowances instead of free parking. Employees could use the allowance to pay for the parking they used to get for free, they could use it to pay for transit, they could keep part of the allowance if they car-pooled to work, or they could keep the entire allowance if they walked or bicycled to work. It is estimated that this policy could reduce commuter traffic (and peak demand for road space) by about 20%.

  • Congestion Pricing: As in London and Stockholm, drivers could be charged a fee for driving into the central business district at times when roads are congested. The revenues could be used to pay for better public transportation. This policy has been very successful where it has been tried, and the fee can be set at the level needed to reduce congestion to a manageable level.

In the long term, removing major urban freeways should be part of a more comprehensive approach to reduce automobile dependency by promoting public transportation and transit-oriented development. To slow global warming, we must move us from the heavy auto dependency of most American cities toward a more balanced transportation system that works for pedestrians and public transit as well as for automobiles.

Freeways in the Age of Global Warming

Many of the freeways built during the postwar binge are now approaching the end of their lifespan. Unfortunately, the political establishment seems to take it for granted that these freeways have to be replaced by bigger and better freeways, just as New York's establishment took it for granted that the West Side Highway had to be replaced.

For example, Philadephia is talking about undergrounding I-95, which cuts the city off from its waterfront.

 Westside Highway
Present day West Street in New York -- freeway gone, the roadway is now a pedestrian-friendly street.

Likewise, Seattle is debating what to do about the earthquake-damaged Alaska Way Viaduct on its waterfront. An active citizen's movement and one of the local newspapers says that the Alaska Way should not be rebuilt; it should be replaced by surface streets and transit. But Washington's governor has run a referendum that just lets voters choose between an elevated freeway and an underground freeway, and Seattle's Mayor, Greg Nickels, supports the underground freeway.

Nickels has taken many minor steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in Seattle. If he would back freeway removal and more balanced transportation, he could make Seattle into a leader in fighting global warming - an example for the rest of the country and the world to imitate.

Instead, Nickels has backed an alternative that hides the traffic but does nothing to reduce the region's auto dependency and carbon dioxide emissions. He has not learned anything from the huge cost overruns of Boston's Big Dig. And he does not realize that, as global warming causes sea levels to rise, his underground waterfront freeway could turn into the world's largest underground swimming pool.

Rebuilding freeways in an age of global warming is like rebuilding deck-chairs on the Titanic, so passengers can keep following their old habits while the ship sinks.

Now that Seattle voters have rejected both alternatives for replacing the Alaska Way, the politicians will have to start looking at alternatives that are more environmentally sound.

Politicians are looking for a technological fix for global warming and are usually afraid to call for any changes in our way of life. But this is a case where we could change our lives for the better.

Just look at the people who enjoy walking on San Francisco's Embarcadero or walking by Seoul's Cheonggye River. These places are much more livable than they were when they were blighted by freeways jammed full of people driving as if there were no tomorrow.

Charles Siegel is the author of The End of Economic Growth and the creator of the web site Removing Freeways -- Restoring Cities.

1: Mark Hansen and Yuanlin Huang, "Road Supply and Traffic in Californian Urban Areas." Transportation Research A, Volume 31, No 3, 1997, pp. 205-218.



Arterials and Collectors Too?


Many cities are also plagued with miniature versions of freeways, which are limited-access versions of arterials and collectors.

Their re-engineering is a generational challenge.
Stephen Lawton
CD Director
Hercules, California

Removing Mini-Freeways

I agree. You may know that in Oakland, just south of you, they are removing what they call "the world's shortest freeway" and replacing it with a boulevard. It is actually an interchange between 12th/14th st and International Blvd that was designed as a mini-freeway. It runs right between the Alameda County Courthouse and the Oakland Museum, and there is usually a small but steady trickle of pedestrians illegally crossing the freeway at this point. It is hard to believe that anyone was idiotic enough to build this.

There are also the huge number of suburban arterials that are not designed as freeways but that are designed for high speed rather than for pedestrians (with infrequent crossings, high speeds, and no on-street parking), which also need to be fixed, as Walter Kulash fixed one in Winter Park, FL.

Charles Siegel

Mini-me Freeways

I hope you have, Charles, sent this along to Greg Nickels and Chris Gregoire and pointed out the ideas contained therein bridge their Alaskan Way viaduct gap. Now if you can just get someone to build something, rather than talk about it endlessly...



This is a very interesting

This is a very interesting problem for many major cities in the US. In my hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, we are currently considering options for the removal of our waterfront highway. Here is a neat site where you can watch a pretty awesome and short video. Although I'm opposed to this idea simply for the fact that it would deter traffic away from downtown and force drivers to drive around the city instead, it may be a neat idea for other cities with different alternatives.
Louisville, KY

What happens to residential areas?

I agree that freeways are a huge problem for North American cities -- they drive pollution, make transit challenging, encourage sprawl and are expensive.

But what happens to residential areas if you remove or reduce access to freeways?

My concern is that many automobile users will simply drive on residential streets, particularly closer to the downtown cores of many cities. This will reduce the quality of life for people who have chosen a more pedestrian-friendly and ecologically friendly lifestyle.

No easy solution.


Take a look at

what happened to San Francisco after they decided to remove a segment of the much maligned Central Freeway, running above Octavia Blvd. The old above-grade freeway segment was demolished and circulation was incorporated into a grand, landscaped, multi-lane Octavia Blvd. that now stitches a once fragmented mixed-use neigborhood back together. And there happen to be successful residential uses along this segment of Octavia as well.

The Octavia San Francisco example has shown how urban freeway renewal can be a success for all types land uses and activities, including residential.

Central Freeway Pictures

I have some good before-and-after pictures of Central Freeway/Octavia Blvd at

I particularly like the one of a playground with a child riding his bicycle in a location that used to be overshadowed by a freeway ramp.

This residential street was obviously greatly improved by freeway removal.

Charles Siegel

Apply Regionalism and dream...

I've been following Seattle's (AWV) Alaskan Way Viaduct fiasco (and I do mean fiasco) since it was damaged beyond repair in early 2001. Of course Seattle's downtown and waterfront would benefit immeasurably by not rebuilding the viaduct. But, WSDOT has NEVER fairly considered a tunnel or surface boulevard options. Even now, WSDOT's preliminary repairs to the north segment of the AWV probably eliminates all options other than rebuilding the viaduct. Ooopsy.

What troubles me most about the growing support for surface boulevard option is the lack of understanding about New Urbanism's related and evolving philosophy known as Regionalism. Even Puget Sound Regional Council shows little understanding of how the application of Regionalism principles can direct development toward the eventual reduction of long-distance travel demand and eliminate the 'perceived need' to maintain AWV capcity.

Before the 2001 earthquake, I applied these principles to the north segment of the Link light rail project and concluded, believe it or not, the Express Lanes of I-5 could be dedicated to the light rail corridor, (as was their original intent), saving billions by avoiding tunnel costs, and route light rail along a more central corridor that serves more riders. It was only a small step to apply the same principles to the AWV situation.

I'm pretty damn disgusted with Seattle's transpurtashun injineers/PR specialists.

Building More Urban Freeways

It is not a good idea to tear down freeways in major urban areas in order to convert them to some nice "feel good" pedestrian zone with trees. that can be done in other areas of a major city. Cities such as San Francisco that had the freeway revolts aided by none other than governor Moonbeam himself have crippling traffic problems and there is no major expressway to allow traffic to easily navigate the city. City governments know how vitally important that transprotation freeflow is to our economy. and making improvements to our freeway system is needed.

we are a country of 350 million people and growing, and contrary to the efforts anti-freeway and anti-sprawl crowd there will be more growth in new areas surrounding major metropolitan areas. Delaying and blocking freeway projects has been the major contributor to freeway and local road congestion. the cities are simply growing faster than the ability of the governments ability to account for that growth expansion.

Roads and freeways long planned have been caught up in endless red tape and ever soaring construction costs (thanks china) (Thanks Sierra Club and ECOS, Critical Mass, etc.). Enviros have been filing injunctions and lawsuits; making wetlands out of every puddle they can find; making up new species of animals and declaring protected habitats. how many types of snail-darters or loons can there possible be, and can't we afford to lose one in the name of congestion relief and progress.

But, The point I am ultimately trying to make is that cutting off the supply of transportation to a major city is like cutting off the lifeline. It will harm the economy and jobs, it can even be life threatening. we need to repair a lot of infrastructure in this country. More than just freeways and expressways but streets as well, they all have to work together to support one another and keep things moving safely.

And Mass transit has a part to play in that to in major metro areas, when expertly designed. people will actually find it convenient enough to USE and will vacate their cars to save time and money.

Mass Transit takes off when other options become unattractive

"Cities such as San Francisco that had the freeway revolts aided by none other than governor Moonbeam himself have crippling traffic problems and there is no major expressway to allow traffic to easily navigate the city. City governments know how vitally important that transportation freeflow is to our economy. and making improvements to our freeway system is needed."

I hardly think that San Francisco is suffering from economic problems. And the people complaining about the traffic are usually people driving in from the suburbs instead of taking the BART. In fact it is the Silicon Valley which is suffering from transportation problems because the freeways are the only transportation options. This was because of reactionary and obstructive cities on the peninsula like San Mateo deciding that it didn't want to be a part of regional solutions. Caltrans is the only mass transit serving the area. This is why companies like Google, and Intel have had to supplement the train with their own vanpools etc.

In my experience I've come to the conclusion that people only switch to mass transit when the option of driving becomes unattractive enough. The idea that you can continue to build roads and mass transit is wrong. Once the roads are built there is no political will to build the mass transit. Los Angeles for example is making great progress on its mass transit mainly because they were sued and forced to spend money on buses and ignore their roads. Now the drivers are amgry but people who take the bus are thrilled.

You may argue that the bus riders are the minority. But many of them have no option. People who drive in most major cities have the choice of taking mass transit. It's usually longer, and can be very inconvenient, but its still a choice. But it will ALWAYS take longer and be more inconvenient. Instead they choose to drive. As the country grows I hope they will be more and more, forced to choose also to sit in traffic as trains and BRT wizz by them!!!!

Totally right

And mass transit systems need to be comprehensive. Rail lines need to stop at least once in every neighborhood. Many of the light rail lines in my city are too sparse -- people are expected to park and ride. It's just not realistic.

Removing freeways = removing choice

The most annoying thing about the car-fanatic freeway=lovers for me is that they want to take away transportation choices. It's the private automobile, or nothing.

But we must be careful not to become their doppelgangers by advocating the significant dimunition of private automobile usage as a transportation choice. We should be adding transportation in the form of mass transit, pedestrian, and bicycle routes, not taking options away by blithely removing urban freeways.

Siegel books

Where can I find Charles Siegel's books?

Roberta Brandes Gratz

Re: Siegel books

My latest book, The End of Economic Growth, is at

Before you get to that, I recommend a very short paper based on it, Work Time And Global Warming, which is at

Charles Siegel


When one thinks of elevated highways in New York State, one thinks of course of Mannhattan and its environs. Yet up the Hudson 150 miles or so, sits the State Capital.

Albany is an old City(1600's) with a wonderful amalgam of architecture. It of course has the majestic State Capitol, but few think of Albany as a waterfront city, which it is. The Port of Albany is a busy commercial port, and now the riverfront, like reclaimed riverfronts across the country, is being employed for recreational activites as well. The problem is that in order to get to the river, one has to cross a bridge over an elevated highway! The irony.

As with many cities mentioned in the article, in the 1960's Albany planners decided it was time to tie into the interstate system, so they developed a spaghetti-like roadway system to access I-87 running north and south and I-90 running east and west. From this bundles of roadway, one can see several beautiful even inviting structures--yet from the structures one sees a pile of concrete.

One hopes that Albany can find the money and the political will to remove this mess and either place these access roads at grade or bury them altogether, in a nod to their brethern in Boston 3 hours to the east.

Then the mighty Hudson can be enjoyed by all, new vistas will be created and Albany will shine as it did during its heyday.

Chuck D'Aprix [Charles D'Aprix]
Economic Development Visions
The Downtown Entrepreneurship Project

Albany & The I-90

I can only imagine Mr. D'Aprix is too young to remember the "joys" of east-west travel prior to the completion of the I-90 (known as The Pike in neighboring Massachusetts). Boston is only 3 hours to the east BECAUSE of this roadway. I suggest Mr. D'Aprix use Route 20 the next time he makes the trip. Almost all of it is substantially the same as it was in the 1950s. The same except the city cores and rural portions are safer and far less congested BECAUSE of the I-90.

Freeways Between And Within Cities

Obviously, these freeways that speed up travel between cities do not have to extend into cities and blight them with "a spaghetti-like roadway system to access I-87 running north and south and I-90 running east and west." You can have boulevards within the cities, which work both for cars and pedestrians, which connect with the roads between cities.

Compare San Francisco, an American city that stopped most freeway building in its core, with the typical American city that is sliced up by freeways. San Francisco is more livable and no more congested than the typical freeway-oriented city. As Mayor Alioto said when he was opposing the Embarcadero Freeway: drivers should slow down and enjoy our beautiful city.

The claim that "the city cores ... are safer and far less congested" because of freeways is transparently false. Freeways generate more traffic and more congestion on the local streets that they feed cars into. Try walking an an urban neighborhood near a freeway off-ramp to see how safe it is.

Charles Siegel

Transparently False

Mr. Siegel is invited to google map the town square of Westfield Massachusetts and the central greensward of neighboring West Springfiled Massachusetts for visual evidence of the very types of urban walkable urbancentirc design that were saved solely because of the I-90 that obviated their destruction for any potential widening of Route 20 on which they still reside.

Removing Freeways - Niagara Falls, NY, Has Listened

Note that I discuss the removal of the Robert Moses Parkway in Niagara Falls at

If Niagara Falls can do it, so can Albany.

Charles Siegel

What do if the urban freeway is vital route?

While San Francisco should be praised for removing the Embarcadero Freeway it should be noted that the Embarcadero Freeway was not exactly an important commerical trucking nor a trans-state travel route. So it was much easier to tear that freeway down than say Interstate 5 here in Sacramento which brutally cuts the city off from it's riverfont.

There's been a low-level debate lately on the best way to deal with Interstate 5 running through downtown Sacramento but as of yet no one has come up with any real solutions. There is a plan to build a deck over a small 1-2 block section of the freeway but that will be costly and do little for downtown as a whole. Tearing down urban freeways sound nice but in our case it seems like an impossiblity.

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