Growing up on the north side of Charlotte, North Carolina, Anthony Foxx remembers the geography of his childhood being defined by a quiet neighborhood of ranch-style houses, well-kept lawns—and an imposing brick wall at the end of the block.
On the other side of the wall, there ran a high-speed on-ramp that connected the eastbound lanes of Interstate 85 with the southbound lanes of Interstate 77, two highways that cradled the northeast corner of the neighborhood. For Foxx, the wall, the highways, and the hum of traffic blended into the background. He knew nothing different. Over time, he came to understand they weren't part of the neighborhood at all but more like interloping house guests.
"Those freeways were there to carry people through my neighborhood, but never to my neighborhood," said Foxx, now Secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation.
It wasn't always that way. When his grandparents purchased the house in 1961, Crestdale Drive connected with surrounding streets. But soon after, fresh transportation dollars provided by the federal government flowed into Charlotte. In support of America's maturing automobile age, engineers placed the path of new highways and their accessory roads through the established neighborhood. Construction crews amputated Crestdale Drive on one side to make room. It now ends in a small traffic circle.
Next door, a high-speed thoroughfare was born. It was as foreign an object in the neighborhood as a meteor that had hurtled in from the sky. Houses were razed. Local businesses relocated. Property values diminished.
"The corner store was gone, because the corner was gone," Foxx said.
That history of his family home left a lasting impression. Decisions that policymakers and transportation engineers make can enhance the fabric of cities—or destroy them. As he rose through the ranks as a member of Charlotte's city council and then as the city's mayor, he developed a strong interest in land-use cases and urban planning. Stories of city highways supplanting established, often minority, neighborhoods became all too familiar.
Now, in his twilight months as DOT secretary, Foxx is taking steps to undo the sins of the interstate's past and examining how some of the neighborhoods torn apart by highway planners a half-century ago can now be healed. Last month, Foxx unveiled the design challenge, a program to identify areas, like the neighborhood where he grew up, where roads have cordoned off communities and offer potential solutions.
"Deeply embedded in our infrastructure are the values of past eras that accepted disconnections and that accepted a view of our country as folks who were in and folks who were out," Foxx said. "I think we've got to have a different idea in the 21st century."
Over the past four weeks, federal officials have visited four cities—Philadelphia, Nashville, Minneapolis, and Spokane, Washington—to gather input from urban planners, architects, and community members and help them envision ways to reconnect neighborhoods dominated by highways. Depending on whether those roads are above grade, already at street level, or below grade, those visions could include building parks on top of roads, lowering elevated structures to ground level, or removing the roads altogether.
City Highways Have Barricaded Neighborhoods
In Spokane, Interstate 90 cuts the city in half, separating the heart of the city from the working-class streetcar suburb of East Central Spokane. In Nashville, Interstate 40 was built in the 1960s through the heart of predominantly African-American neighborhoods; city officials now want to reconnect them. In Minneapolis, the construction of Interstate 94 divided the Rondo neighborhood, another minority community. And in Philadelphia, city officials say, the Interstate 676 spur has "impeded" three neighborhoods from receiving economic investments and prevented residents from accessing local parks.
When DOT officials visited last week, Philadelphia mayor Jim Kenney wrote, "They took the time to walk the crosswalks and to hear the noise of I-676 and to feel the hard line that it draws through the community."
Unlike the , a recent DOT competition that ultimately awarded $40 million in federal funds to Columbus, Ohio, to implement an innovative network of connected transportation options, there's no funding attached to the Every Place Counts challenge. At this stage, the support is only in technical planning, though transportation officials say they'll help communities pursue funds for implementation.
But both competitions highlight the way federal officials are examining transportation's role in revitalizing urban cores and helping some of the country's poorest residents gain access to health care, education, public spaces, and better jobs. In the case of Every Place Counts, the program is analyzing how transportation contributed to these problems in the first place.
The idea of reconnecting urban communities displaced by highways isn't new. The first removal occurred in Portland, Oregon, more than 40 years ago. At first, few projects followed. But successful projects in San Francisco and Boston helped quell fears that severe traffic gridlock would ensue in the highways' absence, and the economic-development prospects in newfound urban land are getting hard to ignore. Currently, the DOT's interest and Foxx's candid comments are further signals that highway removal is gaining favor.
"The writing is on the wall," said Ian Lockwood, an urban designer with Toole Design Group, who served as the city transportation planner in West Palm Beach, Florida, and led an effort in Chattanooga, Tennessee, to transform an urban highway spur into a park. "These things are going to change. The question is, 'Which generation is going to do it?' It's an honest question. Are we the ones, or do we need to wait until your kids or grandkids do it?" Increasingly, the answer is that it will be done now.
Removal Often Cheaper Than Repairs
Advocates have no shortage of principled reasons to rid cities of their tangled ribbons of roads; but removal and capping discussions are in vogue because of more practical considerations.
Sixty years ago, when President Eisenhower signed the , the federal government contributed an initial $25 billion toward the construction of more than 41,000 new miles of roadways. The law encouraged growth: Federal officials paid for 90 percent of project costs, asking state and local governments only to come up with the remaining 10 percent. Today, those dollars have largely disappeared. The federal Highway Trust Fund, largely fueled by a gasoline tax, teetered on the verge of insolvency for years as lawmakers provided only short-term fixes until last December. America has largely stopped funding and fixing its infrastructure.
And when highways reach the end of their useful life, it is often cheaper to extract them than it is to replace or repair them.
Cost was the overriding factor when San Francisco decided to replace the Embarcadero's elevated freeway, which straddled the city's northeast border. This project began quite by accident. Voters rejected the idea of removing the highway in a 1987 vote by nearly a two-to-one margin. But the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake damaged the structure less than three years later. Faced with a $49 million bill to remove the structure or a $69.5 million one to replace it, city officials .
Starting in 1991, it took the city a decade to replace the elevated highway with a six-lane boulevard surrounded by a 25-foot-wide pedestrian promenade. Available housing in the area increased by 51 percent in the five years after crews completed the project, and property values in the adjacent neighborhoods increased 300 percent, conducted by the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP).
Milwaukee's Park East: A Tipping Point
If the Embarcadero project showcased the possibilities offered by highway removal, the demonstrated it'd be more complicated to win support when the need couldn't be attributed to a force of nature.
Construction on the elevated Park East Freeway, initially intended as a three-mile link between Lake Michigan and Milwaukee's southern suburbs, began in 1971. One year later, it stopped. Both community opposition and construction cost overruns left the project at a standstill with only one phase finished, an elevated one-mile spur from Interstate 43 to downtown. More than a decade passed.
With the project in perpetual flux, voters elected John Norquist mayor in 1988, in no small part based on his opposition to completing the highway. In fact, he aspired to tear the first phase down. Opposition formed in every corner. Business leaders feared motorists would no longer reach their stores. Commuters feared ensuing gridlock. A regional planning commission loathed the idea. The Wisconsin Department of Transportation, Norquist recalls, warned the city would be forced to repay federal funding that paid for the first phase.
"People said I hated cars and was trying to create congestion, and that kind of stuff," said Norquist, who had already rejected other planned freeways in the city before they grew beyond blueprints. "Those freeways would have killed Milwaukee. The city would have a much lower population now if they built those freeways. They would have been deadly, like Detroit."
A 1991 renewal of the Federal-Aid Highway Act gave municipalities broader latitude on how to spend transportation dollars. If there had been any concern before that Milwaukee would need to repay dollars, there was none now. It took almost another decade of wrangling with opponents, but removal of Park East began in 2002 and was completed in 2003. Demolition, as in the case of the Embarcadero, was cheaper than the alternative. It cost $25 million, with the federal government paying 80 percent of those expenses. Completing and maintaining the freeway would have cost an additional $50 to $80 million, according to the Milwaukee Planning Department.
Between 2001 and 2006, the average assessed land values in the Park East area grew by 180 percent, according to the ITDP, and the average assessed land values in the Park East Tax Increment District grew by 45 percent in the same period. Streets reconnected on the local traffic grid. Developers created three new neighborhoods with mixed-use purposes on the land, which brought in roughly $250 million in new investments.
Milwaukee served as the inspiration for other projects.
New York began tearing down a portion of the West Side Highway in 2001, Chattanooga replaced its Riverfront Parkway in 2004, San Francisco tore down another freeway in 2005, and Seattle extracted the Alaskan Way Viaduct in 2011. Capping projects, in which highway corridors are relocated to below-grade levels so the at-grade land can be redeveloped, also are gaining popularity, though they carry significantly more expense.
Boston's famous Big Dig put the city's main traffic artery into a tunnel and opened more than 300 acres of space above for commercial and residential development and public space when it was completed in 2007. Between 2009 and 2012, Dallas built , a 5.2-acre public space on top of Woodall Rogers Freeway.
Beyond the four cities examined by the DOT, active proposals for teardowns or caps are underway in Louisville, Austin, Syracuse, and New Haven, Connecticut. Others are eyed in places like Buffalo, Providence, Tampa, Baltimore, and Charlotte. .
"The idea of tearing these things down is still pretty new, and for a lot of people, still pretty weird," said Norquist, who became chief executive officer of the (CNU), an organization now consulting on the Every Place Counts challenge, after his tenure as mayor ended in 2004. "Their first reaction is, 'You want to do what?' So it's going to take time."
Inevitably, the same arguments arise: Without the highways, traffic will come to a standstill. Businesses will suffer.
Traffic Horrors Haven't Arrived
For the record, Norqust doesn't hate cars. He hates traffic.
"The love affair with the automobile has a lot to do with context," he said. "In the ads the car companies show, you drive down a boulevard, and people can see your beautiful car. You can't do that on a superhighway when you're sitting in traffic."
Curbing traffic and the ever-expanding infrastructure dedicated to handling it is one reason he's been in favor of highway teardowns. Greater highway capacity begets more traffic, a phenomenon traffic engineers call "induced demand." Build it, and they will come. But building roadways to accommodate more and more cars, he says, is akin to loosening a belt buckle to solve obesity.
In their peak years, 61,000 vehicles used the Embarcadero Freeway and 93,000 drove along the Central Freeway in San Francisco every day. Roughly 31,000 used the Park East Freeway in Milwaukee, and about 25,000 utilized Harbor Drive in Portland. In Seattle, 100,000 took the . On its face, the premise that so many cars could seamlessly shift elsewhere seems absurd.
Yet it is clear from the experiences of those cities and others that Carmaggedon-like traffic spikes never materialized. Less certain is what happened to all the cars.
The changes more than halved the number of motorists driving along the replacement streets. The number of vehicles on the Central Freeway fell to 45,000, and approximately 26,000 drivers per day used the Embarcadero, a drop of 57 percent. Drivers along the Embarcadero reported a "slight increase in travel times," , while traffic times actually decreased at three of 10 measurement spots on Octavia Boulevard, the Central Freeway's replacement.
Where did the rest of the traffic go? Public transit wasn't as viable an alternative as many envisioned. Only 3 percent of drivers on the Embarcadero report switching to public transportation after the project was complete, according to the ITDP. Some drivers either changed their scheduled activities or eliminated trips altogether, according to a 1998 study from University College in London, which examined 60 worldwide cases in which highway capacity was removed.
A said the traffic patterns required further study, but it suggested city traffic grids had been underutilized in the presence of the freeways and, in their removal, proved resilient in absorbing and dispersing large amounts of traffic. Highways offer value in carrying vehicles long distances at high rates of speed, but they're inefficient in a city environment, where bottlenecks form around on-ramps and exits. Wider use of city-street grids negate this problem.
"A freeway dumping into the grid is like getting a fire hose when you want a drink of water," Norquist said. "It concentrates the traffic. You don't want to concentrate the traffic."
Beyond that functional disconnect, there's a greater one. In the 1950s, transportation officials extolled the interstates as a means of spreading wealth to the fledgling suburbs. That didn't happen. The highways didn't spread prosperity; they exported it entirely. And while they eroded tax bases from the city, they siphoned away something else. Foxx said city dwellers lost their dignity.
"They paid a heavy price for the system we depend on every day," he said. "But we're all still paying a price for this."
In that sense, the ongoing discussions about highway removals and relocations aren't about traffic and transportation. They're about those people. Every Place Counts may be a fledgling idea, but it represents a fundamental shift in thinking in a country where growing percentages of the population live in urban areas. For the first time in the 60 years since the interstates arrived, needs of commuters and suburbanites are holding less sway. Decisions regarding America's cities are increasingly prioritized for the people who live in them.
This article originally appeared on .