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Reimagining the Urban Freeway

With the new administration placing racial justice and equity at the forefront of transportation policy, will America finally reckon with the legacy of its freeways?
February 11, 2021, 7am PST | Diana Ionescu | @aworkoffiction
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In a piece for Common Edge, William Fulton describes a scene that's all too common in many American cities: a dense, walkable downtown, brimming with diverse uses and businesses, sliced through by a massive freeway overpass. "In almost every urban location I have ever lived, a midcentury transportation scar stretches across the landscape and makes navigation difficult for pedestrians," writes Fulton. These scars reveal the inequities of top-down policies whose effects continue to reverberate throughout communities, even as city leaders attempt to redress past injustices and rectify their negative impacts.

"The complicated truth is that even as these freeways destroyed and divided neighborhoods, they also provided regional access to downtowns and other central-city locations that were struggling in the postwar suburban era. And in recent years they may have helped the rebirth of urban neighborhoods by giving city residents easy driving access to suburban job centers and also giving shoppers easy access to historic Main Streets."

The current "Big Rethink" around highways is an opportunity to challenge assumptions and find creative ways to repair the damage without sacrificing mobility. Around the country, cities are looking at ways to replace elevated freeways with boulevards, build freeway caps (which create valuable public and private real estate, albeit still near a major source of air pollution), and reduce the number of on and off-ramps to increase land available for other uses while maintaining the flow of traffic. "Healing urban scars and reclaiming the urban environment comes with a steep price tag—and doesn’t always expand freeway capacity, which is usually the primary driver of state and federal transportation funding," Fulton says, but successful examples like Dallas's Klyde Warren Park and San Francisco's Embarcadero show that alternatives are possible.

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Published on Wednesday, February 3, 2021 in Common Edge
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