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MBA: Highway Removal

In this week's episode of "Moving Beyond the Automobile," Streetfilms takes you on a guided tour of past, present and future highway removal projects with John Norquist of the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU).

Some of the most well-known highway removals in America -- like New York City's Miller Highway and San Francisco's Embarcadero Freeway -- have actually been unpredictable highway collapses brought on by structural deficiencies or natural disasters. It turns out there are good reasons for not rebuilding these urban highways once they become rubble: They drain the life from the neighborhoods around them, they suck wealth and value out of city, and they don't even move traffic that well during rush hour.

Now several cities are pursuing highway removals more intentionally, as a way to reclaim city space for housing, parks, and economic development. CNU has designated ten "Freeways without Futures" here in North America, and in this video, you'll hear about the benefits of tearing down the Alaskan Way Viaduct in Seattle, the Sheridan Expressway in the Bronx, the Skyway and Route 5 in Buffalo, and the Claiborne Expressway in New Orleans.

Streetfilms would like to thank The Fund for the Environment & Urban Life for making this series possible.


[music] 

John Norquist:  [00:13] Cities that don’t have any freeways at all, they don’t really have big traffic problems.  Like Vancouver, British Colombia, they don’t have any freeways at all in the whole city.  And it works really well and these other freeways do a lot of damage.  If you look at the real estate anywhere near a freeway, almost always it’s degraded, you’ll get like surface parking lots or you have buildings that have high vacancy rates, no walking.  It’s really hard to design a freeway that would look good in a city. 

 

[music] 

John Norquist:  [00:44] In 1922 when Corbusier, the great modernist architect, did his drawing, the City of Tomorrow, which proposed the idea of great separated highways in the city, sort of a utopian dream to be able to drive without ever having to slow down.  It’s just when you’re in the city, it’s the complexity of the city.  If you superimpose on that a rural styled great separated super highway, it creates a lot of unintended side effects.  Just take for example the West Side Highway in New York. 

 

Sam Schwartz:  [01:16] On a cold December morning in 1973 I got a call.  I was a junior engineer at the old New York City Traffic Department and the entire West Side Highway collapsed at Gansevoort Street.

 

John Norquist:  [01:30] It was built in the late ‘20’s and then fell down in 1973, and fell down again in 1975.  And ultimately after about a 15 year struggle, they decided not to build it back, and they just put in West Street.  So neighbourhoods like Tribeca and Chelsea and Battery Park had the benefit of being able to see the river.

 

Sam Schwartz:  [01:50] I had to handle the traffic, that was my assignment, figure out where did the traffic go.  And when I found out as the traffic was able to take different paths, things didn’t get worse on all the other routes that had to pick up the slack.

 

John Norquist:  [02:02] I don’t hear anybody advocating building the West Side Highway again.  Same thing happened with the Embarcadero in San Francisco.  In the central artery in San Francisco, they took down two freeways that had been damaged by the earthquake.  In both cases the traffic distributes better, real estate values were improved, and the population that lives around the area where those roads were has gone up.  The Embarcadero, which was a boulevard for a long time in San Francisco until they ruined it in 1951 when the Embarcadero was built, it’s restored, it’s just like it was before, maybe even better.  It has a streetcar, it has palm trees along it. 

 

[music] 

John Norquist:  [02:44] We’re helping local groups in Seattle try to eliminate the Alaskan Viaduct which is a freeway right in front of the waterfront.  We’re working in New Orleans to restore the Claiborne Avenue, it’s got an elevated freeway that covers up the whole street, and it really ruined one of the great boulevards in New Orleans.  It had about 200 businesses before it was turned into a freeway in 1966.  And now it has like 25.

 

Jack Davis:  [03:13] And now we found that we don’t need it as a highway to go east and west.  We don’t need it for interstate traffic.  It’s too expensive to keep up and we’d be much better off if we took it down.  This will be what was regarded as the single post-Katrina move that most improved the beauty of New Orleans.

 

John Norquist:  [03:32] We’re working in Buffalo to help people tear down the Skyway. 

 

Justin Booth:  [03:35] Buffalo’s highways have had a negative effect on a city, from cutting off our waterfront, severing our neighbourhoods and scarring our [unintelligible 03.43] parks and park way systems. 

 

John Norquist:  [03:45] Robert Moses did a lot of damage in New York, but he did even more damage in Buffalo. 

 

Justin Booth:  [03:48] Today, 52% of Downtown Buffalo’s land use is devoted to parking cars as opposed to supporting life [unintelligible 03:54] that you would expect from the urban environment. 

 

John Norquist:  [03:58] Buffalo and beautiful Lake Erie and you can’t even see Lake Erie from Buffalo because of all the roads. 

 

[music] 

Joan Byron:  [04:04] The Sheridan was built through the South Bronx in the first place because the health and quality of life of people there was thought not to be important.

 

John Norquist:  [04:13] It only has about 40,000 cars a day.  It just connects two other… the cross Bronx and the Brooklyn.  There’s a lot of people in the neighbourhood that are worried about children and their asthma and their air quality, and they want their neighbourhood back.  They’ve been living in the shadow of that freeway.

 

Joan Byron:  [04:31] Unlike some of the other cities where highways have been removed, in those cases often times elevated highway structures have been converted into boulevards.  In this case, the Sheridan sits on the ground, it comes out, there’s a local street right next to it that becomes the main street of a new development of 1500 units of affordable housing, ten acres of open space, and a network of pathways and walkways that reconnects the existing communities to each other and to the river they’ve been cut off from this whole time. 

 

[music] 

John Norquist:  [05:11] So when you need it the most, the great separation doesn’t even work for what it’s supposed to do, which is move traffic quickly.  It’s important to review great separated highways and consider removing it cos your city will be worth more if you get rid of it. 

[music] 

Transcription Sponsored by: Transcript Divas Transcription Services

Elizabeth Press is a Filmmaker for Streetfilms. She joined Streetfilms in 2007 to focus her video work on advocating for better biking, walking and mass transit.

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  • Clarence Eckerson Jr.

    For those wanting to explore the removal of the Embarcadero in San Francisco some more, here is an in depth film I produced 5 years ago!!!

    http://www.streetfilms.org/lessons-from-san-francisco/

  • http://www.livablestreets.com/people/jass jass

    As of last month, these videos have stopped working on firefox for me. Anyone else?

  • trajko

    @jass im havinv the same problem  it works fine on safari

  • Clarence Eckerson, Jr.

    I'll have folks look into this.  Thanks for letting us know about Firefox.  I just upgraded to 4.0 a few weeks ago and haven't been having any problems.

  • John Harshbarger

    I have been running Firefox for years and have not had any problems on this site (watched like 7 films last night with not a hiccup). 3.x was working great and 4.0 is working like a champ. I would check your flash player version and update that.

  • Ted K.

    The problem is that StreetFilms.org has gotten JavaScript happy which results in browser rejections for those of us with older browsers. What's worse is the failure to say that your JS code (e.g. tubepress.js) doesn't support a visitor's browser (SM 1.1.18 in my case). I used to be able to look at the page source and get the video's URL. This page is a veritable dog's breakfast underneath. So a pox on StreetFilms.

  • http://www.crankmychain.com Dan Kaufman

    Geek note: Bag Flash

    Well done, Streetfilms. I'd love to see Portland shed the River Front Freeway just like we did on the west side of the river. It is one reason I am so concerned about the expansion of the Columbia River Freeway Corridor. It makes that happening less likely unless we bury it.

    Here is another great (and early) movie from streetfilms on the subject of Freeway prevention http://www.streetfilms.org/lessons-from-portland/

  • http://www.livablestreets.com/people/jass jass

    Im running Firefox 3.6.16. Ill try 4.0 in a week or so (I always wait to make sure the biggest bugs are someone elses worry).

    It would be nice if you could simply upload these on youtube as well and provide a link. I have no problem with whatever flash theyre using.

  • Lostangelino

    Highway 2  here  in Los Angeles has a portion that ends in echo park. it was supposed to connect to the 101 freeway and continue to the 405 freeway.

    the stub cuts silverlake in half. other than rush hour this stub hardly provides any bebfits other than creating traffic on glendale blvd during rush hour. its a perfect candidate to be torn down and turned into a boulevard and reconnecting a very vibrant neighborhood.

  • Oscar

    I do not see much value, open-space-wise, in redeveloping the Alaska Way Viaduct in Seattle if the waterfront will remain in private hands. The main reason many parts of Vancouver are so livable is that the waterfront is almost all public parks. Traffic calming in Vancouver helps also. Seattle could easily expropriate most of the waterfront properties along the Alaska Way Viaduct for a fraction of the cost of the "tunnel option" of holding on to the freeway by rebuilding it underground.

  • HN

    If only Baltimore would remove I-83 and 395!

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_TVKSZEGN56VIQR7P7TTSWFFPYI BHUSHAN

    THANKS A LOT.. REALLY NICE POST..
    KEEP POSTING...
    MBA, BBA

  • Kagi

    No mention of the Big Dig? Innarestin'.

  • Richard Potestio

    The Columbia River Crossing freeway expansion project in Washington State will have an exceptionally negative impace on Portland. It will induce more traffic as Clark Co. sprawls to the north, enabled by the new freeway interchanges. The likely result is that rather than removing I-5 from the east bank of the Willamette, we will need to enlarge it. Not the progressive direction Portland is known for.

  • Todd Scott

    The terms highways and streets are typically interchangeable, so a more apt title would be freeway removal. There was a planning effort to remove a freeway in Detroit and replace it with a highway.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Highway
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freeway

  • ProkNo5

    WTF? Why is there no mention of Milwaukee!?! It was Norquist who had it removed when he was mayor of Milwaukee. His crusade across these other cities is because of what he learned in Milwaukee.

  • Ryan

    I really hope that Interstate 280 in San Jose is ripped down, and that 87 is restored to a surface street.

  • The Facts

    Get your facts right, John Norquist. No traffic jams in Vancouver? Try spending more time here and see the traffic jams in downtown...especially leadiing to the Lions Gate Bridge and Highway 1 which DOES go through Vancouver.

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  • KeithGatling

     So what I want to know is have there ever been any freeway removal project that weren't successful, and were unmitigated disasters because they didn't take into account the number of people in the city who used that road to move from one point to another quickly without having to deal with 40 minutes worth of traffic lights?

    We're contemplating the removal of a piece of Interstate that travels trough downtown Syracuse for 1.4 miles, and while the people behind it say that it'll make things more beautiful and more human, I shudder to think of how long it'll take people to get from The Valley to the North Side.

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  • Jzero92

    If a evacuation ever happens they will regret ever removing a freeway and there gridlock traffic. They better plan to build a underground highway at least it will both please everybody. Highways that are important for commuters should be rerouted within the city or buried underground just like Boston and Sidney, not turn it into a boulevard that would not solve the problem.

  • Robertbierma

    digging under ground is expensive and generally a waste of resources.  Did you not pay attention to the film.  boulevards move traffic at the same rate.  I know for a fact the highways turned to boulevards in san fran have a higher rate of traffic flow then before there replacement.    

  • Robertbierma

    have you seen the Common Sense Alternative for the CRC?

  • Inesalag

    Some spanish subtitles are impossible to read (like those at 4:37).  Some appear a long time, then some others show for less than a second.  Congrats on the new international subtitles :D.

  • Inesalag

    Have you watched all "moving beyond the automobile" films?  Do that, and you'll learn the causes of the traffic jam...

  • Jzero92

    How would boulevards move traffic better, when there pedestrians and traffic lights all over place that will make it more longer and time consuming for commuters. Its like saying a bicycle is more reasonable than a motor bike.