The Urban Freeway Conundrum

Robert Goodspeed's picture

Planners regret them, neighbors dislike them, and they gobble up valuable real estate in the center city. The downtown expressway is a much-disliked reality in most American cities. Now's the time to do something about them.

The distain of center city highways is so strong that some cities have gone so far as to construct fantastically expensive lids or tunnels to replace them with parks. The Trust for Public Land's Center for City Park Excellence found 20 existing highway parks and plans for 12 more in the works for a recent study. In an article in April's Urban Land summarizing their findings, the group reports on successful freeway parks in cities as varied as Trenton, New Jersey, Phoenix, Arizona, and Duluth, Minnesota, and plans underway in Dallas and San Diego. Of course, the most well known example of this is Boston's Big Dig, where construction of the "Rose Kennedy Greenway" on the former site of the Central Artery has finally begun. I was pleasantly surprised to discover my hometown of Portland, Maine is even beginning to reconsider a high-capacity arterial that has long divided neighborhoods and hogged precious urban land.

For the time being, however, the most logical solution to the downtown freeway problem seems completely off the table: outright removal. Why not? Their negative impacts on downtown neighborhoods and encouraging urban sprawl are well documented. Many cities are investing heavily in public transportation systems, and gas prices are heading up. Finally, the impact of removing them may not be as bad as we fear. Like many, I was surprised to read the recent San Francisco highway collapse caused not gridlock, but a decrease in traffic as commuters hit the rails in record numbers.

Converting downtown expressways into at-grade boulevards or parks could free up valuable real estate for development and boost real estate values. The idea is not without precedent -- and other advocates -- in the U.S. Freeways have been removed successfully in Portland, OR, San Francisco, and Milwaukee, and certainly many more discussed.

However, for the time being the option seems unmentionable. During the APA conference in Philadelphia, I listened as planners explained how they had struggled to connect the campus to the Schuykill River during the Penn Connects planning process due to the presence of the the Schuylkill Expressway. Ruling out decking as too expensive, they discretely mentioned they would of course support its removal should that option arise.

Maybe it's time to bring it up.

Robert Goodspeed is a PhD student at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning.


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