Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and technology. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
The U.S. has no shortage of urban interstates ripe for removal, and some tear-downs are already underway. But planners should tread carefully when “reconnecting” neighborhoods.
Built in the federal highway-building heyday of the early 1960s, Buffalo’s Scajaquada Expressway offered commuters an unusually scenic high-speed trip into the city: The highway’s planners routed the four-lane thoroughfare right through the middle of Delaware Park, the crown jewel of an ambitious city-wide network of parks and parkways designed by celebrated landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead and his partner Calvert Vaux in the 19th century.
This worked out fine for drivers, somewhat less so for park users: The highway split the park in two, forcing joggers and strollers to share the bucolic space with an impenetrable wall of high-speed traffic. Calls to remove or reroute the highway went nowhere, until a horrific car crash in 2015 inspired lawmakers and activists to finally take action, as CityLab’s Sarah Goodyear reported at the time. Speed limits came down, and now construction is set to begin on a park-friendlier “Scajaquada Boulevard.”
This will hopefully serve as a more-hopeful ending for what is one of the nation’s most ill-considered highways, according to a new report by the Congress for the New Urbanism.
Freeways Without Futures is the fifth in a biannual(-ish) series of reports on the top contenders for multilane tear-downs coast to coast. This hit list of bad roads serves as a roll-call of reasons why highways can be so corrosive in urban settings: Think blocked-off waterfronts, asthma-inducing pollution, and disparate racial impacts on home values and transportation access. Highway foes will be pleased to know that many arteries on the list (which was selected by experts using various criteria, including age, design, cost savings, and potential for redevelopment and community improvement) are already on their way to removal.
Upstate New York residents will find their region well represented. In addition to the Scajaquada, Rochester’s below-grade Inner Loop (“designed to wrap like a noose around downtown,” according to the report) and Syracuse’s sunken stretch of 1-81 (which “cuts like a knife through the heart” of downtown) make the list. Both highways bulldozed historic neighborhoods of color and kick-started downtown population purges. Demolishing and replacing them with wide, tree-lined avenues—as community groups and planners have proposed—could spur economic revitalization around them, according to the report. NYSDOT is currently considering such an approach for Syracuse, and thanks to a TIGER grant, the Inner Loop is already on its way getting filled in. Further east, Trenton, New Jersey’s waterfront-blocking, under-used Route 29 also makes CNU’s cut, and its demise, too, is being plotted.
The report also shines a light on several much-hated highways in California, including Pasadena’s Route 710, Oakland’s I-980, and San Francisco’s I-280 Spur. That last one would be SF’s first voluntary highway tear-down, if the city follows through on a study that examines replacing the spur with a leafy thoroughfare. Famously, the city accepted the damage from the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake as evidence of providential intervention and turned two other elevated highway spurs into street-level boulevards*; As the CNU points out, the I-280’s location near soon-to-be-electrified train tracks presents particularly sweet transit-oriented residential development opportunities.
Dallas’s two-mile stretch of I-345, which cuts off a historic black neighborhood, and Denver’s I-70 viaduct, which pumps pollution into working-class Latino neighborhoods, also rank as candidates for the wrecking ball. Respective state DOTs have been engaged in lengthy arbitrations about what to do with both of those aging highways, and in both cases, community groups have come forward with tear-down alternatives. They might win in Dallas; in Denver, it’s looking extremely unlikely.
CNU insists that now is the moment to take highway removals seriously, as many of these goliaths of mid-century infrastructure are approaching the end of their useful lifetimes. “With tough decisions on repair and investment looming, American cities have a window of opportunity to reverse decades of decline and disinvestment in these neighborhoods and invest in healthier infrastructure for their communities,” the report reads. At least up until now, there’s been support for such efforts at the federal level; Anthony Foxx, the Secretary of Transportation under President Obama, broadly supported infrastructure fixes aimed at historic disparities.
But some highways on this list are here to stay—and even expand. State highway engineers still love straight, wide roads, and this inertia cannot be underestimated. At the very least, some state DOTs are becoming more sensitive to impacted communities. Lately, “cap parks” have emerged as compromise solutions that restitch neighborhoods bifurcated by highways by literally covering up their air and noise impacts. Denver’s much-protracted fight over I-70 came to a decisive moment last week, when the Federal Highway Administration approved Colorado’s plans to lower the highway below grade, widen lanes from six to ten, and put a grassy “cap” over a small section of it. It will adjoin a local schoolyard. The I-70 saga offers one illustration of the challenges in such highway facelifts: Many residents love the prospect of a grassy cap park, while others fear that hiding the highway beneath it could draw in a tide of gentrification and displacement.
What would happen if the interstate were torn down entirely, as CNU suggests? There are dramatic examples of success; San Francisco, Milwaukee, and Portland have shown that “highway removal is viable—saving tax dollars, adding value to local tax bases, and significantly improving neighborhoods without choking traffic,” as the report states. The economic windfall can indeed be staggering: After Milwaukee removed its Park East elevated freeway, average assessed land values in its old footprint grew by over 180 percent, and a Fortune 500 company set up headquarters there.
Other cities, like Boston, have dug and highway-capped their way to congestion relief and economic winnings. Still, those examples don’t offer much instruction in the way of displacement impacts, since those projects were located in high-value, downtown real estate markets where “redevelopment” doesn’t necessarily mean kicking out existing residents.
Of course, this is not to say that highways should stay: These roads never belonged in cities in the first place. But it seems that efforts to help poor communities by removing the very infrastructure that’s kept them there should tread very carefully. A thoughtful strategy to preserve affordable housing—especially when “redevelopment” prospects are alluring—may be in order. Otherwise, “reconnecting” divided neighborhoods may wind up pushing them further away.
*CORRECTION: A previous version of this story inaccurately stated that San Francisco’s highway spurs collapsed as a result of the earthquake.