Why removing freeways can be good for cities

Jan 13, 2011

(You can also see this story with more photos on the Changing Gears website)

Half a century after cities across our region and country built sprawling freeways, many of those roads are reaching the end of their useful lives.

Instead of rebuilding them, a growing number of cities are thinking about, or actively, removing them. That may come as a surprise.

When Clevelanders hear that the city plans to convert a coastal freeway into a slower, tree-lined boulevard, you get reactions like this one from Judie Vegh:

“I think it’s a pretty bad idea for commuters,” she said. “And if it were 35 mph, I would just be later than usual.”

Within the next few years, Vegh’s commute on Cleveland’s West Shoreway will likely look very different.

Cleveland City Planner Bob Brown says this is not the traditional highway project, "the traditional highway project is obviously speeding things up, adding more capacity, and often ignoring the character of neighborhoods."

It’s quite a change.

In the 1950s and 60s, freeways were seen as progress and modernity. They were part of urban renewal and planners like New York’s Robert Moses tore through neighborhoods to put up hulking steel and concrete roadways.

Today, cities are looking to take them down.

The list is long:

  • New Orleans
  • New Haven
  • Buffalo
  • Syracuse
  • San Francisco

These are just some US cities thinking about or actively taking freeways down. You can find more information about these projects on the Changing Gears website.

Jim Weber, who is Akron, Ohio’s Construction Manager, says that city is studying what to do with its under-used six-lane Innerbelt that will soon need major maintenance.

“Perhaps we can remove sections of it and have it fit in better with the Akron grid system and offer an economic benefit by making land available,” he said.

Akron officials got the idea from Milwaukee which also removed a freeway and used the land for new development. It would have cost 3 to 4 times as much to reconstruct the road.

I asked Tom Vanderbilt, the author of a book about traffic and what it says about us, to show me a neighborhood that’s doing well because there’s no freeway.

He took me to the corner of Broome and West Broadway in New York’s SoHo neighborhood. Vanderbilt says in the past two decades this area has become an "incredibly vibrant, expensive, thronged with tourists, urban center."

In the mid-20th century, New York planner Robert Moses wanted to put a ten lane freeway here in Lower Manhattan. Back then, it was a fading industrial area.

Vanderbilt says the freeway would have created a giant Berlin Wall:

"Cutting off what became SoHo from what became TriBeCa. And, these two are now essentially connected in what is a huge swath of hugely desirable real estate."

And, planners like Bob Brown in Cleveland see freeway removal as a way to make cities more attractive and desirable to companies and workers who can locate anywhere.

“ When you talk about improving the quality of life in neighborhoods and a city that translates directly into increases in population and jobs,” Brown said.

In cities that have already taken down freeways, property values often rise and waterfronts draw more people. Skeptics find traffic jams rarely materialize.

So, is this a repudiation of those Mid-Century builders who saw cars as supreme?

Jeff Chusid, a city and regional planning professor at Cornell, says in some ways it is.

“In other ways, it’s a repudiation of the mentality of the city as a machine,” he said.

Chusid says cities are changing. They’re no longer industrial places that need freeways to speed workers and goods in and out. Instead, planners are now focused on sustainability and making cities attractive places for both work and play.

To be clear, few are suggesting we remove heavily traveled roads, but even the US Department of Transportation is backing the idea of replacing under-used urban freeways.

In Cleveland, many are warming to the West Shoreway becoming a boulevard.

Don Burrows of Westlake was walking around a Cleveland neighborhood that should benefit from the project:

“I like the idea. I think it will make the lake much more accessible to the population. I think it will the neighborhoods more livable,” Burrows said.

And, for Judie Vegh, the commuter, a Cleveland official says the Shoreway’s slower speed limit will only add 75 seconds to her commute.

You can listen to my radio report here: