On a clear spring day in 2010, I took a motorboat tour down the Delaware River with urban planner Harris Steinberg. Steinberg had helped develop Philadelphia’s first cohesive plan for revitalizing the city’s postindustrial waterfront, and I listened excitedly as he explained how those piers overgrown with shrubs and thin trees would soon become parks reconnecting citizens to this oft-ignored waterway and a pedestrian-oriented neighborhood with new housing.
But viewed from the water, the city faced a clear obstacle to this visionary plan. Eight lanes of Interstate 95, elevated like a viaduct, sat beside six lanes of a heavily trafficked boulevard and collectively blocked Philadelphia’s vibrant downtown from the Delaware.
When I mentioned what a shame the highway was, Harris told me offhandedly that all 51 miles of I-95 in Pennsylvania were undergoing phased replacement. The last portion of I-95 to be replaced would be the three-mile stretch along Philadelphia’s waterfront. Its plan for the new version of the highway was simple: Remove the elevated highway and build it again, as a heinous eight-lane intrusion on the city.
Although my nonprofit organization, Next City, and other local advocacy groups have presented alternative options through forums, design competitions, and other efforts planners are uninterested in changing the highway’s size or location—no matter its deleterious effects on the city. They refused to study other options, calling any changes to the status quo pie in the sky.
But what if replacing urban highways with city-scaled roadways and more transit options weren’t impossible? What if we agreed that we needed to think less about the demands for infrastructure today and plan better for our lifestyles and transportation patterns 50 years from now?
The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 authorized the spending of $25 billion (more than $200 billion these days) for the construction of more than 40,000 miles of interstate highway over the coming decade to heighten Americans’ quality of life.
As a result of highway expansion, the gross domestic product of the country quintupled between 1956 and 2013. The number of automobiles and trucks on American roads now exceeds the number of people living here. The highways spurred vast growth in Sun Belt states like Arizona and Georgia, and spawned new suburbs around the country.
The role of highways in connecting parts of the country hundreds of miles apart is undeniable, but in cities undergoing urban renewal, highways are increasingly problematic. Their blight on cities is generally recognizable as both causing great disinvestment in the area immediately surrounding them and also being particular to the cities they affect.
In New Orleans during the 1960s a highway was built along Claiborne Avenue. Claiborne Avenue was once a bustling corridor with grassy medians lined with majestic oak trees; after the highway was built, its neighboring community of the Treme slid into decline. Today, on one side of the highway, tourism fuels the economic engine of the city; on the other side, poverty has a firm grip on the population. Whereas advocates couldn’t block the highway’s construction a half-century ago, the 2009 master plan for the city of New Orleans calls for the removal of a section of the I-10 expressway.
In St. Louis, I-70 is vastly underused and severs a resurgent downtown from the Mississippi River. While plans are in the works to create a parklike platform over the highway, reconnecting the city with the Gateway Arch and the river, local advocacy groups such as City to River are calling for the highway to be replaced entirely by a boulevard.
In the Bronx, the Sheridan Expressway and other highways tear apart neighborhoods, which has prompted a coalition of community-based organizations to propose a way to replace roadways with economic development and environmental remediation. In this, one of the poorest sections of the country, the annual cost of a car (now nearly $9,000) is too high for many locals. Here, the highways don’t connect people; they separate the South Bronx from much of New York City.
Indeed, highways pay no tax to the cities in which they’re located. They serve people from out of town more than the locals who have to put up with them. They carry noisy, polluting cars and encourage storm-water runoff, with impunity. And they’re breaking down, piece by piece, requiring billions of dollars to fix.
Some cities have begun removing highways from the downtowns of cities. Famously, Boston replaced its above-ground highway with a tunnel. The Big Dig cost more than $15 billion and took a decade of construction, not to mention years of planning. Although this project was too costly and time-consuming to be repeated, few locals would deny the transformation of downtown Boston. San Francisco and New York both created boulevards where elevated highways once stood.
In both cities, the surrounding neighborhoods saw their property values soar (by 300 percent in San Francisco) and car traffic plummet (by half in New York).
As for the question of what happens to all the cars once a highway is replaced with a boulevard, evidence shows time and again that removing highways actually reduces the number of cars on the road. After the West Side Highway was replaced, traffic in that section of Manhattan dropped from 140,000 to 95,000 vehicles per day. Traffic is one of the best-known examples of induced demand; the more roads, the more people will use them.
In the coming decades, we will be faced with a series of questions: Should we invest billions more in highways, or should we target opportunities to replace highways with more financially and environmentally sustainable transportation options? If we don’t take this turning point seriously, will we be stuck with 1950s infrastructure in the middle of the 21st century? Knowing what we know about climate change, the resurgence of core cities, and the decreasing rates of car ownership, are highways the right investment for the country?
During this moment of partisan discord, there is no government standing steadfastly behind any infrastructure investment. And yet the goals from 1956—to move people and goods, to contribute to our metropolitan economies, to ensure the safety of the country—are no less urgent. Without the courage to adjust our infrastructure system, we risk failing in all these goals. Fortunately, for highways, there’s an easy opening—we have to repair these roads one way or another. Why make the same mistakes again?