No, not really.

I think this is probably the third article I’ve read in the last month asking: “Are Freeways Doomed?” “Is THIS the post-freeway age?” “Are Urban areas moving on?”


All of these pieces work like any “bogus trend” piece – string together a few anecdotes, posit a trend, quote a couple authoritative-sounding people, call it a day. And indeed, more than one freeway has been removed in this country. But there’s no trend toward de-freewayization; quite the opposite in fact. What’s missing, then, is the underlying reasons for the changes.

Fundamentally, there are two reasons for US freeway closures:

(i) The freeway was replaced by a newer and bigger freeway, built to better design standards, at which time the old facility was abandoned.

(ii) The freeway  was part of a link in a grand master plan, that was truncated by the freeway revolts of the 70’s. In other words, it was pre-obsolesced by non-completion of the network.

Some examples:

Tom McCall Waterfront Park, Portland, Oregon

Berkeley’s Preservation Institute says: “When Portland decided to tear down the Harbor Drive freeway, the city made one of key decisions that transformed it into a national model for effective city planning.” Well… maybe. What actually happened was that they had one freeway built to 1942 standards, and in 1964 they opened up another freeway half-a-mile away built to 1964 standards. That was I-5 – the Eastbank Freeway – and it’s still truckin’ almost 50 years later.

Now it’s true that some traffic engineers raised their eyebrows at the idea. Even if Harbor Drive only had 24k ADT (which is well down into arterial territory), it was still predicted the city would grow. And considering how slowly traffic crawls across the Marquam Bridge today, perhaps there was probably a grain of truth in the forecast. But what the engineers didn’t predict was that Portland would soon enact a strict downtown height and FAR ordinance in an effort to ward off further skyscrapers in favor of the existing Glazed Terra Cotta building stock. This substantially slowed office development downtown and pushed the region’s employment base into a more suburban, office-park-dominated form. In fact, low-rise office parks are the very first thing you see when you cross the UGB into Greater Portland, whether you’re coming in on 26 East or I-5 North.

Midcentury traffic engineers thought Downtown office space would keep expanding, like any American city. Instead the downtown office market was almost frozen in time. But what really cinched the deal was when they went and built yet another freeway less than a mile away. Sandwiched by parallel north-south freeways of (then) modern design, serving a downtown whose skyline would forever be anchored by the same two buildings, there would never be a need for the widened and straightened Harbor Drive.

Park East Freeway, Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Milwaukee is a case where the infrastructure was obsolesced by the freeway revolts. In the original plan for Milwaukee’s freeway system, there were two north-south trunk highways – one inland, and one along the lake. While the inland route got built as planned (and is now signed as I-94 and I-43), the Lakefront route was only half finished. Thus the Park East Freeway – which, as designed, would’ve been an important connector distributing traffic between Lakefront and Inland routes – was rendered a fairly truncated spur. Not really necessary in its original form. And while Milwaukee gets New Urbanist props for killing the spur, it’s instructive to note what they replaced it with.

A brand-new surface street, striped for four lanes but obviously designed for six, got put right in its place. Now, from my perspective, as an infrastructure guy, I think this is pretty sweet. The original freeway was designed primarily as a connector (with distribution functions secondary), so it didn’t utilize a lot of the Milwaukee grid. A proper downtown highway spur should crap traffic out onto every surface street in sight, like 527 does. Thus the new surface street does a better job at fulfilling its primary raison d’etre, since it was actually designed for that purpose. It’s also more amenable to condos than an elevated highway is, which can be good for property values – and good for the local government, if they don’t blow it all on 20- and 30-year tax abatements like PDX does.

But a green eco-symbol this is not; it’s just the engineers replacing a middling facility with a better one.

Claiborne Expressway, New Orleans, Louisiana

This one is actually still there,  although there’s a good chance it’ll disappear in the next decade. If you’ve read Divided Highways you’ve read the tales of Claiborne’s vibrant business and music scene before the coming of the elevated. The pictures I’ve seen show a mostly auto-oriented strip of gas stations and buy-here-pay-here lots. But these also have their charm, and I’m sympathetic to the argument. Perhaps it shouldn’t have been put there.

What we do know for certain is the Claiborne didn’t last ten years before it had been supplanted with I-610, which cut several miles off the route for through-traffic. At this point the Claiborne became essentially just a spur, albeit one masquerading as a through route.

Even just as a spur, there would be a pretty decent argument for the Claiborne’s continued existence… except that the downtown NOLA office market isn’t exactly booming. In fact the consensus is, during times when a surface-street Claiborne would be slow, all the extra traffic could just be routed up the Ponchartrain, which is a solid eight lanes with full-width shoulders and feeder roads. Even CNU proposes that they add a direct connector for this purpose.


You can find more examples wherever you look. The Embarcadero Freeway in San Francisco was supposed to have been a vital shortcut between the Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate, providing a downtown through route to complement the east bay’s 580. In fact they only got it about 1/3rd built before they ran into affluent neighborhoods and the rest of it got canceled. The truncated version lasted until an earthquake killed it, at which point it was deemed not worth saving. But what if they’d finished it?

It’s not too hard to figure out what would’ve happened, since basically the same freeway got constructed in Seattle – the Alaskan Way Viaduct. When that freeway got wounded in a quake, they just patched it up with duct tape and JB Weld and set about planning Seattle’s Big Dig as a replacement. If the Viaduct had been cut off halfway – say, if it never went north of the Seneca exit – well, it’d probably have been torn down by now and replaced with a tourist trolley. Conversely, if the Embarcadero had been completed as designed, San Francisco would have almost certainly embarked on its own “Big Dig.”

The West Side Highway in New York doesn’t really count, since New York was broke in the 70’s. The highway collapsed because there wasn’t enough money to do even preventative maintenance. And certainly not enough to rebuild. In fact, they didn’t even tear it down for another 15 years – it just sat up there, closed to traffic. Yet even this gets spun as some sort of “cities transcending the freeway” narrative.

The Freeway Revolts Are Over

Assuming our economy doesn’t completely implode in the next five years, we’ll continue to build newer and better highways that obsolesce old ones. And when that happens, those old ones will make great spots for redevelopment. If I was Houston, I’d seriously be looking at I-10 between Crockett and Jensen – which has, by far, the worst geometry of any of the downtown freeways – and moving it about a half a mile north, opening up more of the north side of the Bayou to development.

What’s not going to happen anymore are the truncated spurs, the freeways rendered obsolete by revolts. It’s not because the concerns over freeways have gone away. It’s just that engineers have become sensitive to them.

The master freeway plans of the 40’s and 50’s were models of rationality and efficiency. But they didn’t really account for anything besides rationality and efficiency. Houston largely followed theirs and it’s one of the reasons the place is so easily navigable today. But the original plans also sliced right through parks, forests, wetlands, rich people neighborhoods. And thus the revolts.

It’s arguable that we’ve lost something. Newer highway alignments are no longer quite the paragons of scientific virtue they were in the drafting easel era. In a smaller, newer city like Tulsa, you can see the difference between 50’s and 60’s alignment studies versus modern ones.

I look at the alignment for SH 130 south of Austin and I’m amazed at the number of squiggles needed to put a highway through flat, relatively undeveloped terrain. But while this design methodology doesn’t necessarily result in better highways, it does result in highways that will be built.

And this is where the post-freeway era ends. There’s a very limited supply of highways that are “overbuilt” as a result of their connections never materializing. New construction isn’t going to provide us with any more because they’ll detour and slosh around anything that might have put up a fight 40 years ago. As time goes on, the pace of freeway removal will *slow*, not increase.

Clickbait article writers, take note.

7 thoughts on “No, not really.”

  1. Awesome. More of this. I have a 50+ min commute from Missouri City up to Little York at I-45, I think about highways A LOT.

  2. You have correctly identified the common factor in nearly all the freeway removal projects I am familiar with: they are bypassed, truncated stumps. I think the only person trumping this trend up into wholesale removal of existing freeways is you. Makes a nice premise for your post. The trend I see happening is more urban areas and residents examining transportation projects from other perspectives besides their ability to move lots of cars quickly.

    Oh, and the connection to the Golden Gate Bridge is the oh so very expensive rebuild of Doyle Drive as Presidio Parkway.

  3. While I did link to an article trumping this trend up in the first paragraph, I nonetheless appreciate the meta-ness of criticizing my rejoinder to bogus trend pieces as, itself, a bogus trend piece.

    Also, I really don’t know what it is with SF infrastructure projects. Doyle, the east span Bay Bridge replacement, BART to SFO, BART to anywhere else… it’s like the 30% cost estimate is an Olympic record, to be broken through, and then broken again.

  4. Well, there still exist a lot of these stumps, and you’re right that the livable streets advocates focus on those first. For example, in New York, the next target is the Sheridan Expressway stump. In Rochester, there’s push for reducing a segment of the Inner Loop to an arterial: it’s not a stump, but because Rochester’s population has been declining for 50 years, it’s practically empty. The US has the freeway network you’d expect of a country with a billion people rather than 300 million people, which means there are a lot of these not-really-necessary roads.

    But yes, a lot of the upgrades are now marketed as freeway removals. In Providence, they recently realigned I-195, upgrading standards and also moving a neighborhood near downtown to the right side of the highway; they’re now debating what to do with it. But if you read the booster publications, they talk about it as a freeway removal and as a livability project, and only mention in passing that the road engineers considered the old alignment obsolete.

  5. You never talk about the key issue: Are cities more livable and more convenient if they are built around freeways or if they are built to accommodate transit and pedestrians. I think you avoid this question because you know it is a losing argument for you. If you thought about this question, you would change your site’s name to “Keep Houston Ugly and Polluted.”

    New York’s West Side Highway is a mainline freeway, not just a stub, but you claim that it does not count. In fact, it was not rebuilt because the Westway rebuild was opposed by environmentalists for so many years that the city finally realized that it was doing fine without a replacement.

    You completely ignore the removal of a mainline freeway in Seoul, Korea.

    And you distort what we at the Preservation Institute say about Portland. You quote us as saying that freeway removal was one of the key decisions that transformed the city, but you don’t mention the other key decisions. Let me quote from our article:

    Between 1970 and 1980, Portland made a number of decisions that transformed the city by moving from automobile-oriented development to pedestrian and transit oriented development. The most important were:

    Pioneer Square: In January, 1970 the Portland City Planning Commission voted to deny a permit to build a 12 story parking structure on Pioneer Courthouse Square. The site had been occupied by a two-story parking structure, and it is now an attractive, pedestrian oriented plaza.

    Harbor Drive: In May, 1974, the state of Oregon closed Harbor Drive so it could use the land to build Tom McCall Waterfront Park, which would open up the waterfront to pedestrians, creating an important amenity for downtown.

    Mount Hood Freeway: In summer, 1974, the Portland City Council killed the Mount Hood Freeway and instead used the freeway’s federal funding to build the downtown transit mall, eastside light rail, and other transit projects. This freeway was part of a plan to criss-cross Portland with freeways, drawn up by Robert Moses, and killing it also killed all the freeways that were to follow.

    Comprehensive Land Use Plan: On October 16, 1980, the City Council adopted the Portland Comprehensive Land Use Plan, which established an urban growth boundary to stop sprawl and concentrated new development around public transportation stops.

    The comprehensive plan is best known of these decisions. But tearing down Harbor Drive and replacing it with Tom McCall Waterfront Park was also a key step in transforming Portland from a freeway-oriented city to a pedestrian oriented city.

    Houston would do well to consider a similar transformation.

  6. Are cities more livable and more convenient if they are built around freeways or if they are built to accommodate transit and pedestrians

    This is a false dichotomy. Obviously, it’s possible to occupy one extreme or the other, but it’s just as possible to have both.

    The prime US example is US-59 in Houston, east of Shepherd. This is a *massive* traffic artery, 10 lanes plus a reversible HOV. But it’s trenched out 20 feet below grade, walls covered in ivy, and every little residential street overpasses it in a graceful arch – an overpass about every 700 feet.

    With so many overpasses, there’s no interruption in the local street grid, or the the low-stress bike routes and dog-walk circuits that depend on that grid. And with the construction of Light Rail in Richmond Avenue, the walkshed for the LRT stops will extend across 59 on all those little overpasses.

    I can tell you, as a former Montrose resident, with a Montrose-and-Heights-heavy social circle, 59 has never presented a barrier to ANY of us, on bikes or otherwise. This is what it looks like to ride across, and this is what it looks like to drive in. It’s a beautiful run, a modern-day hanging gardens of Babylon. You emerge into the towers of Greenway or Midtown feeling that you live in a modern, optimistic city, full of promise.

    You guys could have this sort of beautiful, functional highway infrastructure in Portland, if you wanted it. Y’all certainly make some very nice-looking light rail stops. But in order to get to that point, you’d need to drop the cars-vs-bikes-vs-trains politicking and adopt an attitude of “a growing, prosperous city is going to need all of the above.” You know, like Houston.

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