Atlantic Cities

The Death Row of Urban Highways, Part 3

Previous installments of the Death Row of Urban Highways looked at those roads still awaiting execution. This time we reflect on those whose time has already come and gone. A new report, published jointly by the Institute for Transportation and Development and EMBARQ, offers brief retrospectives of five urban roads from around the world whose removal (or, in one case, cancellation) illuminates "what can be done when a highway no longer makes sense." From waterfront parks to street-level boulevards to robust transit systems, the answer is: a lot.

Portland — Harbor Drive

In the late 1960s Oregon's highway department proposed to widen Harbor Drive, a four-lane highway along the Willamette River near downtown Portland. But opposition to the project was significant at the time, and the city instead decided to replace the road with a 37-acre waterfront park.

That effort, now known as the Tom McCall Waterfront Park after the governor who saw it through, led the way for a broader urban redevelopment plan that helped "expand the city’s tax base and encourage more compact and sustainable development," in the words of the new report. Since the park's creation in the 1970s Portland's downtown land values have increased more than 10 percent a year, on average. Meanwhile mobility hasn't suffered, as drivers simply shifted to adjacent interstates (5 and 405).

Image: Flickr user Greg_e under a Creative Commons License

San Francisco — The Embarcadero

The Embarcadero Freeway curled along the San Francisco waterfront for three decades before being weakened by the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989. Rather than rehabilitate the elevated freeway the city chose to replace it with a six-lane street-surface boulevard surrounded by a waterfront promenade. That decision became easier when, in the aftermath of the quake, many drivers switched to mass transit and "skeptics saw that the city was not gridlocked without the freeway," says the new report.

After the conversion more than 100 acres of waterfront property were freed for redeveloped, and property values in nearby neighborhoods have since increased 300 percent. The Rincon Hill area, previously cut off from other parts of the city by the freeway, has became much more attractive. While some drivers have reported a slightly increase in travel time since the closure of the freeway, local roads and public transportation absorbed a considerable share of the traffic load.

Image: United States Geological Survey via Wikipedia

Milwaukee — Park East Freeway

By 1971 the city of Milwaukee had constructed a mile-long section of the Park East Freeway as part of a highway-loop around the downtown district, only to halt the project a year later in response to public protest. The highway segment not only separated the northern end of the city from downtown Milwaukee but it disrupted the local street grid to boot. Demolition of the freeway began about a decade ago and, in 2003, a surface boulevard that reconnects the street grid was completed.

Redevelopment efforts in the area gave rise to three new neighborhoods, and between 2001 and 2006 land values per acre in the freeway's old footprint rose 180 percent. "This growth exceeded the city’s overall growth by twenty percent," according to the new report. Connection to downtown Milwaukee has improved too, with many one-way streets being converted into two-way streets.

Image: Flickr user Vanishing STL under a Creative Commons License

Seoul — Cheonggyecheon

A four-lane elevated expressway was built atop the Cheonggyecheon creek near downtown Seoul, the capital city of South Korea, in the late 1970s. The highway seemed critical to the city's mobility, carrying some 1.5 million vehicles a day, but it also spoiled its attractiveness. Worse than that, in the 1990s, the highway's safety began to come into question.

After much debate the city chose to tear down the expressway and replace it with a pedestrian park, an effort that was completed in late 2005. Transit access increased greatly in the aftermath of the renovation, as the city placed a new emphasis on bus transport, and the amount of vehicles entering the Cheonggyecheon area fell 43 percent from 2002 to 2006. That year the city won the Sustainable Transport Award from the Institute for Transportation and Development.

Image: Flickr user NettyA under a Creative Commons License

Bogotá — Inner Ring Expressway

In the 1990s the capital of Colombia considered building an elevated urban highway called the Inner Ring Expressway that would have encircled the city's downtown district. The mayor of Bogotá at the time, Enrique Peñalosa, preferred a transportation strategy that deemphasized car ownership. As a result the expressway plans were scrapped and replaced with a 28-mile bicycle-pedestrian corridor now known as the Juan Amarillo Greenway.

Peñalosa also crafted a new mobility plan for the city that focused on public transportation — in particular, bus-rapid transit. For the same cost of the expressway, Bogotá got a cleaner, more sustainable system that carries 1.8 million people a day. The system "is especially important to low-income and middle-income citizens who represent the majority of Bogotá’s population," write the authors of the new report. As if that weren't enough, the city's traffic fatalities have dropped 89 percent, and travel times in the transit corridors have fallen 32 percent.

Image: Flickr user carlosfpardo under a Creative Commons License

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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