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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
[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.