Atlantic Cities

The Death Row of Urban Highways

The Death Row of Urban Highways
Flickr/WSDOT

Even in the early years of America's highway construction craze, a few people recognized the folly of placing major roads through the hearts of cities. In her 1970 book Superhighways - Superhoax, Helen Leavitt famously wrote that Dwight Eisenhower, the president who signed the Interstate Highway Act into law, didn't realize these roads would run through downtown districts until he saw construction of Interstate 95 in Washington, D.C. Officials looked into relocating the system's urban highways, but by then it was too late.

Apocryphal or not, the story offers little solace to current city residents. In cities across the country, highway-placement decisions of yesterday continue to impact life today. The ghosts of the interstate era still linger in New Haven's Route 34 Connector, for instance, which has bifurcated the downtown district for more than half a century. Just a few days ago, Matt Yglesias examined the difference between Paris, a city with no downtown highway obstructions, and Minneapolis, one with several. In the case of the latter, highways beget corruption of the city core: they make it less pleasant to live downtown, at the very same time they make it easier to live farther away.

We now know what they didn't in Eisenhower's day: it's possible to remove highways from city centers without ruining either the city or the highway. In fact, both can emerge stronger than before, as they did when Embarcadero Freeway in San Francisco was replaced with an inviting waterfront boulevard. Many other cities now hope to duplicate that success. Earlier this fall the Urban Land Institute released a list of ten urban highways whose days are numbered. Many of these usual suspects have appeared on similar lists released by the Congress for the New Urbanism over the past few years. Moving east to west across the country, here's a look at ten roads that may not be cutting through cities much longer, as well as some of the plans that might replace them.

Eric Jaffe is a contributing writer to The Atlantic Cities and the author of A Curious Madness (2014) and The King's Best Highway (2010). He lives in New York. All posts »

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