Tear it down to make traffic flow! The urban freeway paradox

Embarcadero BeforeEmbarcadero After

San Fran capitalized on damage from the Loma Prieta Earthquake to remove the Embarcadero Freeway. Before and after at Market Street

This is part one of a series. Click here for part two on Seattle’s Alaskan Way Viaduct.

Take a peek at the road atlas or Google Maps for any major American city and there’s usually a common denominator: interstate highways cutting straight through the center of the city fabric, built generally with no regard for neighborhood boundaries or the effect hulking piles of steel and concrete might have on the surrounding neighborhood. On the flip side, look at a map of some major European cities like Brussels, London, or Barcelona: all of the high-capacity roads comparable to our interstates end on the fringe, or near the downtown.

Back here in America, from New York to Kansas City to San Francisco, urban freeways isolate neighborhoods from one another, cut off waterfronts from the people, and make it possible to drive through a city and, as Charles Kuralt famously said about the interstate system, “see absolutely nothing at all.”

Back in the 40’s and 50’s when many of those interstates were built (with the Feds paying 90 percent, the states only paying 10 percent, and the locals paying zip), the stated mission was simple: Get as many cars as possible from the edges of the city to the center — and directly through it if necessary. Ensuring the quality of life within the city wasn’t anywhere near the top of the list — it wasn’t even considered.

Today, people from coast to coast have awakened to the impact that these highways have on their beloved cities and downtowns, and through some amazing stories of divine intervention, citizen involvement, and visionary leaders, some cities have even removed their freeways, beginning the process of making their cities whole again.

In that light, the Congress for the New Urbanism and the Center for Neighborhood Technology — both SGA coalition members — have teamed up to lead an initiative to remove urban freeways and reconnect neighborhoods and cities to each other, to their waterfronts, and to everything else that was cut in two over the last 50 years.

From the CNU website:

Is there an aging highway running near your downtown that disrupts the street grid and keeps property values down? Given the “success” of America’s twentieth century highway-building era, your city probably has one of these roads. Often along waterfronts, the highways cut huge swaths across our cities, decimating neighborhoods and reducing quality of life for city residents.

Cities all around the world are replacing urban highways with surface streets, saving billions of dollars on transportation infrastructure and revitalizing adjacent land with walkable, compact development. Learn more about our Highways-to-Boulevards Initiative and the current battles residents are taking on in Seattle and Buffalo.

Do you see potential for your city’s highway to be replaced with a surface street and a connected street grid? Please fill out the Top Teardown Survey to tell us about the highway and the surrounding area.

The Congress for the New Urbanism and the Center for Neighborhood Technology are pulling together a national list of highways that are excellent candidates for the teardown model. With your input, this list will identify opportunities to offer less expensive, urban alternatives to the reconstruction of urban expressways.

Transportation models that support connected street grids, allow for more investment in transit, and revitalize urbanism will make reducing our greenhouse gas emissions that much more convenient — particularly as the U.S. evaluates its federal transportation and climate policy.

So don’t miss your chance to participate in the teardown survey and nominate that unsightly downtown interstate in your city for removal.

(SF left photo copyright Michael Kiesling, right photo copyright Charles Siegel — from the Preservation Institute’s “Removing Freeways” feature.)