Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The life and death of urban highways

Embarq and ITDP
March 2012

Cities exist for people; freeways exist for moving vehicles. Cities are centers of culture and commerce that rely on attracting private investment. Massive public spending on freeways in the last century reduced the capacity of cities to connect people and support culture and commerce. While the following report is about urban highways, more importantly, it is about cities and people. It is about community vision and the leadership required in the twenty-first century to overcome the demolition, dislocation, and disconnection of neighborhoods caused by freeways in cities.

This report chronicles the stories of five very different cities that became stronger after freeways were removed or reconsidered. They demonstrate that fixing cities harmed by freeways, and improving public transport, involves a range of context-specific and context-sensitive solutions. This perspective contrasts with the one-size-fits-all approach that was used in the 1950s and 1960s to push freeways through urban neighborhoods. The belief then was that freeways would reduce congestion and improve safety in cities. Remarkably, these two reasons are still commonly used to rationalize spending large sums of public money on expanding existing or building new freeways.

Freeways are simply the wrong design solution for cities. By definition, they rely on limited access to minimize interruptions and maximize flow. But cities are comprised of robust and connected street networks. When limited-access freeways are force-fit into urban environments, they create barriers that erode vitality—the very essence of cities. Residents, businesses, property owners, and neighborhoods along the freeway suffer but so does operation of the broader city network. During traffic peaks, freeways actually worsen congestion as drivers hurry to wait in the queues forming at limited points of access.

The fundamental purpose of a city’s transportation system is to connect people and places. But freeways that cut through urban neighborhoods prioritize moving vehicles through and away from the city. In 1922, Henry Ford said, “we shall solve the problem of the city by leaving the city.” While freeways certainly facilitated this, by no means did leaving the city solve the problem of city. In fact, the form and functional priorities of freeways in cities introduced even more problems that still exist today.

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