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Like It or Not, Most Urban Freeways Are Here to Stay

Like It or Not, Most Urban Freeways Are Here to Stay
Congress for the New Urbanism

This spring — April 27, to be exact — marks the 75th birthday of the Interstate era. On that date in 1939 came the first unambiguous signal from Washington that a coast-to-coast grid of superhighways was soon to be a national priority.

The news came quietly, in a wonky and table-laden report prepared by technocrats in the federal Bureau of Public Roads. Flip through Toll Roads and Free Roads today, and its status as early blueprint of the world's greatest public works project is unmistakable. Here are maps that seem dead ringers for the overland routes the finished expressways would travel. Here are radical design details — broad and banked curves, gentle grades and wide medians — that have become ubiquitous elements of the American commute. 

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The report's central pitch is that the country needed superhighways more urgently to ease urban congestion than to link its far-flung cities. That bears repeating, because it runs counter to the conventional wisdom: the interstates were not conceived as long-haul roads that were then pushed into the cities, but as the reverse — they were prescribed as urban fixes first, and to venture into the countryside, second.

We'll get back to that, but for now, believe it — it's true. And the highways we got were true to that prewar vision. So it is that nearly a third of the interstate system consists of stretches through our cities, in the form of loops, spurs and freeways. So it is that American motorists drive nearly twice as many miles on urban interstates as they do the lengthier rural legs. So it is that every metropolis in the country has reorganized itself around these roads, and that they've shaped where we live and work, how we shop, what we eat, and how we pass our time.

And so it is, too, that as the system's roughly 14,000 city miles approach the end of their life expectancy, we'll figure out ways to raise the money to rebuild them, rather than tear them down. Because with precious few exceptions, our cities need their interstates the way organs need arteries.

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I realize that declaration won't go down easy among readers who question the wisdom of rebuilding interstate legs now crumbling with age. And it probably seems especially contrary in light of the debates now under way about replacing some short stretches of urban interstate. The future of I-81's elevated course through downtown Syracuse is under study. The fates of the aging viaducts carrying I-84 across central Hartford, and I-10 over the historic Treme district of New Orleans, are on the table, as well.

The same goes in Detroit, where state and city officials are studying whether to rebuild, remove or downsize I-375, the Walter P. Chrysler Freeway, a mile-long spur that ends near the city's Renaissance Center — and is now falling apart. Freeway critics in Detroit, like those elsewhere, charge that I-375 is brutalist overkill, that its broad, depressed bed wastes land and shreds the social and economic fabric of its surroundings. State officials don't necessarily disagree. They've enlisted consultants to solicit and analyze proposals from the community as to what form the future road might take.

But these discussions, and a scattering of others, don't signal a trend. In the overwhelming majority of cases, the urban interstates needing overhaul will be overhauled. In some places, they'll be rebuilt bigger than they are. I'd bet that nationally, the coming few years will see a net increase in urban interstate lane mileage, not a decline.

In most places there simply isn't much choice. Whatever their faults, most of these roads shoulder a heavy load. Overtaxed, potholed, and ugly from every angle, they nevertheless do what they were designed to do. They move a spectacular volume of traffic. And alternatives that will relieve that load are years from reality in all but a few places, if they're realistic alternatives at all.


I-375 in Detroit. Via Congress for the New Urbanism.

The highways have mutated their host cities. Sunbelt subdivisions follow their paths. Bedroom communities sprout at their exits. They've sown shopping malls and big-box stores, midwifed satellite business districts, sired factories, shipping centers, entire towns. They spawn traffic even as they relieve it, much as mountains create their own weather; over time they become utterly codependent with the territory through which they pass. 

Abetted by interstates, a metro area might have two or three or even four high-rise business districts, might spill farther into the countryside than imagination allowed when sprawl reached only as far as the streetcar lines. Our daily wandering through these low-density landscapes is far less neat than our urban travels of old, far less easy to satisfy with fixed-rail transit, even bus lines. We've created a North American style of daily living that is utterly dependent on the automobile. You can lament that, and perhaps you should. But this is what we have to work with.

Which is why, in Detroit, state and local officials are eyeing I-375, and only I-375, as a candidate for redesign. Though occasionally slammed with stadium traffic, the spur carries a far lighter load than other freeways in town — and that means, says Kelby Wallace of the Michigan Department of Transportation, that "there might be some options to do things that you can't do when you're talking about hundreds of thousands of vehicles."

Elsewhere in Detroit, interstates 75, 94 and 96 are too busy, and essential to trade, to consider any reduction of capacity. As they wear out, they'll be rebuilt much as they are.           

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It might be a bitter pill for an urbanist to swallow, but the adversary here isn't officialdom, or the "automotive interests," or any other monolithic bogey man; it's the very people whose lives said urbanist seeks to improve. Americans don't drive because they lack an alternative. We drive because we love our cars, no matter the price — we cherish the individual freedom they offer over convenience, frugality, common sense.

This is hardly news. The men who wrote Toll Roads and Free Roads prescribed urban freeways because by 1939, we were already the world's preeminent car culture, were happily abandoning public transit in droves, and were strangling America's cities with our traffic. Herbert Fairbank, the Bureau of Public Roads thinker who wrote most of the report, described the gridlocked approaches to U.S. downtowns as "a fatal thrombosis."

"Some measures of relief are imperative," he wrote. "In the larger cities generally only a major operation will suffice — nothing less than the creation of a depressed or an elevated artery (the former usually to be preferred) that will convey the massed movement pressing into, and through, the heart of the city, under or over the local cross streets without interruption by their conflicting traffic."

Fairbank and his colleagues were empiricists.  They conceived the interstate system not to remake the country, but in response to a problem — "a multiplicity of short movements into and out of the city," as they put it.  (The rural stretches weren't nearly so crucial, in their judgment; out there, the report said, most of the system could be two-lane road.) Their prescription was rife with unpleasant side effects, as is inevitable when you force a four- or six-lane superhighway through a densely settled metropolis; collateral damage was extreme.

But the scars they left are now decades old, and the expressways have become essential elements of our urban machinery. Highways such as I-375 are rare exceptions in a system with few expendable parts. If other legs are to be removed, it won't be because they're ugly, or dissect neighborhoods, or disturb the peace, but because, like I-375, they're no longer necessary.

That may happen, in time. We may yet reduce demand to the point that we can refigure these behemoths into less intrusive forms, can reimagine these "integral cogs and pieces of our transportation system," as Mike Hancock, the president of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, calls them. But it will take weaning American drivers off their dependence on the car, off their passion and demand for it.

This is not an easy assignment, seeing as how cars are purchases we make with our hearts, more than our heads. Logic won't convince Americans to change their ways. What will? Maybe, over time, prohibitive fuel prices and withering tolls, and, most importantly, investment in useful and convenient public transit. Only when the carrot is irresistible, and the stick stings too sharply to bear, will the shift begin, and it will take years to play out.

In the meantime, the task for the civic-minded urbanist isn't to imagine our cities without freeways, but to design ways to soften the effects of these necessary evils. To help us better live with them. Because we're stuck with them.

This article is part of 'The Future of Transportation,' an Atlantic Cities series made possible with support from The Rockefeller Foundation.

Earl Swift is the author of five books, including The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011), and the forthcoming Auto Biography: A Classic Car, an Outlaw Motorhead, and 57 Years of the American Dream (HarperCollins). He is a residential fellow of the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. All posts »

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