Go Down, Moses

Go Down, Moses

Remember highways, those ribbons of concrete that in the 1940s and 50s looped together cities, states, and regions in much the same way as ocean liners connected America to Europe in the 20s and 30s? Once highways represented the country’s proudest infrastructure. Those days are over, as are the urban policies that allowed New York’s ultimate powerbroker Robert Moses, late in his heyday in the 60s, to ram roads (the bigger, the wider, the busier the better) through fragile communities, ripping the urban fabric to shreds for decades to come. Today’s urban thinking puts pedestrians before cars.

For Robert Moses, a mastermind in the dawning age of the car, four-wheel travel promised the world and then some. Highways were supposed to be the “lungs of the city”—and those concrete behemoths, once thought to be permanent fixtures in cities, would preserve his legacy. But what would Moses say today if he knew that major cities across the country now see highways as a root of blight and are considering taking down his creations? Half a century after the height of urban renewal, a national movement is set to try a new road to urban growth, reintegrating communities through dismantling the highways that were the focus of Moses’ life’s work.


“It’s about rebalancing now,” said New York City Department of Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan. “We’re looking for ways to reconsider highways to maximize their highest and best uses in light of today’s intensely urban settings, which are different from uses in earlier parts of the 20th century.”

Syracuse and Buffalo on the East Coast, Seattle on the West Coast, and Louisville, Dallas, and Cleveland in between, are among the cities talking about removing highways from their downtowns. The convergence of all these campaigns is no coincidence. As the National Interstate Highway turns 55 this month, many highways are reaching the end of their design lives. Cities now face the option of investing billions in maintenance or getting rid of them altogether. It makes perfect sense in the current economic climate, says John Norquist, the Milwaukee mayor who presided over the 2003 removal of Park East Freeway—a highway whose annual maintenance between $50 and $80 million would have cost twice as much as its demolition. But for Norquist, the current president of the Congress for New Urbanism, the end of the highway’s useful life was just an opportunity to end its damaging effects on pedestrian life and downtown real estate values. “If you look at the real estate near a freeway, almost always it’s degraded,” he said. “You get surface parking lots or buildings with high vacancy rates, no walking.”

Anti-highway sentiment is nothing new. In fact, the country is dotted with unfinished highway projects, from New York’s Sheridan Expressway to an extension of San Francisco’s Embarcadero Freeway, that were halted by public opposition. One of the watershed moments in the movement against highways was the campaign against one of Robert Moses’ most controversial proposals: the Lower Manhattan Expressway in New York, a ten-lane highway that would have razed the present-day neighborhoods of TriBeCa, Soho and Chinatown. Activist Jane Jacobs and local residents lobbied to defeat his proposal, ushering in what some would consider a new school of thought that emphasized neighborhood life and community input in urban planning.


The recent buzz about highway removal projects is another powerful testament to the reversal of Robert Moses and what post-war America accepted as good urban planning. Local officials are looking to demolish highways to end the blight they brought to the neighborhoods they run through, 60 years after cities first started putting them up in the name of progress and modernity. In New Orleans, community groups believe that replacing the stretch of Interstate 10 that runs above Claiborne Avenue—a once-thriving commercial corridor in the Treme neighborhood—with a boulevard would rid the city of an eyesore and promote economic development. The proposal has become central to rebuilding the city, included in both the Unified New Orleans Plan created for post-Katrina recovery and the city’s new master plan. Decades before the hurricane, the construction of I-10 in the 1950s precipitated Treme’s decline from one of the city’s wealthiest African-American neighborhoods to an area with high poverty and vacancy rates. The number of businesses on Claiborne Avenue fell 75 percent between 1960 and 2000, says the community organization Claiborne Corridor Improvement Coalition who commissioned the study from architects Waggonner & Ball working with Smart Mobility.

In New Orleans and elsewhere, removing highways is providing an opportunity to redress the racist urban renewal policies of the 20th century that impacted communities inhabited largely by minorities. In 1974, construction of Route 40 in West Baltimore demolished 700 homes and displaced 2,000 residents in a middle-class African American neighborhood. Demolition of Route 40, otherwise known as the infamous 1.4 mile “Highway to Nowhere,” began last fall. “Tearing down every last remnant of that ill-fated road will help heal the communities that have long been split by the portion of highway that we couldn’t stop,” said Senator Barbara Mikulski, who launched her decades-long political career rallying against the highway. Now, demolition will restore a street connection between two neighborhoods and make way for expanded station parking for an existing commuter rail line and a future light rail line for the city. “It’s not just a good land use solution or transportation solution, but it rights many past wrongs done to the communities that the highway runs through,” said Joan Byron, the policy director at the Pratt Center for Community Development in New York.

Byron also credits the re-emergence of cities for the growing movement against urban highways. The United Nations reported that more than half the world’s population lived in cities for the first time in history in 2007. “Affluent middle class people are moving back to cities,” Byron explained, “So land blighted by highways is now being valued differently.” In New York, pressure to cap the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, which forms a below-grade trench through Brooklyn Heights, Cobble Hill, Carroll Gardens, and Williamsburg, is mounting as more people move to the west side of the highway. Residents near the highway, which was built in the 1950s and 60s to connect the city’s boroughs, have contended with high asthma rates and noise pollution. Now, the city is exploring ways to make life near the highway less onerous, including covering the trench with a “green canopy” of acoustic and photovoltaic panels to reduce noise and generate electricity.


The most telling sign of the times was funding from the U.S. Department of Transportation for three highway removal projects last fall. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced $600 million for 75 infrastructure projects through TIGER II, a competitive grant program designed to promote livability and sustainability. The conversion of Route 34 in New Haven, Connecticut into a boulevard received $16 million. New Haven officials have long blamed the highway for stifling foot traffic downtown and choking downtown off from the rest of the city. Now, its removal will open up 11 acres to new real estate development for the city’s biotech boom and is part of larger efforts to create a pedestrian-friendly city, according to Bruce Alexander, vice president for New Haven and State Affairs. New Orleans and New York also received grants to study the potential teardowns of the Claiborne Expressway and the Sheridan Expressway in the Bronx.


A $1.5 million TIGER II grant will fund New York’s first study of alternative uses for the Sheridan. Opened in 1962, the 11⁄4 mile highway was originally intended to connect New York to New England, but it was never finished and now merely connects Bruckner Expressway and the Cross Bronx Expressway, which already intersect to the east. Local residents count the highway as one of numerous environmental injustices in the South Bronx, responsible for higher asthma rates, traffic congestion, and blocking access to the Bronx riverfront. It is a thoroughfare for truck drivers to Hunts Point, a major food distribution center for supermarkets in New York and New Jersey, but advocates of removal insist that the Sheridan’s low traffic volume—which amounts to 50,000 vehicles a day—justifies getting rid of it.

 “The design is dysfunctional for drivers, and it’s harmful for the community because it sits at the hub of retail and transportation for Amtrak and Metro North,” argued Byron, who has been working with neighborhood groups to campaign for the Sheridan’s removal for over 10 years. “There’s no rationale for keeping it.” In 1997, the New York Department of Transportation’s proposal to expand the Sheridan spurred local residents to action. Working with the Pratt Center and other community organizations, they developed an alternative plan that would remove the Sheridan, build access ramps to Hunts Point off the Bruckner Expressway to accommodate truck traffic, free up 13 acres for 1,500 units of housing, and connect 15 acres of open space to the Bronx River Greenway.


Byron called the TIGER grant for the city’s study “huge,” because states typically run their highways with little input from municipal governments and local communities. The study will integrate the Metropolitan Transit Authority, the Department of Parks, and the New York City Economic Development Corporation into the planning process, a decision that Byron predicts will make the state much more likely to favor the alternative plan.

For now, the plan remains the subject of debate between community members and businesses at Hunts Point, who are skeptical that access ramps can replace a highway that carries 15,000 trucks everyday without crippling congestion. “One of the biggest challenges has been explaining the different parts of the plan to business owners and making sure it works for them,” Byron said.

What happens to traffic when a major artery is removed is probably the biggest concern for most drivers, and legitimately so. Intuition would suggest that replacing highways with boulevards with stoplights and lower speed limits would make traffic even worse. But that’s not necessarily the case, says Tom Vanderbilt, author of Traffic: Why We Drive The Way We Do.

“The record seems to show that in many cases, when a highway segment is removed, the subsequent impact on traffic congestion and travel times has not been as dire as many would have predicted,” he said. Planners have consistently found that highway traffic demonstrates so-called “evaporated demand”—just as cars will come if there’s a new highway, the reverse is true when highways are removed.  “Traffic demand is elastic,” said Vanderbilt.


One of the most dramatic examples was Seoul’s removal of the Cheonggyecheon Freeway, a major highway that carried 168,000 vehicles a day, in 2002. Despite cries that the highway’s closure would produce chaos, adjustments to the downtown traffic system and the introduction of the city’s first rapid transit bus line were able to absorb excess traffic. Dr. Kee Yeon Hwang, one of the project’s key planners, told the Guardian, “As soon as we destroyed the road, the cars just disappeared and drivers changed their habits. A lot of people just gave up their cars. Others found a different way of driving. In some cases, they kept using their cars but changed their routes." The highway’s removal made room for the restoration of a four-mile stream that had run underneath the highway and an urban park that has become a point of pride for the city.

“This is not to say you can just eliminate any highway and magically ‘cure’ a traffic problem,” Vanderbilt cautions. “But certainly in the case of highways built through major urban centers, with proper planning and given enough travel alternatives, what were once considered vital arteries in cities like Seoul have been removed—and whatever negatives on the travel side may have arisen have arguably been paid back by benefits on the public space and quality of urban life side.” The closure of the elevated West Side Highway in New York City in the 1970s presented a similar case. Sam Schwartz was an engineer at the Department of Traffic, responsible for diverting traffic after the highway collapsed. “What I found out was that the traffic was able to take different paths,” he said in an interview for the website Street Films. “Things didn’t get worse on all the other routes that had to pick up the slack.” A new highway was slated to replace the old one, but public opposition delayed the project for 30 years until then-Governor Cuomo and Mayor Dinkins announced the construction of a surface-level boulevard adjacent to a new waterfront park along the Hudson River.

But even with proper planning, highway removals don’t always turn out the way advocates envision. Though it’s been hailed as one of the country’s first prominent highway removal projects, the demolition of Park East Freeway in 2003 hasn’t spurred downtown development as advocates had hoped. Demolition freed up 24 acres for development, but only the city-owned parcels—about ten percent of the land—have been sold to developers, while the county-owned parcels remain untouched. Norquist points to such new projects as a $54 million apartment tower that recently broke ground and a $175 million residential and retail development near the Milwaukee River as signs of progress. But county politics and strict regulations stand in the way of further transformation.

Indeed, the issue of highways—whether building or demolishing them—is a contentious one. It’s no surprise that Norquist got his start in politics as an anti-highway candidate running for the Wisconsin State Assembly in 1974. “I beat an incumbent who wanted to build a freeway right in the middle of a park designed by Olmstead’s son,” he recalled. The public revolt against highways in Wisconsin in the 1970s and 80s elected a block of anti-highway legislators who stopped plans for three highways.

Elected officials like Norquist and his colleagues aren’t common. Removing a highway is still a political risk in cities where most residents believe it would only slow traffic. Byron points to lack of courage among elected officials as one of the main barriers to highway removal projects. But in Seattle, Mayor Michael McGinn has taken a controversial stand against a proposed bi-level four-lane tunnel slated to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct, a major highway that must come down after sustaining damage in a 2001 earthquake. The debate has engaged everyone from drivers, who say they need a tunnel, and union workers to environmental groups and budget hawks opposed to the tunnel’s $3 billion price tag. After months of lawsuits and public debate, Seattle’s residents will finally vote on the tunnel this August. Whatever the outcome, the vote will be a powerful statement on the future of highways. And to be sure, other cities will be watching.